The owners of Ace Speedway probably felt pretty good about themselves last weekend. North Carolina is still in Phase 2 of its coronavirus reopening plan, which limits outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 25 people, but Robert Turner and his son, Jason, seem to have watched the news coverage of the protests that have been held in response to George Floyd's murder and asked themselves, "Why can't we do that?"
So instead of holding a stock-car race on Saturday night, someone at the Alamance County racetrack grabbed a black marker and wrote a message that said "This event is held in peaceful protest of injustice and inequality everywhere." According to the Associated Press, more than 2,000 people packed themselves into the bleachers for the CARS Tour Race At Ace 125 presented by LessExpensiveCars.com, and as anyone who finished the first grade knows, a 2,000 person crowd is significantly more than the 25 person crowds that are currently permitted.
The idea seemed to be about showing Governor Roy Cooper that they disapproved of the double standard for protests versus other gatherings, although calling the race a "protest" was also a clear abuse of the loophole and an effort to delegitimize the value of the protests against racial injustice and police brutality. Regardless, the Speedway's social media fans were here for it.
"The owners of Ace Speedway have really stood there [sic] ground," one man wrote. "Now let's stand ours and peacefully assemble it [sic] our right. We live in a free country. These days government trys [sic] to tell us what we can and can't do." (The same man also deployed the sickest of burns, calling him Governor "Pooper.") Another asked if the track could "change the name of the race to Sue Roy Cooper 125," while one woman added a "#racecarsmatter" hashtag to her own post.
Ace had already been thumbing its nose toward the governor's office, holding a sold-out race on Memorial Day weekend, and another one a week later. "I’m going to race and I’m going to have people in the stands,” Robert Turner told the (Burlington) Times-News. “And unless they can barricade the road, I’m going to do it. The racing community wants to race. They’re sick and tired of the politics. People are not scared of something that ain’t killing nobody. It may kill .03 percent, but we deal with more than that every day, and I’m not buying it no more."
That has led to several weeks of back-and-forth between the speedway and the governor. When Cooper learned that Ace was going to hold a race for the third straight weekend, his office sent a strongly worded letter advising the Johnsons that they had "continuously and flagrantly violated" the state's current guidelines, and he called out the track's "reckless decision" during his press briefing on Monday. "People shouldn’t run a money-making operation that puts in danger not only their customers but anybody who would come into contact with their customers,” he said, adding that his office would "take action" if the local officials didn't.
However, local officials didn't take action. Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson has begrudgingly delivered Cooper's messages, but he backed the racetrack up on Memorial Day ("I will not enforce an unconstitutional law," he said at the time) and he has argued that the race on Saturday was permitted under the First Amendment.
"From my understanding, they were going to have the pace car go around and ask for unity of our nation for what is going on," he told the Greensboro News and Record. "You know, the fires, the tax on law enforcement, burning of buildings and stuff. And, by doing that, to me, that gives them the First Amendment right to protest peacefully."
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit against Sheriff Johnson, alleging that his office spent five years unlawfully targeting the county's Latinx residents for arrests, traffic stops, and unlawful investigations. "If you stop a Mexican, don’t write a citation, arrest him,” the lawsuit quoted Johnson as telling his deputies; it also stated that he derogatorily referred to the Latinx community as "taco eaters."
According to the ACLU of North Carolina, Johnson's office has partnered with ICE since early 2019, when his deparment received $2.8 million in taxpayer funds to transport immigrant detainees, and to hold them in the Alamance County jail for the federal agency. “The people that we’re trying to hold here are criminal illegal immigrants that [are] actually raping our citizens in many, many ways,” he said at the time.
But back to the Speedway. On Monday, Johnson announced that he would not be issuing any citations to the Ace Speedway owners for continuously violating the governor's orders. "While I am having to make a tough decision on what to do, I want to make it clear to all citizens that this is in no way politically motivated on my part. I assure you that I respect the Office of the Governor of North Carolina but I have serious reservations on the legality of his order," he wrote. "My understanding of the law and the conflicting orders issued by the Governor, leads me to question my authority on writing a citation to Mr. Robert Turner, owner of ACE Speedway."
Cooper responded by ordering the Speedway to close immediately, calling it an "imminent hazard." The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has issued an abatement order which also requires the facility to close immediately.
"The Speedway’s recent actions constitute an imminent hazard for the spread of COVID-19, an acute threat to North Carolinians which must not continue," the DHHS said in a statement. "While the Abatement Order halts operations, it allows ACE Speedway to propose a new plan which could allow races to resume, under the condition that steps be taken to adhere to the restrictions in place regarding mass gathering numbers and social distancing precautions."
According to the News & Observer, the order states that Ace Speedway had until 5 p.m. Tuesday to notify the public that all of its events are cancelled until at least June 22; as of this writing, neither its website nor its Facebook page have been updated to include that announcement. A "Veterans' Night" race is still scheduled for Friday, June 19.
Coronavirus cases have continued to increase in Alamance County. On Saturday May 23, when Ace Speedway held its first race, there were 278 confirmed positive cases; that number has since jumped to 553 cases. In the past two weeks, the number of new positive cases has risen from 4.7 per 100,000 residents to 13.4.
VICE has reached out to Ace Speedway for comment.