When I heard the NASCAR All-Star Race was moved to Bristol, my first thought was, “who cares?”
That was until I heard NASCAR planned on having up to 30,000 fans in attendance. With a capacity of over 160,000, Bristol Motor Speedway would have enough room to space fans at least 6 feet apart to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Every year, my dad and I try and take a trip to a new MLB park. But with the MLB dragging its feet, and baseball’s return seeming unlikely, we decided to try something different: sign the waiver and attend the All-Star Race.
After all, we’re from the Tri-Cities, so a special trip was not required. With all eyes on Bristol’s All-Star Race, this is what America’s largest in-person crowd experiment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic looked like.
When walking to the racetrack, we were greeted with a Confederate flag being flown high above the racetrack by a small plane, surely a gesture to defy NASCAR’s recent move to ban the Confederate flag from all races and events.
As ticket holders, we were provided with gate entry times specific to where our assigned seats were located. Also, based on our seating location was the gate, we were assigned to enter. My tickets were in the Junior Johnson grandstand, row 11, so I was only allowed to enter through gates 4 and 6.
All bags were checked upon entry; however, temperatures were not. I fully expected a temperature check at the gate, as is normal in places where crowds inevitably have gathered over the last few months, but no temperatures were taken. All guests received a small, free bottle of spray hand sanitizer at the gate and were told masks are required at all times inside the venue, except when at your assigned seat.
Inside the Last Great Colosseum
Food and drinks were allowed in, so no concessions visit was required, although I did stand in line for 20 minutes at the souvenir stand. Despite floor markings urging guests to stand in line 6 feet apart, there was little to no social distancing present.
No vendors were allowed outside the racetrack so that BMS and NASCAR could enforce a “no-contact” sales policy where the only way to pay was with a credit or debit card – no cash. When prompted to sign my receipt, I was made to take a pen from the “sanitized” cup, sign my name, then put the pen in the “unsanitized” cup to keep the used and unused apart.
As mentioned before, face coverings were required on all guests except when sitting at your assigned seat. This rule was mostly followed, with the exception of a few, somewhere in the 70% masked, 30% unmasked neighborhood.
When I arrived at my seat on the backstretch and was permitted to take off my mask, I was surprised to see the spacing between spectators. More than just the bare minimum of 6 feet of space was provided. My dad and I were the only ones in our row. The closest other fans were seated two rows down and over to the right of us.
With a 160,000 seat stadium only playing host to around 20,000 on this night, it made for more than enough room for all guests to comply with social distancing guidelines.
After Chase Elliott captured the checkered flag and the $1 million cash prize, fans were expected to put on their face coverings and remain in their assigned seats until an usher dismisses the row for the exit. The only thing is, I stood and waited, and waited, then waited some more, still no usher.
In addition, groups of fans had already congregated at the fence to congratulate the race winner. I finally decided after approximately 15 minutes of waiting for dismissal that it would be just as safe to exit my seat now, seeing as most fans already walked out on their own whims.
So that is what I did, mask on, of course.
The 2020 Edition of the NASCAR All-Star Race was unlike any sporting event we’ve seen since COVID-19 arrived in the United States. Although some questions were answered, some remain.
Is this the new normal? What are the long-term effects? Will this work in smaller venues?
I don’t have the answers, but I experienced an event that may hold some in the future.
While experts watched closely at the events that unfolded inside the world’s fastest petri dish, the All-Star Race is an indicator of what could be seen all across the American sports landscape in the near future.
Some may disagree and say that this race should have never happened, but you have to call it what it is: an ambitious experiment attempting to set a precedent moving forward.
Even though almost everything about this race was different, some things, like Bristol race traffic, never change.