Covid vs motorsport: Battered and bruised, but racing will win

Published: 23 June 2021

► British motorsport’s struggles with Covid pandemic
► Fans have stayed loyal; venues have adapted
► ‘Normal’ still some way off as official advice changes 

Pity the burger van man. Remember the Portaloo truck driver. The programme seller. The Transit piled high with T-shirts. The students staffing the beer tents… 

Motorsport in Britain is about so much more than Lewis Hamilton soaking up the adoration at the British GP and Derek Bell drifting an E-Type in the eternal summer of the Goodwood Revival. It’s about thousands of drivers, mechanics, marshalls and support crews, many of them unpaid volunteers doing it for the love of the sport. Or trying to do it. Because the Covid pandemic has been a formidable foe for almost 18 months now, and it’s far from over.

Like almost everything else, motorsport had to hit the brakes hard in early 2020. Events happened in fits and starts through the rest of the 2020 season, in the UK and elsewhere, but generally without spectators.

Now, as restrictions ease, there are many reasons to be confident that most of us should be able to get a car-racing fix some time this summer.

But how exactly did the venues survive? What changes have they made? And what could still go wrong?

View from the sharp end

Keith Bartlett runs Santa Pod, the drag strip on the Bedfordshire-Northamptonshire border, and the home of European drag racing.

‘If Santa Pod went, that’s the end of drag racing in the UK, and that’s the end of licences for 1000 people who race, and many thousands of sub-businesses, and we bring millions into the area,’ Bartlett told CAR. ‘For my big events, all the hotels are full, all the supermarkets do huge business.’

He has lost about £2m because of the pandemic – money that would have been invested in growing the business.

‘Some people went out of business. Some people shut down. I couldn’t just shut up shop. I’ve got 40 full-time stuff, 250 part-time staff. Thank God for furlough. That did save us.

‘I was also able to tap into a sport fund, not a motorsport fund, because they felt that we were very diverse. It’s probably the biggest sport where men and women compete on equal terms. They were very impressed with that. I got a loan out of that fund on very favourable terms. That will help us survive, along with the furlough.’

Bartlett adds: ‘We got huge support from our fans. All the pre-sold tickets for 2020, not even 10% asked for their money back – most people rolled them over. The support we got in 2020 was really  humbling. People saying, no, we’ll wait, we’ll take credit, we want you to survive. That is the positive to drive you on.’

But they’re not out of the woods yet

The loss of income has disrupted many of Santa Pod’s plans, which vary from backing trainee auto engineers to rolling out a chain of themed cafes and selling branded clothing on the high street. ‘All this has been knocked on to the back burner. The difficulty is the uncertainty about how you start up again. The government are forever changing their mind. That makes it very difficult to plan for events

‘Last year, when we could operate with limited spectator numbers, we ran events from July to October. We had officials from the public health and environmental health department every weekend, we had to do risk assessments every week, we had to have planning meetings with the council.’

There was a huge amount of legal haggling over the numbers allowed in the stands and on the banking, over drinks sales, over parking, over campsites…

‘We must overcome it and we are overcoming it,’ said Bartlett. ‘I can only pray to God that this time next year there is a solution – everyone’s got Covid passports or whatever – and we can get back to normal. I do believe normal won’t be quite the same. I envisage that for the next two years there will be some form of tracing, carried out by organisations like ours holding mass gatherings. I think you will have an obligation to gather information, which is making ticketing so complicated. Already you have to get details of who’s coming.

‘We’ve been Covid-compliant in every way. But it’s a nightmare. Where you’d have five security officers in an area, you now need 10. Where you’d have 20 overall security, you now need 40, so the costs have increased.’

There have been positives. Santa Pod was already big on social media, and used its channels to communicate with supporters, some of whom made online donations. The pandemic has also encouraged the Pod to change its online ticketing system to one that provides better information for customer and business alike.

And so, after a spring of cancellations, Santa Pod’s calendar through the summer and beyond is now looking very busy, with festivals such as Bug Jam now planning to go ahead, as well as public trackdays, big European drag races, and the ever popular monster truck and fireworks spectaculars. But, more than ever, pre-booking is essential. 

The view from the posh seats

Goodwood is only 120 miles away from Santa Pod, due south, but at times feels like it’s on a different planet. The Festival of Speed, the Revival and the Members’ Meeting are all glorious celebrations of motorsport and the wider car world’s past, present and future, with massive corporate backing and a champagne-and-caviar image that aligns it with Royal Ascot and the Henley Regatta more than BTCC at Croft or a hillclimb at Pembrey.

And yet the pandemic has played merry hell at Goodwood, just as it did at Santa Pod. All three of its big events were cancelled in 2020 – but a special event, SpeedWeek, was held in October. No spectators, but a great variety of cars in action, streamed to fans around the world.

Hannah Corkish from Goodwood told CAR: ‘Last March, the grandstands were up for the Members’ Meeting. It was a very last-minute cancellation. SpeedWeek showed how reactive we were last year. It was a first for us: a purely digital event. 

‘We took a lot from that. We will adapt our online experiene – how people engage with us. There will be more content for the home audience.’

This year, the dates for the three big events have had to be moved, and spectator numbers will be reduced, but they’re currently planned to go ahead. ‘We’re trying to stay really positive. We’re planning for various scenarious. Everything needs pre-booking, and it will all depend on what restrictions are in place, but we expect there will be fewer visitors from overseas.’ 

And so, diaries ahoy (tentatively…)

The cliche about ‘check with the event organisers before travelling’ has never been more relevant – although most organisers will have taken the initiative and contacted you, as a ticket holder, if the event is imperilled. 

But, broadly speaking, you should be able to spectate at BTCC, GT and other circuit races. Rallying is not so straightforward – events that would normally be held on Forestry England land have not restarted, for instance, and MoD land being used for the Nicky Grist Stages event will be spectator-free this year.

Grist himself, best known as co-driver to the late Colin McRae, told us: ‘Motorsport will change, will become a slightly different thing. But out on the special stages, it will be business as usual for the drivers.’

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions