BEMIDJI -- The first two race weekends of the 2020 season at the Bemidji Speedway, including this weekend’s season opener, have been canceled due to coronavirus-related restrictions over large gatherings. The cancelations include the Chicken Shack Nationals Jack Sparby Memorial that had been set for May 24, as well as the first Sunday of regular racing on May 31.

“Due to recent COVID-19 social distancing requirements and allowed gatherings, Bemidji Speedway must cancel all races through May 31st,” said a Facebook post from the Speedway late Sunday night. “We continue to monitor orders/recommendations and will make additional changes to the schedule (if necessary) as we learn more. Please check back here on our official Facebook page and the posted 2020 race schedule for more information once it comes in. Thank you for your patience during these unprecedented times. We miss our drivers, fans, and employees!”

Presently, Minnesota’s “stay safe” order does not permit group gatherings of more than 10 people, including sporting events.

Bemidji Speedway owner Tonja Stranger said the track has not considered holding races without fans. Without the money that comes from the sale of tickets, concessions and souvenirs, it would be difficult for the speedway to make racing without fans feasible.

“I know some tracks are doing it, but financially we could not do it,” she said. “We’ve got kind of a unique business where every car that goes out on the track, they get paid back. Our payout can be anywhere from $5,000-$8,000. That’s why we need every entity available to be able to pay that out -- grandstands, food, beer, souvenirs. All that good stuff.”

Memorial Day weekend usually features two nights of racing, though that had already been cut down to one night when the schedule was announced last month due to uncertainty over whether the state would allow overnight camping. The weekend is normally one of the track’s biggest each year.

“This first weekend is usually a pretty good weekend for us,” Stranger said. “We usually have a really good turnout with having the doubleheader. People stay overnight. It’s going to hurt us. … It’s pretty devastating.”

About 450 fans fill the grandstands on an average night with crowds reaching up to more than 800 for some races, along with an additional 200 crew members in the pits, Stranger said.

Like others in the sports and entertainment world, Stranger awaits word from Gov. Tim Walz as to when large gatherings can begin to take place again.

“I sure hope that we get to open someway, somehow this year,” she said. “Honestly, if there’s a cap of 250 people in the grandstands, I don’t know if we can feasibly financially do it. It’s kind of scary. I understand that there is a virus out there, but we’ve got to start living our lives too.”

Tracks begin to open around region

Several tracks in the region kicked off their racing seasons over the weekend.

Devils Lake Speedway hosted North Dakota’s first race of the season Saturday with social distancing guidelines in place for fans and race teams. Fans returned to Cedar Lake Speedway in New Richmond, Wis., last Friday, though the night was marred by tragedy when a track worker was killed in an on-track accident.

Racing also returned to southern Minnesota’s Jackson Motorplex last Friday, albeit without fans. Race teams, including those of former NASCAR drivers Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson, were required to follow social distancing guidelines.

Gondik Law Speedway in Superior, Wis., is set to begin its season with two nights of racing May 21-22 while observing social distancing guidelines for fans and teams.