NASCAR’s wild carnival ride of a season will continue next week with an event that could put stock car racing in the middle of another turbulent news cycle.
After Sunday’s Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway, NASCAR will move on to Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday for its annual All-Star Race. Often one of the most exciting events of the season, the All-Star Race carries extra weight this year. With between 20,000 and 30,000 fans expected at the huge stadium-like facility, Bristol will host the biggest sports crowd in the country since the coronavirus pandemic called a screeching halt to practically all organized athletic events in March.
The race is likely to attract more attention than normal not only because it has been moved from its traditional site at Charlotte Motor Speedway and from its normal weekend scheduling but also because of how the speedway and the Bristol area will handle the influx of fans. Statewide the number of active cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise. Gov. Bill Lee extended his state of emergency declaration June 29, which means Tennesseans are encouraged to limit activities and wear masks. The declaration limits social and recreational gatherings of 50 or more people with some exceptions.
Bristol Motor Speedway will be under a microscope of sorts as it ventures into territory not visited by U.S. professional sports since March.
“We know that hosting this event comes with tremendous responsibility,” Bristol Motor Speedway general manager Jerry Caldwell told USA TODAY. “We are the first major sporting event to have a significant crowd. We don’t take that responsibility lightly.
“This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate to the country how we can go back to doing some of the things we love to do in a safe and responsible way. This is where we live. It’s a great responsibility.”
The race is likely to be a bright spot for businesses in the eastern Tennessee/western Virginia area, most of which have suffered during shutdowns due to the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19. Although many attending the race will be from within a 25-mile radius of the half-mile track, others coming from longer distances will provide at least a small boost to the local economy at restaurants, stores and hotels.
The down side is that visitors could accelerate the spread of the coronavirus in the Bristol area, a threat the speedway is addressing by planning a long list of safety protocols, including spacing the crowd in small social-distancing groups throughout the stadium, one of the biggest in sports with a capacity of 160,000.
The speedway’s approach to the return of significantly large fan numbers could provide a template for other sports — for example, college football — hoping to welcome fans in coming months.
As currently scheduled, the motorsports landscape over the next two months will see speedways taking dramatically different paths to fan access. No fans will be allowed at NASCAR events at Kentucky Speedway this weekend and at Kansas Speedway on July 23. At Homestead Miami Speedway last month, 1,000 special guests were allowed to sit in the grandstands, mostly first responders and military families. Talladega restricted attendance to 5,000 fans for its race June 21.
Texas Motor Speedway has announced a 50 percent maximum — or about 60,000 — for attendance at its July 19 NASCAR race, but track officials expect the actual total to be much less.
In addition, the number of officials, pit crew members, mechanics, safety workers and other personnel at NASCAR Cup races typically totals about 900, down from about 2,000 before the pandemic.
The 50 percent fan marker also will be in effect Aug. 23 for the rescheduled Indianapolis 500 IndyCar race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the world’s biggest sports venues. A half-full Indy could reach 125,000.
Masks, temperature checks, digital tickets
Among Bristol’s changes: Employees will be required to wear masks; fans will be required to wear masks except when in their seats; fans sitting in suites at the top levels of the stadium will be required to have temperature checks.
Drink coolers will not be allowed in the seating areas, and passenger trams, normally a popular alternative for fans moving around the facility, will be available only to those with limited mobility. Food and souvenir purchases can’t be made with cash, and tickets are being sold digitally.
“We know that some of the things we’re putting in place are going to be a temporary inconvenience,” Caldwell said. “We view that really as a small price to pay.”
The track can seat more than 160,000, but ticket sales are being limited so that fans can be scattered throughout the grandstands. Caldwell called ticket sales “tremendous” but would not reveal how many have been sold.
By buying tickets, fans are “assuming all risks of exposure to COVID-19” and agree to release the track from claims that might result, according to the speedway.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, Sullivan County (home to BMS) has had 210 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and four deaths through July 10. The state of Tennessee has had 723 deaths through July 10 with more than 61,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
A controlled environment
The speedway, which attracted full houses of NASCAR fans for decades, has been an important financial engine for the greater Bristol area since opening in 1961. The area’s other major tourist attraction is the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and its annual music festival: the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.
The festival, held on State Street in downtown Bristol, a city of about 26,000, typically attracts more than 40,000 fans over its three-day run. It brings together leading performers from bluegrass, Americana, country and other musical genres.
But even as BMS prepares to welcome fans next week, organizers of the musical festival announced on July 6 that this year’s event, scheduled Sept. 11-13, has been canceled because of the coronavirus.
The festival is held outside on 20 stages spread along State Street and across the Virginia-Tennessee state line that divides the town.
“We have 130 bands and 20 stages in a five-block area and people moving constantly from stage to stage,” said Kim Davis, the event’s director of marketing. “It was a challenge we couldn’t overcome. We have to consider the health and safety of our community of fans and artists.”
The festival location is about eight miles from the speedway.
“NASCAR and BMS definitely have a more controlled environment than we do,” Davis said. “They have the ability to distance folks in ways that we can’t. It’s a better-controlled environment.”
Karen Hester, owner of two businesses in downtown Bristol, said next week’s race will be like a vitamin to the area economy.
“Any time you get 30,000 people coming to your town, it’s going to make an economic impact,” she said. “I don’t know how many fans will be able to come and stay like they do traditionally here in Bristol for a week or longer, but it’s going to be a boost.
“The speedway has taken a lot of extra precautions. I’m hoping it will be a good, safe, healthy race for everybody and a sign of our economy opening back up.”
Not everyone is pleased. Don Evans, a Bristol resident, criticized the scheduling of the race in a letter to a local newspaper.
“We already have a lot of cases, and now you throw all these people into the pot,” Evans, an environmental engineer, told USA TODAY. “From a public health standpoint, it’s probably the most absurd thing to do.
“Our politicians here suffer from an extreme Trumpian attitude. If you advocate for any kind of mitigation measures, you’re typically ridiculed and, in some cases, threatened. It’s almost as if we have to have the angel of death at our door before there will be any recognition of the severity of what we’re confronting and what we need to be doing.”