Off To The Races: Billy Strings Descends On South Carolina’s New Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center

Jesse Faatz
– New Speedway Boogie
Fans enjoy the Billy Strings concert at Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center in Columbia, S.C., on April 1, 2021.

The biggest run of Billy Strings’ spring tour took place at a venue that’s only months old, as the Columbia Speedway Entertainment Center in Columbia, S.C., hosted Strings and some 13,000 total fans over four nights, April 1-4.

The venue is operated by Cola Concerts, a new collaborative venture between Chicago-based touring entertainment company Innovation Arts and the Roberts Group, a promoter that does business in Columbia.

Prior to the pandemic, Innovation was best known as promoter for tours by the likes of Hillary Clinton, Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Sedaris, and for Beach Road Weekend, a music festival in Martha’s Vineyard. But the company responded to COVID by launching the Yarmouth Drive-in on Cape Cod, which became an industry leader in safe, socially distanced concerts.

“We really developed a real understanding of how to handle socially distanced shows, so we started looking at expansion of the model to other markets,” says Innovation CEO Adam Epstein. “We started looking for any place we could put a large stage with video walls and have people sit in socially distanced seating coves or drive-ins.”

While Cola secured the property and erected the venue in the fall, a series of factors – namely unusually chilly temperatures and surging COVID case rates – meant it only staged a handful of shows there in 2020.

With the Strings shows, Columbia Speedway reintroduced itself for 2021. Guests encountered high-end audio and video production, but the venue’s most noteworthy aspect is its 12-foot-by-10-foot “coves,” which are bounded by pressure-treated wood posts – all topped by solar post cap lights – and marine rope. The speedway features 900 of these enclosures, each separated by at least six feet.

“We believe in coves, not pods,” Epstein says. “Pods sound like you’re in a spaceship. A cove is a nice sheltered little space that’s yours. A pod means you’re flying away somewhere. We want people grounded, watching the show and having fun.”

As pandemic-related restrictions loosen, Epstein predicts the speedway will increase its capacity, perhaps moving coves closer together or eliminating social distancing while continuing to mandate masks.

But at the moment, he’s just enjoying the ride.

“We’re having a blast,” Epstein says. “It’s the best news we’ve seen in, oh, about a year. People are coming back. They want to see live music. We’ve got a great place for it, Billy’s an incredible artist, and this is going to be not just a celebration about Billy – this is a big thing for everybody, gathering without being in a car.”