Riverhead Raceway had its season opener last Saturday. Photo: Peter Blasl

It’s a warm Saturday evening in Riverhead. The roar of engines fills the night air, the sound of summer.

But this is 2020 — and the coronavirus has changed everything.

Auto racing was allowed to resume in New York on June 1, with one big caveat: no spectators.

Riverhead Raceway had its season opener last Saturday. Everyone involved with a race team is allowed to enter the track, but the general public can’t be admitted, said Riverhead Raceway partner Tom Gatz.

“We thought we were going to be opening in Phase Four,” Gatz said. “We spent a lot of money to get the place compliant with the guidelines. Plexiglass, hand sanitizer stations, signage everywhere, thermometers for checking temperatures…”

But the governor didn’t lift the no spectator rule.

Gatz said he doesn’t understand why a venue like the 25-acre racetrack can’t operate at a limited capacity, like other businesses.

“We’re outdoors. At 50% capacity, we’d be allowed 1,000 people — that’s more than we have on some regular nights,” he said.

“The aquarium is allowed to operate at 33%, Tanger Outlets at 50%. The wineries are open. The breweries are open. Everyone else can operate. Why are we different?” he asked. “I just want to be treated fairly.”

The homepage of the N.Y. Times website on Sunday, Aug. 2 featured a photo of fans at Riverhead Raceway the day before.

A photo of fans in a section of bleachers at the track wound up on the homepage of The New York Times’ website last Sunday. The photo featured a group of people sitting close together in the stands. Nearly all wore masks. One cheering woman, her mask under her chin, is on her feet, arm raised, mouth wide open.

Other photos by the same photographer taken at the track last Saturday show a crowd scattered around the oval, standing at the fence and seated in the stands.

The shutdown has been hard on the raceway, which hasn’t generated enough revenue this season to pay the property taxes, Gatz said.

“I have two little girls. I don’t want to dig into my pocket to pay my business’ property taxes,” he said.

“Originally, the whole reason [for the shutdown] was to flatten the curve,” Gatz said. “Now, it’s flattened.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said events and activities that bring together people from distant regions and other states are considered risky for virus spread.

Riverhead Raceway attracts a local audience, Gatz said. Only the Whelan modifieds tour draws some people from out of state. It’s not taking place this year, because it’s not practical, Gatz said.

Gatz said Riverhead Police visited the track last week to check into the operation and ensure compliance with current guidance.

“I spoke to the chief also,” Gatz said. “We want to comply. We want everybody to be safe.”

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said officers checked the track last weekend to ensure compliance with state rules.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.