Province puts the brakes on Alberta raceway reopening plans

Alberta motorsport raceways are calling on the government to allow them to partially reopen amid some confusion over whether they qualify as a permitted business under Alberta’s relaunch strategy.

Operators say government's mixed messages are generating some confusion

An aerial shot of the Castrol Raceway just south of Edmonton. Raceway owners are asking for permission to partially reopen for amateur racing events without spectators. (Castrol Raceway )

Alberta motorsport raceways are calling on the government to allow them to partially reopen amid some confusion over whether the tracks qualify as a permitted business under Alberta's relaunch strategy.

Sherry Taylor, the oval track director at Central Alberta Raceways in Rimbey, Alta., says she worked with Alberta Health Services for two weeks to come up with a suitable plan to reopen this past weekend. 

Under a plan approved by AHS via email, the raceway was defined as an outdoor recreation business. Capacity limits would be enforced, food concession would be closed and physical distancing guidelines would be followed. 

But on Friday, she learned that raceways had been classified as "racing entertainment centres" by Alberta's chief medical officer and ordered to remain closed. It was a surprise, Taylor said, since the term is typically reserved for horse-racing tracks. 

"It has been frustrating, but I do appreciate how the Alberta health officer has been very willing to work with us," Taylor said.

Taylor says she wants to know why raceways are now, for the first time, being placed in the same category as horse racing. 

"I just feel the government has quite a grey area when it comes to motor sports," she said. 

The raceway mostly hosts amateur, participant-based motorsport events. Taylor understood larger, ticketed events would not be permitted until the third stage of the province's relaunch, with a date still to be determined. 

In the meantime, Taylor says a scaled-back, partial reopening could generate some revenue while respecting physical distancing guidelines. 

But the government is sticking by the decision to prohibit racing entertainment and other sporting events, including motocross and horse racing, until Stage 3. 

"Stage 1 puts safety first as restrictions are gradually lifted and Albertans get back to work," said Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan in an email Tuesday.

"We are working to ensure that the public health measures are implemented consistently and clearly across the province. In some cases, this has led to brief delays as AHS and Alberta Health clarified specific situations." 

McMillan did not address CBC's follow-up questions about raceways reopening. 

'This is not NASCAR'

Castrol Raceway, just south of Edmonton, opened for less than 24 hours, only to close again after owner Kimberly Reeves got a phone call from AHS on Saturday.

The raceway was in the middle of hosting an amateur motorcycle event — with about 50 participants along with 20 friends and family, Reeves says — when an official called to say the business must close immediately.

Reeves had reopened Friday under the expectation the business qualified as outdoor recreation. Several emails to AHS seeking its approval for her reopening policy had gone unreturned leading up to the weekend, she said. 

After speaking with the official, the motorcyclists were promptly sent home and Reeves says the raceway will remain closed. But she wants the government to explain why malls and golf courses can open while the raceway sits empty.

"This is not fans in the grandstands. This is not NASCAR where you see 10 crew working on a car at one time. This is people inside their vehicles," Reeves said. 

Motorsport for recreational purposes is naturally a physically distanced endeavour.- Kimberly Reeves, owner of Castrol Raceway

She says her revised reopening policy meets the guidelines under outdoor recreation. The raceway would cap any events at 50 participants and prohibit fans. Pit space would be reserved for a single driver and a family member. Everyone would be required to pre-register and communal spaces would be off limits. 

Reeves has also been coordinating with other Alberta motorsport industry leaders as they look to make their reopening case to the government.

"I want to open," she said. "Motorsport for recreational purposes is naturally a physically distanced endeavour."