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'Eerily quiet' race day experience without fans

Jeff Birchfield • May 31, 2020 at 8:01 PM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — There weren’t the pre-race concerts, the driver introductions or the excitement of fans roaming the grounds of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Instead, the scene inside the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile” prior to Sunday’s Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 NASCAR Cup Series race was strange, surreal and eerily quiet.

I’ve been to Bristol Motor Speedway plenty of times when there has been a small crowd, particularly after a weather delay. For events like Monster Truck Madness, Big Rig Races and the Short Track U.S. Nationals, the seating is limited to the backstretch. 

But this was a picture-perfect day with America’s top motorsports series. If the coronavirus restrictions weren’t in place, a sports-starved nation would have likely packed the massive stadium with a seating capacity listed at 146,000.

Doug Rice, president and general manager of Performance Racing Network, put the scene into perspective.

“It’s eerily quiet. That’s the thing that sticks with me,” Rice said. “Even before the race starts, there’s a buzz of the people inside the bowl, and there’s nothing. You can hear individual conversations going on. The quietness is what jumps out at me the most.”

There is plenty to celebrate. All of us who love motorsports are thankful to have racing back.

NASCAR, BMS, the teams and others involved who put the event together should be commended for their efforts to host two major events after NASCAR’s announcement that racing would return.

In the two weeks leading up to Sunday, races went off without a major hitch at Darlington and Charlotte.

Sunday’s event at Bristol was even more of a showcase of what the sport is about — the beating, banging, grinding on the high-banked short track.

Still, without the fans, a major component was missing, particularly at Bristol.

The fans create much of the amazing atmosphere BMS is known for. The pre-race driver introductions, often hosted by famed boxing announcer Michael Buffer, are favorites of fans and drivers alike.

“Bristol has an arena feel to it,” Rice said. “You could put a lid on this place and it would be the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’ It’s got a different feel. It’s closed in and you throw 100,000 race fans in here with these cars, it’s a special experience. That’s why they call it Thunder Valley as much as any other reason. To take the big element of fandom out of here and to drive straight in on race day, that’s something else.”

Fans have been unable to attend live sporting events over the past two months, and Rice believes NASCAR is in a good position when crowds are allowed back. Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith predicted Thursday that NASCAR would be the first major sport to allow fans back. In the meantime, big crowds have shown up at other motorsports events.

“Had they been offering tickets, I think there would have been a lot of people show up,” Rice said. “There have been short tracks around the country that opened up and have been at capacity when they probably shouldn’t have been.People are ready to come back to sporting events. In my opinion, when we do open up the gates, people are going to come back in big numbers. It’s almost unworldly being here like this.”

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