By Scott Prater | Mountaineer staff
There’s little doubt, 2020’s summer season wasn’t much fun for most families. As movie theaters shuttered their doors, waterparks, amusement parks and even playgrounds remained off limits, most sporting events announced cancellations too. It was difficult to even find an open restaurant.
Many families were forced to cut their boredom through TV shows and quiet, small gatherings at home.
Some, however, were out having a blast — motorsports fans.
All they had to do was take a short drive out east to Calhan, a small town on Colorado’s eastern plains, home of the El Paso County Fair, and a roughly 40-minute drive from downtown Colorado Springs.
Of course, El Paso County Raceway organizers were forced to adapt early in the season. They streamed their first few events on their website — with no fans in the stands. But after working with local and state health departments, Joe Bellm, the track’s racing manager, found a way for fans to attend and for the drivers to compete.
“Having an outdoor venue definitely worked in our favor,” Bellm said. “We sectioned the grandstands out to allow for reduced capacity, social distancing and so family units could sit together. It worked out pretty well. We had a great season, for the drivers and the fans.”
Those fortunate enough to attend witnessed a spectacle every other weekend. And Bellm, a long-time Colorado driver and racing promoter, has proven to be adept at drawing cars and drivers to the quarter-mile dirt race track.
“Dirt track racing is one of the few forms of auto racing that’s actually growing in popularity around the country,” he said. “It mostly takes place at smaller tracks, where fans get can really get close to the action and gain a feel for the competition.”
At the races, fans can expect an attack on their senses. The unmistakable roar of race car engines can be heard long before fans even see the track, so ear protection is advisable, especially for young children. Besides the auditory overload, the track environment seems awfully familiar to a monster truck show, or a demolition derby. But, it also may remind some of a fair or amusement park atmosphere, with such staples as popcorn, funnel cakes, corn dogs and beer.
On the track, drivers from around the state and region compete in a wide variety of divisions, from stock cars to open-wheel sprints and midgets, which drift around the track’s banked turns before leveling off on the straightaways. Drivers in most divisions compete in a season-long series and earn points in individual races as they vie for series championships. Drivers come from all over the state and region to compete at El Paso. Some are part timers with day jobs, while others try to make a living on racing circuits both in the region and around the country.
The competition is fierce at every race.
Events typically start with qualifying heats in most divisions followed by main events later in the evening. Races usually start at 5 or 6 p.m. and end near 10 p.m., although race events during the El Paso County Fair have ended later.
That said, El Paso County Parks, which owns the fairgrounds and the race track, also intends for the racing experience to be family friendly.
“We want to have a variety of cars at our events and Joe (Bellm) has done a great job of drawing some of the best classes and racing series’ in the region,” said Todd Marts, manager of recreation and cultural services for El Paso County Parks. “Race fans are typically a wide group of people and ages with families. That’s one reason we installed a playground and offer food vendors.”
Bellm says there’s no typical race fan, either. Some just want to see the races at their local track, while others will follow a car series as it travels to other tracks in the state, namely I-76 Speedway in Fort Morgan, Colorado or Phillips County Raceway in Holyoke, Colorado.
Bellm assumed the role of racing manager at the track through a contract with the county in 2014. Prior to gaining the management contract he called El Paso County Raceway “a diamond in the rough.”
“The track had excellent facilities — a large grandstand (capacity of 4,000), superior track lighting, multiple food vendor sites and a beer garden,” he said.
The only problem he thought at the time (2013) was that the actual racing surface was in sore need of an upgrade. So, he relayed his ideas for improving the track and county recreation officials listened.
“Prior to the changes, the track was mostly flat and way too narrow for my liking,” said Bellm, who is now entering his seventh season as racing manager. “So, we widened the straightaways and banked the corners and I think that really improved the racing surface. Really, it’s an ongoing process, but it seems to improve every season.”
He said attendance for racing events at El Paso County Raceway continues to trend upward, despite the pandemic.
“We had some funds to go toward facilities and a good portion of those funds went to improving the track,” said Marts, “Though we’ve had our ebbs and flows (in attendance) over the past several years since Joe assumed the racing management contract, we’ve been successful. We just renewed his racing management contract, so that’s a telling sign.”
This racing season begins April 24. Events start with qualifying heats at 5 p.m. followed by feature races at 7 p.m. From there, the track typically hosts races every other weekend through mid October and most events will take place on Saturdays. Race organizers have already created a schedule for the 2021 season and fans can find it by visiting the BSTpromotions.com or BSTracing.com websites, or by visiting http://elpasocountyraceway.myracepass.com/schedule/. See the website for COVID-19 restrictions and updates.
Military families also catch a break and will save a third off the regular adult ticket price with a military ID.
El Paso County Fairgrounds (and raceway) 366 Tenth St, Calhan
36.1 miles from downtown Colorado Springs. Take US Highway 24 east to Calhan, turn south on Yoder Street, follow signs to fairgrounds.
$15 adults, $10 military, $5 kids 4 to 12, free for ages 3 and under