What It’s Like to Go to the Races in These Strange Times | Gopher Dunes AMO Provincial

By Billy Rainford

Different? Ya, a little. Just ask FXR’s Dawn McClintock.

Normal? No, not really, but what are our choices when it comes to getting our racing season off the ground? With so many different areas allowed to do different things, racing in southwestern Ontario has been happening with a few restrictions. COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our lives and racing is just a small part of it.

With that in mind, I thought I’d take you through a day at the races in these unique pandemic times. Here’s how Round 3 of the AMO Ontario Provincial Championships (OPC) went at Gopher Dunes.

Leaving the city of London, ON and heading to the sand track in Courtland, ON, just outside the town of Tillsonburg, always leaves me with a good feeling.

As usual, I don’t eat breakfast at home. No, I know I’m going to pull into the first Tim Hortons I pass on Wonderland Road South. Do I go through the drive-through? No, I don’t. Like my dad always said, “How am I going to see people if I don’t go in?!” Man, that guy was a character.

My order is always the same: Egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on a biscuit, large dark roast regular, and a blueberry muffin, that always ends up being “for later.” I love it when, halfway through the day, I head to the #DMXVan for something to drink and realize I still have that muffin that is more like cake than anything left to eat.

There’s some construction on the 401, of course, but early in the morning on a Sunday it’s not bad at all. With the cruise control set at a sniff under 120kph the kilometres melt away and I’m at the turn-off that would take you into downtown Tillsonburg if you didn’t know better.

A quick left turn takes me to the four corners of Springford where I make a right turn and head south to the small hamlet of Courtland. The speed limit is just 60kph over the train tracks and through the outskirts of the tiny town. You know you’re getting close but it feels like a trap if you were to step on the gas before getting to the far side.

Patiently, you wait for the right time to speed up and then you know the track is going to appear on your right-hand side. It’s time to get a feel for how busy the place is.

With these crazy COVID-19 times, you really can’t be sure what you’re going to get. Fortunately, on this day, the place is busy with well-spaced out motorhomes and trailers. People definitely want to ride and race.

Like everyone else, I’d already signed the waiver online, so there is minimal human contact as I enter the property.

Mask on, I’m instructed where to park in order to keep the spacing at a distance that will keep us all safe and jump through the necessary hoops to keep these events running at all.

I’m led to my spot by a nice guy on a quad (I learn later that it’s Kerri Schuster‘s dad). Once I’m parked, he heads back to the entrance to do the same to the next vehicle.

My race day morning routine is always very close to the same. The only thing that changes is whether or not I’m going to be riding around on my Scott Spark mountain bike or not. On this day I am, so out of the back of the van it comes.

I’ve been a one-man show at these recent OPC’s so I have to plan my day with some accuracy. It will be photos in the morning and for first motos and then I’ll switch over to video for the final motos. It seems to have worked for Round 2 at Walton Raceway, so I’ll go with it again.

Because I’m riding my bike all over the place, I’d rather not have both cameras dangling dangerously from my shoulders. This plan will allow me to carry just one at a time: Zoom lens in the morning and wider angle for video in the afternoon.

There were a lot of people I was seeing for the first time of the year and it was really strange that none of us were shaking hands. Fist bumps seem to be about as close as we want to get these days, and even those bring about a weird sense of apprehension.

As I cycled towards the track, I could see that they had everyone in the pits spread out at a safe distance and there was to be no real socializing between different sites. Basically, you sit and hang out with the very few people that came with you on that day.

Derek Schuster has been busy digging out the front pond to allow for a deeper and therefore more voluminous water source fortifying them with enough to keep the track in great shape on even the warmest days and weeks. I joked that it was to add more sand to places that “need it” out there on the famously bottomless sand track.

They’ve even made a little loop on the north, treed area of the track for some camp sites that have nice shade. This will be a great addition to the facility in the future.

As per the regulations, there was to be no standing on the top of the grassy knoll that lines the track. Announcer Dave Bell was sure to emphasize this rule throughout the day and people respected what needed to be done.

It seemed like everyone I spoke to was happy to do what we had to do in order to keep the racing happening. It didn’t matter what your beliefs are in this whole crazy time, if you don’t jump through these hoops we won’t be racing. It’s just that simple.

With over 500 entries on the day, it was going to be another full schedule of racing. Fortunately, Gopher Dunes has a separate track for the little bikes and that meant we should be able to get the entire roster of racing in and done at a good time that afternoon. There were 15 motos to be run on the main track.

Ryan Gauld and his AMO crew did a great job keeping the day running on time and moving. I always stand and chat with Robbie Quantrill at the first turn and I hope I didn’t distract him too much. Robbie is the guy getting riders ready and turning the board.

From what I saw, everyone that accompanied a racer to the gate was following the rules and wearing their masks. It wasn’t a crazy southwestern Ontario day, weather-wise, so pulling the masks over your face wasn’t as bad as it would have been any of the previous 14 days before Sunday. We got lucky with the weather.

Cale Foster shows us what’s called “coronavirous chic.”

I only saw one person who didn’t seem to want to follow the rules and I will just say that if they are at Walton this Sunday I hope they do the right thing and put a damn mask on! You do not want to be the one who ruins this for everyone else.

Aside from these things, the racing appeared to go off just like any other race day you’ve ever seen. When the gate drops, racing is racing.

For me, I’m pretty much on my own as I wander the track, so I don’t see much difference until I head to the start line.

Like everyone, I have a mask with me that I put on any time I’m going to be in the actual staging area or close to a rider or their mechanic. It definitely fogs up my glasses a bit but it’s a very small price to pay to be able to actually be at the races.

There were a few crashes that required Ron Cameron and his medical staff to make an appearance. Like they said in their pre-race announcements, if you are going to need to be beside a downed rider, you will need to put your masks on. Great job on this by everyone who found themselves in that situation.

The day went off without a hitch…almost. I heard that the same person who has been calling the police at all previous rounds was at it again this week. Dave was repeatedly reminding us all to stay socially distanced and people were listening.

When the bi-law officer showed up to take a look at things, they left noting without any problems.

Instead of trying to get the races shut down, perhaps a more productive and forward-thinking approach would be best? Just a thought. What’s good for one area of our sport is good for all other areas, I would think.

Anyway, keep it in mind this coming Sunday at Walton Raceway. Stay the proper distance from others and just do as you are asked in these strange times. It may seem like a bit of a hassle, but we have to do what we have to do.

At the end of the day, I loaded up the van and got ready to leave. Aside from those few specific changes, the racing was amazing. Gates dropped, checkered flags waved, people got tired and sandy, and we all left happy.

As of this Friday, July 17th, much of Ontario will be moving to Stage 3 of restrictions. This new stage will allow indoor activities of up to 50 people and outdoors up to 100. We’ll have to wait and see what, if anything, this means for us, but it’s a nice step forward.

Let’s keep doing what we’re doing so that our Rockstar Energy Triple Crown MX Nationals can go off as normally as possible.

Thank you to everyone who is doing the right thing and following the rules. It’s not about your feelings on it, it’s about making sure we actually have a racing series at all in 2020!

See you this Sunday at the final event before we head into the Pro Nationals July 25-26 at Gopher Dunes.