A thundering vibrato will fill the air around Rice-Eccles Stadium on the University of Utah campus every Wednesday and Sunday for the next month. The buzz, like of a swarm of mosquitos on steroids, will be generated by 40 dirt bikes racing in the final seven rounds of the Monster Energy AMA Supercross series.
Listening to the ruckus will be the closest fans will be able to get to the action, aside from watching it on their TVs. As a precaution against COVID-19, members of the public will not be allowed into the stadium.
Yet if the sporting world, which has gone dormant since the novel coronavirus began to spread in early March, begins to open up soon, Utahns will be able to say one thing: They heard it here first.
Supercross will become just the second professional sport league in the United States to resume competition when the first race is held Sunday. It will follow in the tracks of NASCAR, which restarted its season in mid-May. If those two leagues can host made-for-TV events without creating COVID-19 hot spots, they likely will serve as a template for sports such as Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NBA.
“Hopefully they learn from us,” said Dave Prater, the senior director of operations for Feld Entertainment, which produces the series. “I think it'll go a long way in reopening sports overall.”
Prater made the call to put the Supercross season on hold March 13, a day before its eighth event of the season was scheduled to be held in Indianapolis. Looking at the shutdowns and shelter-in-place orders sweeping the states, he initially thought the series wouldn’t be able to continue until October or November. When restrictions began to lift, however, he began talks with five different venues in five different states about the prospect of one of them hosting all seven events left on the schedule.
Utah, where the series championship was originally scheduled to be held, was the first to officially embrace the event.
“This ends up being a good opportunity for us,” said Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, which had a hand in bringing in the event. “We talked about creating an opportunity so people see us as a sports destination. This will shine more light on us because there’s not that much [live sports] exposure right now.”
The Supercross series championship originally was expected to be one of the most lucrative sporting events in the state this year. Robbins said what it will generate financially has been diminished with the ban on fans, but its impact will still be great. About 700 race personnel, about a third of a typical race, will stay in hotels, vacation rentals and in RVs on site.
In addition to keeping fans away, the series has taken several other precautionary measures. No one will be allowed within the stadium without first testing negative for COVID-19. Temperature checks will be administered every time someone enters Rice-Eccles. Once inside, everyone must wear masks and intermingle only with those within their designated groups — each team, the broadcast announcers, the TV trucks, etc. If a rider tests positive for COVID-19, he will be quarantined for 72 hours. If a second test is positive, he will serve a 14-day quarantine.
Justin Hill, who sits seventh in the featured 450SX class, said he is worried a competitor might miss several crucial races while waiting for test results that ultimately come up negative. Of greater concern to him, however, are the other tests riders will face. They’ll be racing twice a week instead of once, at high altitude, after taking several weeks off while in coronavirus limbo. In addition, he said the break in action will allow for the return of several of the sport’s best riders who suffered early season injuries, such as 2019 250cc motocross national champion Adam Cianciarulo.
“I thrive better just worrying about what I have directly in front of me,” Hill said. “I definitely believe I can get out there and podium and win on any given night, but the people I have to beat to do that are seriously the baddest dudes in the world. I don’t think they’ll be too happy with me winning all seven of these things.”
Not having a live in-person audience will be another strange thing to get used to. To fill the physical void, fans can buy posters of themselves that will be placed in seats around the stadium. A few real fans might be there as well.
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman, who raced motocross in the 1970s and is a diehard fan of two-wheeled motorsports, said he expects he’ll be able to hear the races from his house. It will be difficult, he said, to fight the urge to sneak in.
“I may try to climb the fence. How can you not,” he said, half joking. “It’s like U2 being in your hometown and no one can go watch.”
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.
SUPERCROSS TV SCHEDULE
All times Mountain
Round 11 (East) Sunday
1-2 p.m. on NBCSN then 2-4 p.m. on NBC
Round 12 (East) June 3
8-11 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 13 (East) June 7
3-6 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 14 (West) June 10
5-8 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 15 (West) June 14
5-8 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 16 (East) - Wednesday, June 17
5-8 p.m. on NBCSN
Round 17 (East/West) June 21
1-2:30 p.m. on NBCSN then 2:30-4 p.m. on NBC
*TV schedule subject to change.