Drivers head off into the first turn at Autodrome Granby (Daniel Mailhot)

Large field, big crowd expected for season opener at Autodrome Granby

Race weekends at Autodrome Granby have been unusually quiet these last few years.

While the unmistakable roar of the engines is still prevalent, drivers and track officials have regularly taken part in events with little or no fans in the grandstands due to strict restrictions implemented by the Canadian government to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The pandemic status quo at Granby is finally set to be erased on Friday evening, as a full crowd will be welcomed back inside the facility to watch a Sportsman Superstar Series feature that is expected to have more than 50 cars on the final entry list.

With the season opener also serving as Granby’s first race under NASCAR sanctioning, assistant promoter Charles Lampron is confident that 2022 is going to be an exceptional return to form for the facility after two years of struggles during the pandemic.

“We haven’t had a normal season since COVID began,” Lampron said. “The fans are super excited to come back, and we wanted to kick off things in a big way with more money on the line for drivers. This was the perfect opportunity to get started under the NASCAR banner with FloRacing broadcasting as well, so we’re all very excited.”

FLORACING: Catch all of the on-track action at Autodrome Granby

The hardest aspect of holding races at Granby in a global pandemic for Lampron was adapting to rules that changed based on case and hospitalization numbers.

Granby initially could not have any fans on site once they were able to resume weekly racing. Even when restrictions started to ease, Granby’s staff had to remain vigilant by taking temperatures of the spectators that were allowed in while also enforcing mask mandates.

Alex Lajoie, whose success at Granby includes a track championship in the Sportsman class in 2019, said that competing in front of empty grandstands was one of the most surreal experiences of his career and hopes to never go through anything like that again now that Canada has the pandemic mostly under control.

Lajoie sees Friday’s Sportsman Superstar Series event as a perfect way for Granby to welcome back a full crowd of spectators and wants nothing more than to enjoy a victory with a diverse range of emotions from the grandstands to take in.

“It’s nice to race in front of a full grandstand,” Lajoie said. “When COVID began, it was so weird to win and climb out of the car to see nobody there. It was certainly strange but I’m excited to see so many fans and drivers [at Granby] on Friday night.

There were many points in 2020 and 2021 where Lampron was unsure if Granby would weather the storm and fully rebound, but he credited the perseverance of the track’s staff for temporarily adapting to the new environment by emphasizing the alternative of streaming and keeping everyone safe on race weekends.

For Lampron, that hard work was crucial for Granby’s discussions with NASCAR to blossom into a partnership while still in the pandemic. He considers himself fortunate that Granby has NASCAR support and is eager to start the first year of what he believes will be a successful relationship between the two.

“This has been in the works over the last eight years,” Lampron said. “NASCAR was in touch with us every year and they would sometimes have people come out to the track. The NASCAR name brings so much value and this was the right time for us to jump in.”

Autodrome Granby (Joe Labrie)

Anticipation has been building around Friday’s season opener at Granby since the plans were first announced, as many drivers from the track’s Modified division have built Sportsman cars to race for the $3,000 paycheck.

David Hebert, who recorded his sixth Modified championship at Granby last year, is among those that will be entering the Sportsman Superstar Series feature. He will be joined by many more Modified drivers that include Francois Bernier, who is second to Hebert in track titles with five.

Having Hebert, Bernier and several other Modified regulars in the field is a welcomed challenge for Lajoie. He knows the Modified drivers will be determined to open the year with a victory in front of a capacity crowd and wants to make sure his car is perfect ahead of Friday’s green flag.

“We’ll have to work hard,” Lajoie said. “There are going to be some late nights in the shop getting the car ready. Our car wasn’t perfect the last time we raced, so we’re going to make sure we have the right setup and arrive [at Granby] prepared to win.”

Celebrating a win in front of fans would be a cathartic experience for Lajoie, who was frustrated to see how the pandemic negatively impacted tracks all around Canada from financial and personal standpoints.

Although the pandemic remains a talking point in Canada, Lampron is ready to move on from the past two years and help organize an eventful 2022 season that reminds everyone as to why NASCAR and so many competitors are investing into the facility’s future.

“Our expectations are very high,” Lampron said. “The schedule has 21 events on it, which is the most we’ve ever had in one year. We’re going big and there are a lot of races for fans and drivers to enjoy. This is the most exciting season we’ve had yet and I think it could be the best year ever at Granby.”

Lampron added that the drop of the green flag on Friday night will be a rewarding payoff for everyone at Granby that has made sacrifices to sustain one of Canada’s proudest short track complexes.

No longer will an unnerving calm permeate Granby on race weekends, but rather the familiar sound of energetic fans cheering on the country’s best dirt track competitors.