Editor’s note: This is Part V of a five-part series detailing how NASCAR successfully ran its 2020 season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
As masked fans filtered into Talladega Superspeedway in orderly fashion, NASCAR field and office workers wandered about the sparse crowd, assisting where and when needed. They handed out two-ounce containers of hand sanitizer and clear bags for those who forgot about the no-coolers rule. Some walked with signs that read “please wear your mask” and “please observe six-feet social distancing,” as they respected the requests themselves.
This didn’t fit in most of the employees’ job descriptions. Many who volunteered to help actually drove to Talladega, Alabama, from the NASCAR headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Daytona Beach, Florida, specifically for this race weekend.
Even Talladega track president Brian Crichton left the infield to lend a hand.
“The people we encountered and we talked to, they were thanking us,” Crichton said. “They were thanking us for making it possible for them to come back to races. I got a little bit of goosebumps when they said that. I got a little emotional. But it meant so much for the fans to be able to come back as well.”
After a Sunday rainout, June 22 marked the first NASCAR race with paying customers since the two-month COVID-19 shutdown. Homestead-Miami Speedway invited up to 1,000 South Florida service members as honorary guests the previous weekend. Talladega, though, sold up to 5,000 tickets, along with limited motor-home/fifth-wheel camping spots outside the track, on a first-come, first-served basis — prioritizing those in-state and within a 150-mile radius.
Talladega had to get approval to host fans from Alabama governor Kay Ivey, the Alabama Health Department and Talladega County officials. The race was scheduled regardless, making up for the original April 26 postponement. Crichton found it in the track’s favor that NASCAR had already completed eight races since its May return, proving the sport’s protocols and procedures were thorough enough to be reliably safe.
NASCAR announced fans would be allowed on June 9 — less than two weeks before the GEICO 500.
“It was stressful because we knew as a southeast region, as a NASCAR team, we all had to come together and make it successful,” Crichton said. “It had to be a success so we could continue to build off of it and continue to go racing.”
Talladega built off of NASCAR’s procedures and protocols for essential personnel.
Upon entering the premises, fans went through drive-in stations where they answered COVID-19 symptom and exposure questions and had their temperature checked by a handheld thermometer. If everyone in the car passed, they moved on to park. Those who didn’t went to a secondary screening with Emergency Medical Services (EMS) officials. Same thing: Pass, move on. Crichton said there were no instances where someone had to be turned away, which would have been the case if medical professionals thought there was reason to worry.
Tips for inside the venue came from an unexpected source. Select NASCAR employees, including Managing Director of Racing Operations Tom Bryant, toured Universal Orlando about 10 days before the theme park reopened June 5.
“We spent an entire day with their team going through everything from how they parked their guests to how they entered the facility to how they screened them,” Bryant said. “How they had concessions set up, how they had restrooms set up, how they had to adapt movement in and around the attractions to keep people socially distanced. Everything you can think of.”
And everything that relates to a NASCAR event.
Masks were required at all times. Social-distancing pucks — basically stickers on the ground — detailed common areas and where lines formed. Concessions solely offered pre-packaged foods and sealed drinks. Cashless payment was used to limit touch exposure. Bathrooms had every other stall or urinal blocked off.
Talladega also hired a cleaning team through its environmental-services partner, Clean Harbors. It sanitized the entire venue before and after the event. During the race, its cleaners constantly were on the move, wiping down all high-touch surfaces.
The infield was completely off limits to fans.
As for the grandstands, Talladega grouped seats in pods of four, starting two or three chairs in from the aisle to keep a safe social distance between those sitting and those walking up and down the stairs. Only one or two pods were ticketed per row.
“Even if we had space between those two groups of four – say the row was 30 seats long – well, we wouldn’t put a group in the middle, not even a group of four in the middle, because that group would have to walk in front of one of these other groups,” Crichton said. “But what we could do is we could put a group of four in the row behind those two groups, but they were in the middle of the row, so it was staggered.”
Fans witnessed the drama of seeing two wrecks on the final lap, Ryan Blaney beating Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to the checkered flag by .007 seconds, which tied for the sixth-closest finish in Cup Series history, and Aric Almirola crossing the finish line backward in third.
“Man, it was so great just to have fans back,” Blaney said post-race. “The atmosphere of them cheering was back. Before and after the race, we love that stuff. Drivers, we love support.”
Attendance wasn’t guaranteed after that event, though. It still depends on local and state COVID-19 restrictions.
The NASCAR Playoffs is currently in its Round of 12. The opening race last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway did not have fans. This Sunday’s event at Talladega will still be far from full capacity, but a track representative indicated the number of spectators welcomed will be up from the June count. Charlotte Motor Speedway will permit a limited number of fans for the elimination race scheduled Oct. 11 on its Roval layout, in accordance to North Carolina’s recently updated rules.
As of right now, Phoenix Raceway plans to host fans for the Nov. 8, 2020 championship.
“Having our fans back is awesome and we look forward to the day we can have all of them back in full capacity, but that’s not yet,” Bryant said. “Our priority and the marching orders we’ve received are to ensure our ability to crown champions in Phoenix. We are laser-focused on that. We’re not going to do anything on the fan side that would endanger our ability to conduct races. It’s a balance.”