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Scenes from the first night of Nitro Nights under the Lights on Friday, June 28, 2019 at Renegade Raceway in Wapato, Wash.

In drag racing, there are no greater fans than the drivers themselves.

Derek Snelson has a special understanding of this. He’s a lifelong racer who operates a local track, and at the core of his passion is one simple fact: He’s a huge fan who will do just about anything to support the sport.

That’s why Renegade Raceway is open for business.

For just drivers.

With the coronavirus pandemic delaying the start of the racing season all across the country, the quarter-mile drag strip in Parker was the first motorsports venue in eastern Washington to host competitive events earlier this month. And next week the track is preparing for its 11th annual Nitro Nights show on July 3-4-5 — as originally scheduled.

But none of it will include paying customers in the stands. Yakima County remains mired in Phase 1 of the state’s re-opening plan, and allowing crowds wouldn’t be possible until Phase 3 (limited) and 4.

“We’ve had some low numbers and, yes, it’s costing me money,” Snelson said. “But I’m here for the racers and I’m doing this for them. We’re doing everything we can to keep going. I’m a hard-headed guy, and we’ve been committed to this season for a long time.”

For Snelson and his longtime team, the timing of this limited campaign as been especially tough. In preparations for the track’s 50th anniversary, extensive renovations were done since the close of last year. Excitement was high and an ambitious seven-month schedule was created.

“We’ve never worked harder in the offseason,” Snelson said. “This track has completely changed because we worked our tails off. That’s what brings in the fast cars. With this being the 50th year, we had big plans. We still do, but obviously things have changed.”

Snelson may hate the timing and the consequences, but he’s on board with the state’s restrictions and understands their severity.

“It’s hard to tell people they can’t come to the track yet, but we’re making the best of the situation,” he said. “People have been crushing the state and governor, but we want this to be a safe place. I’ve been doing this too long to be in a situation where I didn’t think people were safe. With our county like this (with high infection rates), it’s not time yet.”

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Masks are required for everyone, drivers are limited to one crew member and social-distancing is strongly encouraged in the pit area. But the grandstands remain empty, except for the random crew member.

Revenue comes from driver fees and track rentals, but the shortfall with the loss of gate receipts is significant. Renegade is trying to attract young and novice drivers, essentially turning a negative into a positive by offering an opportunity for spectators — the stay-at-home outcasts — to become new drivers or crew members.

The track has all the details on its Facebook page and opportunities on site will be available as soon as the Nitro Nights event next week. New Street Legals can test & tune on the first day, July 3, and youth (age 13-up) and high school divisions are available through a program connected with Perry Technical Institute.

Even without spectators, Renegade’s Nitro Nights three-day show will be about as good as gets in the state this season.

Pacific Raceways, which held its first local races on May 29, announced on Thursday the cancellation of the NHRA Northwest Nationals, which were slated for July 31-Aug. 2. King County is in Phase 2 and Pacific Raceways wouldn’t be allowed to host a major crowd until Phase 4. It’s a double blow for the Kent track, which, like Renegade, was planning many special events this summer to celebrate its 60th anniversary.

Nitro Nights will have Blown Alcohol Dragsters coming in from as far away as Utah and Canada, and Snelson will run his EFX Tomahawk Jet Funny Car each of the three nights. The Summit Series will finally get to launch its season, and the Street Legals will hold their third event.

“The Blown Alcohol guys are coming on their own dime. They know I can’t pay them,” Snelson said. “The racers want to race and we’ll have them at all levels next week. We’re watching every nickel we spend so we can keep going, but I still feel blessed. This is a grassroots thing and it’s completely about drivers and their passion to race.

“It hurts to go through this,” he added. “I have my marketing partners and my word is my word. They know we’ve got something special here and there’s a lot of positive stuff going on. If this is what we have to do to have racing, to not have fans and watch out for everybody, then OK. We’ll do it.”

And each day Snelson will roll out his world-class Tomahawk, which under normal circumstances would be making appearances in the midwest this time of year. It’ll be a show for the drivers only and he’s fine with that.

“It’s for the people who are there,” he said. “It’ll be fun and, believe me, we’ll make some noise.”