Wednesday night's NASCAR All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway was going to be interesting with or without fans in the stands. The annual non-points Cup Series race took place at the world's fastest half-mile for the first time in its 36-year history, and a handful of rule- and visual-related changes were being tested at the 2020 All-Star Race.
But many tuned in Wednesday night with attention to what would happen during and after the NASCAR All-Star Race allowed up to 30,000 fans in attendance, the most that have been permitted at a sporting event since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down live sports globally in March.
“We know that hosting this event comes with tremendous responsibility,” Bristol Motor Speedway general manager Jerry Caldwell recently 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 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race last month was moved from its traditional location at Charlotte Motor Speedway to Bristol in part because Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Sullivan County officials agreed to allow so many fans at the facility. Fans for years have advocated for NASCAR's moving of the All-Star Race to different tracks, so 2020 suddenly became an ideal year to experiment. (And it helps that Speedway Motorsports owns both Charlotte and Bristol.)
There would be risks, especially since COVID-19 cases have continued to rise in Tennessee and Lee recently extended the state's emergency declaration that limits gatherings of 50 people or more with some exceptions.
Wednesday night's NASCAR All-Star Race, of course, was one of the exceptions. And to their credit, officials at Bristol Motor Speedway appeared to have done everything they could as they tried to set an example of how sports leagues can begin to allow fans to return to their facilities in a relatively safe manner.
How many fans are allowed at the NASCAR All-Star Race in Bristol?
Bristol Motor Speedway announced it would sell up to 30,000 tickets for the 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race. The track ended ticket sales Tuesday night, and according to the Associated Press, at least 20,000 people attended the race.
Bristol Motor Speedway, of course, is a massive, colosseum-styled facility that seats more than 160,000 people. When Virginia Tech and Tennessee played football in the track's infield in 2016, the game set a college football attendance record of 156,990 people.
So even 30,000 people in the stands would have represented less than 20 percent of the track's capacity. Multiple NFL teams have announced they will allow roughly the same percentage of their stadium capacities if allowed to host fans at all.
While the Speedway had plenty of health and safety protocols in place to mitigate coronavirus risk at the track, some are worried about how the event will impact the region outside the facility even though Caldwell estimated almost half of the attendees would be local.
“It’s going to greatly increase the risk to our community for COVID-19 spread," Karen Shelton, the director of the Mount Rogers Health District in Southwest Virginia, recently told the Bristol Herald Courier. “The race track itself may have a great plan in place, but the rest of the community has to deal with 30,000 people in the community between hotels and restaurants and all the things that go on.”
Said Caldwell to combat that narrative: "This is essentially a one-day show. A lot of these folks that are coming in, it’s going to be much like what happens every single day now. I mean, we live at the intersection of (Interstates) 81 and 26. We have lots of people stopping on a daily basis visiting gas stations and restaurants when they’re traveling through the area. We’re going to have a lot of folks doing that same kind of thing. They’re going to be coming in for the event, and they’re going to be heading back to wherever they live.”
COVID-19 safety protocols for fans at NASCAR All-Star Race
Bristol Motor Speedway's health and safety protocols for those in attendance at the NASCAR All-Star Race were such that it would barely resemble the typical fan experience.
One of the coolest things about attending a NASCAR race is one being able to bring his or her own cooler into the facility, but coolers at the 2020 All-Star Race were prohibited in an effort to limit interaction between fans and security. Only clear, soft-sided bags (14" x 14" x14" and smaller) were allowed.
That's just a small part of the extensive COVID-19 protocols the track implemented for Wednesday night's race. Social distancing was a key factor in ticket distribution and was implemented during the race. Masks were required in areas where people tend to congregate (restrooms, concessions, etc.) but not required when fans were socially distanced in their seats.
The track also implemented an assumption of COVID-19 risk waiver people needed to sign in order to buy tickets.
Straight from Bristol Motor Speedway's COVID-19 protocols page, below are all of the measures the track took in its attempt to host more people than any sports venue in the world has held since March.
- All ticketing will be conducted digitally to eliminate contact points
- Seating will be strategically assigned at the time of purchase to ensure social distancing between groups
- No will-call or in-person ticket pickup services will be available
- Tickets start at $35 for adults, $10 for kids 12 and under
- Guest services personnel will be on hand during the event to help answer questions and provide guidance
- Trams and shuttle buses will not operate during this event
- Golf cart shuttles will be reserved for guests with limited mobility
- Free parking is available at Speedway Parking
- Paid parking options are available at neighboring properties
- Guests are encouraged to put on masks once they enter the property
- Facial coverings are required whenever guests are in common areas such as gates, restrooms, concessions, souvenir stands, elevators, concourses and suite-level hallways
- Masks may be removed once guests are socially distanced in their assigned seats
- If a guest purchases a ticket and then becomes ill, a refund will be issued
- All BMS personnel will be temperature screened on event day and wear a face covering at all times. Personnel will also wear gloves, as needed.
- Whether on grounds or off, BMS encourages all residents and guests to observe the practices of social distancing, frequent hand washing, wearing a face covering in all public spaces, and using hand sanitizer
- Guests will receive notification of designated entrance times and assigned gate
- All guests accessing the suites will undergo temperature screenings before entering elevators
- No re-entry after leaving the facility
- On completion of the race, a staggered exit plan will be in effect (BMS will provide guidance for dismissal of seating areas to help reduce crowding on concourses and in aisles)
- Guests are asked to socially distance at all times while on grounds (floor markings at concourse, concession and souvenir stands and directional traffic flow signage will be provided)
- BMS' ticket office will stagger seating throughout the stands to provide for a minimum of six feet of distance between groups
- Suites will operate at a reduced capacity, in line with Tennessee state guidance
- Hand sanitizer stations are available throughout the grounds
- BMS will follow enhanced cleaning procedures, especially in high-touch surface areas such as handrails and bathrooms
Food/drink and souvenirs
- All purchases from food and souvenir stands will be electronic transactions (debit and credit cards only, no cash or checks)
- Only clear, soft-sided bags 14" x 14" x14" and smaller will be allowed in
- No coolers or glass containers permitted
- Bristol Motor Speedway's gift shop inside the Bruton Smith Building will be closed
- No on-grounds camping, other than a limited number of overnight RV spaces, will be available
- Area campgrounds will open on Tuesday, July 14, and close on Thursday, July 16
The following amenities have been temporarily halted in order to comply with industry guidelines and help reduce the risk of transmission:
- On-grounds concerts
- Public access to infield (no track walks or hot/cold passes)
- Public access to drivers' meeting
- Driver meet-and-greet sessions
- Headset/scanner rentals
- Golf cart rentals
- Fan Zone, corporate and vendor displays
- Pay phones
"While some new procedures may cause a temporary inconvenience for a limited time, it's a small price to pay to ensure that we can continue to enjoy live sporting events," said Caldwell. "Bristol Motor Speedway is known for a number of firsts in the industry, so we would encourage all of our guests to be supportive of these protocols and set the standard for how large events can be conducted safely during this pandemic."