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Inside the Austin Driveway Series’ return to racing

Austin's Driveway Series held its first race since the COVID-19 shutdown this past week. As it turns out, the series' comeback to racing included a few twists and turns.

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When Colin Strickland arrived at Austin’s Driveway motorsports track this past Thursday, a paramedic pointed an infrared thermometer at his forehead.

His temperature was normal.

Strickland, like the other cyclists in attendance, wore a protective face mask as he waited to be let into the park. Only when it was time for his race was Strickland allowed in.

“There were no spectators and once you got done you had to leave,” Strickland told VeloNews. “It was hardly a normal Driveway experience. But it was still the Driveway. It was amazing to be back racing — I had missed the joy of racing my bike.”

Strickland was one of 180 or so riders who participated in Thursday’s round of the Driveway Series, Austin’s fast and furious weeknight criterium series that runs from the spring through late fall. Like other cycling races across the country, the Driveway Series shuttered its doors in early March as the coronavirus pandemic quickly spread across the U.S. Organizers waited for months to receive guidance from local authorities about whether or not to stay closed, or to resume racing.

On Thursday, June 18, the Driveway returned to racing, with a slew of safety protocols aimed at ensuring the health of its participants. Field sizes were smaller. Spectators were forbidden. Riders were required to wear masks when not racing. All in all, the new rules were fairly straightforward.

The reason behind the Driveway’s return, however, was anything but.

A speedy shutdown

The Driveway Series is one of the most successful racing series in the country. This photo was taken during the 2018 edition of the series. Photo: Driveway Series

Austin cyclists have battled it out on the Driveway Series since 2006, and in recent years the series has gained nationwide attention for its healthy participation numbers. On any given Thursday evening, between 300 and 400 riders participate in one of six categorized races around the twisting auto racetrack.

The strong numbers have transformed the Driveway Series into its own economy, and the series has cash agreements with a variety of vendors for food and drink, plus racing infrastructure, and the use of the track.

“We spend months winding up the series,” said Andrew Willis, the series’s owner. “We’ve invested a lot of time and money in the series by the time we open the gates in March.”

Like other race promoters, Willis watched in early March as the spread of COVID-19 quickly shut down public events across the country. Willis said a record field participated in the opening round of the Driveway Series — 420 riders raced with another 70 on the waitlist. Two days after that first event, officials in Austin banned public gatherings due to the pandemic.

Willis agreed with the decision to stop and realized that the ruling placed the Driveway in a precarious financial position. By March, Willis had already spent thousands on various contracts and vendor agreements for the series, believing that registration feeds throughout the year would pay off the bills.

The Driveway Series sells season passes to locals, and Willis said he’s maintained a policy to refund season pass holders in the case of a cancelation. When the series was called off after just one round, he had to pay back participants a few at a time to limit the negative cash flow.

Suddenly, one of the strongest racing series in the country was on the verge of collapse.

“There were a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how I’m going to communicate this to the community,” he said. “I was envisioning having to shut the business down and losing everything.”

But Willis was saved by a clause in his lease agreement with the track and several other contracts. Since authorities had ordered all recreational activities to stop, the verbiage in the contracts allowed the Driveway Series to stall its payments on the track lease and other agreements.

“There were a few bills we couldn’t get out of, but my wife and I floated those,” Willis said.

Willis, like millions of other business owners, closed up shop and began to wait.

A comeback

The race designed a socially-distanced staging area and held a neutral roll-out. Photo: Kelly Vetters

For months Willis, Strickland, and Austin’s other cyclists watched the national headlines about the pandemic’s ebb and flow. The race held virtual events on Zwift to entertain the riders.

Texas was one of the first U.S. state to begin opening businesses, and throughout late May and early June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott loosened restrictions on events and gatherings. On June 3 his office decided that adult recreational sports activities could commence.

Willis said Abbott’s decision placed the Driveway Series in an awkward position because it activated his contracts with vendors and the host venue. Payments were now due, and the series was without income. Willis said his lease with the track is held at a grandfathered rate, and if he missed payments, he would likely lose the venue for years to come.

Losing the track would spell disaster for the series.

“I know the track’s popularity is growing, and there’s no way we could afford what they might get for karting or other motorized events,” Willis said. “My wife and I can’t afford to just pay the lease out of our own pockets. So the series would be done.

“We’re held on a $12 million racetrack and it’s not something we can just walk away from,” he added.

So, in early March, Willis and his wife began looking at ways to bring the Driveway Series back. They consulted a list of guidelines published by the Texas Department of State Health Services for event promoters. Then, they followed USA Cycling’s COVID-19 protocols for health and safety produced by Dr. Michael Roshon. Willis even spoke to local doctors who raced the series to see if they thought it was safe.

In mid-June Willis held two test events on the track with local cyclists to try out his protocols, and he messaged his riders letting them know that the Driveway was coming back.

“We got hate mail and negative comments, and our take is that we can only focus on the people who want to participate,” Willis said. “We realized that 2020 is about keeping the series alive.”

Inside the Driveway’s race

Masks were required throughout the event. Photo: Kelly Vetters

For its first race back the Driveway Series cut its participation in half. Willis said it took just 15 minutes to sell out all 188 spots for the race on Thursday, June 18.

Willis did away with on-site registration and made everyone sign up online. The Driveway’s normal party ambiance was scrapped, and spectators and fans were forbidden. Riders could no longer enter the gated venue early, or stay late to spectate. All riders underwent a temperature check with paramedics prior to entering the venue, and they could only go in for their specific race.

Everyone was required to wear a mask, and racers could only remove their mask during the event.

“As soon as you’re done racing we do ask you to leave the property,” Willis said. “We’re talking about 75 people total on a 90-acre facility.”

Printed results were scrapped for online-only results, and the podium ceremonies were carried out with riders wearing masks.

Willis said his health and safety efforts focused on social distancing and limiting touch contact. He purchased touch-less sensors for the water coolers and spaced them out across the venue. Port-o-potties were spread out across the venue, and signs on the ground demarcated where riders should stand.

And Willis paid staffers to patrol the grounds with Clorox wipes to scrub port-o-potty handles, handrails, and other surfaces.

For the actual race, Willis said his goal was to limit the bunching up that commonly occurs during staging. He installed a series of metal corrals to keep riders lined up, one-by-one, prior to the start. And, rather than begin with the gun, each race had a neutral half-lap rollout.

Whether the Driveway Series continues with its safety protocols is yet to be seen. Just this past week Texas recorded a surge in positive COVID-19 tests, and Gov. Abbott stalled the state’s plans to open additional businesses. For now, that order does not impact the Driveway Series.

Willis said he’s OK if he has to cease operation again this year. In fact, he thinks that shutting down the state, and therefore the Driveway Series, could be a good idea.

“I do wish we were shut down — I’d prefer that we weren’t risking it,” Willis said. “But since we are open, and we do have to pay these bills, I see this as a personal responsibility.”

Until then, the Driveway Series will keep racing.

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