BRISTOL, Tenn. — In an unprecedented sports year, Bristol Motor Speedway was the capital of strange Wednesday night.
Bristol had one of the smallest crowds in its almost 60-year history. A crowd that, at the same time, perhaps marked the largest attendance at a sports event in the United States since the coronavirus stopped virtually all sports in March.
It was that kind of strange on a muggy evening in the eastern Tennessee mountains.
As other professional sports leagues push toward reopening, NASCAR ran its annual All-Star Race before a crowd estimated at 20,000 on Bristol’s high-banked short track. The crowd was certainly one of the biggest – perhaps the biggest – to watch a sports event in the U.S. since March and was among the biggest globally since the virus, now surging in spots again, developed into a pandemic crossing international borders.
Anxious to admit a significant number of fans but also aware of the possibility of crowds accelerating the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, officials limited All-Star ticket sales to 30,000. The cavernous facility can seat more than 160,000.
Despite restrictions and limitations, fans were excited to be back within sight and sound of motorsports as Chase Elliott cruised to his first victory in the All-Star event.
“The only place I’d be tonight,” said Betsy Taylor of Knoxville, Tennessee, whose apparel identified her as a Kyle Busch fan. “Watching on television has been all right, but nothing beats being here. It’s not as much fun as when this place was packed, but right now we take what we can get.”
NASCAR fans look at souvenirs outside Bristol Motor Speedway before the All-Star Race. Once inside, people were required to wear masks unless seated in the grandstands. (Photo: Randy Sartin, USA TODAY Sports)
Across Highway 11E from the track, fans roamed through a group of souvenir tents, a pre-race shopping ritual for many. The crowd there was smaller, too, and there were fewer proprietors.
Janice Thornton, holding a newly purchased Kevin Harvick cap, said she and her family drove from Roanoke, Virginia, to see what she called “real racing” at the NASCAR Cup level.
“You never know what’s going to happen at Bristol,” she said. “Somebody can lead all night and then lose the race on the last lap. It’s some of the best racing you’ll see.”
Although many fans in the souvenir area were not wearing masks, the lines of spectators waiting to enter the track showed practically universal compliance with the mask requirement.
Several fans expressed no fear of the possibility of being infected with the virus, although infection numbers have risen dramatically recently in eastern Tennessee – as well as many other parts of the country.
Statewide the number of active cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise. Gov. Bill Lee, who gave the command to start engines Wednesday night at the track, 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.
“There is no way I’d be over there in the middle of all those people,” said Lawrence Walters of nearby Kingsport. “Hanging around in a small crowd is OK, but when you get up in the thousands it seems to me like a risk I shouldn’t take. I have a TV at home.”
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Some fans celebrate after Chase Elliott wins the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. (Photo: Randy Sartin, USA TODAY Sports)
Wednesday’s crowd, scattered around the grandstands like dandelion seeds spread by the wind, looked anemic. In this case, though, small was big, as in a big step for sports as the athletics world struggles to return to some sense of normalcy.
Fans were seated in small bunches in the stadium version of social distancing. They were required to wear face masks in all areas of the property except while seated in the grandstands.
All tickets were handled digitally, as were transactions at concession stands, in attempts to limit physical contact.
Officials reported no issues at track entrances. Admission to the track infield, which typically is crowded with fans, guests of teams and other visitors in the hours before a race, was limited to competitors, officials and track workers.
Marcus Smith, president of Speedway Motorsports, owner of BMS, called the evening “a great example of what can happen when sports, government and community work together for the fan.
"This event was a tremendous step in the right direction for America to bring live competition and fans back together for fun.”
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