SOUTH AMHERST — The thunder of engines, the roar of the crowd, a changing of hands.
“Who’s ready to see some racing?” boomed Randy Maggio Jr. over the loudspeaker Sunday afternoon, and a cheer went up from the stands.
The first race started a little behind schedule, a fitting start to a season delayed by COVID-19.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held before races got underway. Randy Maggio Sr. and his wife, Denise Maggio, took ownership of the 3/8-mile loop this spring.
Members of the Bonnema family, which operated the former Lorain County Speedway from 1990 to 2018, were there to help with the honors.
“I am so extremely proud of these men,” said Denise Maggio, waving at her husband and son. The duo has worked from sun-up to sundown since April 27 to get the track ready, she said.
The Maggios have also owned Painesville Speedway since 2017, and staff wore shirts Sunday that said “Two Tracks, One Family.”
Promoter Randy Jr. said the Lorain County motorsports venue will feature five shows this shortened year, including modifieds, street stocks, front-wheel drive, sprint cars and supermodifieds.
Next year, he plans to run races twice a month instead of weekly, a change he said is necessary due to the rising cost of driving.
The maximum payout at the track is $550, and that’s gone in fuel alone, he said.
“You don’t race to make money, so you can’t race every week. You have to take a break,” Randy Jr. said.
He know the ins and outs of the track firsthand. Randy Jr. started racing at 16, and had a two-year career before he “hung up the helmet to help the family” business.
His love for the sport came from watching his uncle and cousins race every weekend at Sandusky Speedway, and it’s still as fresh as ever.
“It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s like a drug,” he said. “You get there and every little thing gets to you — the smell of racing fuel, the smell of burning rubber, the smell of the concession stand. And it feels like home, too.”
The Maggios have invested heavily in the South Amherst track, installing a new wall fence, paving the return road and upgrading electrical wiring.
Randy Jr. said he has no illusions about the trajectory of the track. In the past year, car count and fan attendance have been down.
He was hoping for 1,800 to show up Sunday, and kept a careful eye on the stands from the tower as the first race time approached.
The bleachers weren’t going to fill, no matter what happened. With the ever-present coronavirus in mind, capacity was limited and signs everywhere warned race fans to observe six-foot distancing guidelines.
There were also limits on the number of people using restrooms at one time, and no self-serve stations at the concession building.
Randy Jr. said he hoped COVID-19 wouldn’t keep fans away completely, and had reason to expect a big response: For the first race of the season in Painesville, people were camping out at the gate, he said.
Laurie Freeman of North Ridgeville was among the faithful who hit the stands early.
She’s been going to the races in South Amherst since the 1980s to watch her brother, David Ennes, and nephew, Parker Ennes, both drivers.
“It’s just so exciting — socializing, watching them win, the people, the cars,” she said.