Last Sunday, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I sat on my couch and watched football.
It was strange seeing most NFL stadiums without fans, knowing I was hearing recorded crowd noise rather than the real thing, but I was watching live football, and a few months ago, that seemed like an absurd fantasy.
As RedZone panned to the Jaguars-Colts game and clusters of fans cheered from the stands in Jacksonville, I couldn’t help but think that the sport I cover helped get the country to this point.
NASCAR was, after all, one of the first sports to return to competition during COVID-19. A few weeks ago, NASCAR president Steve Phelps mentioned he had conversations with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan about protocols for return to play. He said he advised decision-makers in college football and “other stick-and-ball sports commissioners” on navigating the pandemic.
“Primarily not around the protocols themselves,” Phelps said. “But really around governors and our ability to work (together) potentially or to give each other information about what we’re hearing and what might be able to happen from that front.”
In August, University of Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer announced in a joint press conference with state governor Bill Lee that he anticipated UT’s football stadium would host fans at around 25 percent capacity as the SEC moves ahead with plans for conference play this fall. Lee cited NASCAR’s All-Star Race as an example that showed “the success of live-venue sports in our state.”
Bristol hosted the most fans in the pandemic era for the All-Star Race in mid-July. Around 22,000 spectators attended the event. (Tracks do not release fan attendance counts, but this was the number reported by independent outlets.)
“Health officials reported weeks later that there were no (COVID-19) cases associated with that,” Lee said. “So it’s important to remember that we can return safely.”
The ball is rolling! Sports are back! NASCAR is a leader!
And yet, when the CDC is still reporting more than 6.6 million positive coronavirus cases nationally, you wonder how we got here so quickly. At least, I do.
After the All-Star Race, Tennessee’s Sullivan County, where the track is located, experienced a spike in local positive COVID-19 cases in the weeks following the event. The medical director of the county’s health department, Dr. Andrew Stephen May, told The Observer his department did not identify a link between the increase in local cases and the NASCAR race.
“Back even before the race, we were picking up a bunch from travel associated to the beaches,” May said in August. “We did identify that, but that was before the event.
“We did have a problem. But now we’ve got such widespread community transmission. It doesn’t matter where you are here now. The disease is established well within the community.”
The disease was so well-established that the monthly total of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sullivan County rose 52 percent from July to August, according to the county’s public health data, and the county was in the “Red Zone” in early September, meaning it reported more than 100 new cases per 100,000 people and a diagnostic test positivity result greater than 10 percent during the previous week.
The county also experienced its highest coronavirus case count, with 190 cases reported in a single day on Aug. 23, two days after Bristol Motor Speedway announced tickets were on sale for its September races. The same day, tracks in neighboring Virginia, at Martinsville and Richmond, announced they would not host fans at upcoming racing events due to the pandemic.
“After careful consideration, NASCAR and Richmond determined the track will host its fall races without fans in attendance to ensure the safety of competitors, staff, and the local community,” a press release from Richmond Raceway said on Aug. 21.
Bristol Motor Speedway president Jerry Caldwell said the results of the All-Star Race made the track feel confident it could host another event with fans. He said that most fans in July followed protocols, which include temperature checks and mask-wearing at check-in, touchless ticketing and arriving at designated times and gates for entry.
“I was very pleased,” Caldwell said. “I think what we expected to happen and then what we saw actually happen was that fans, and really just the country, they want so badly to be able to do some of these things that we love and some of these things that we view as normal, like going to sporting events that we love going to, a NASCAR race.”
“We saw most everyone cooperate with those procedures that were put in place that some may view as inconvenient,” Caldwell said. “But (fans) were just happy to get back to the sport that they love.”
This weekend, NASCAR will return to the track at Bristol with fans two nights in a row — for Friday’s Xfinity race (the first Xfinity race with fans since March) and Saturday’s Cup race. Caldwell said he expects Saturday’s crowd attendance to hover around just fewer than 30,000 fans. Up to 20,000 tickets were on sale for Friday’s race.
He said that in addition to the deep cleaning and sanitizing of high touch-point areas, especially, such as seats and handrails, the track created a “community task force” group that includes vendors in the local food and tourism industry. Caldwell said the group will encourage visitors in town for the race to “wear their mask when they’re stopping by.”
“We take this responsibility very seriously,” Caldwell said. “And we know that there’s a tremendous responsibility there for us to host these events, do them in a safe and responsible way.”
When contacted by phone Friday, May said Sullivan County’s positivity rate had dropped to 8.6 percent over the last week and that the region was averaging about 13 cases per day, putting it in the state’s “Yellow Zone.” It is important to note, however, that Sullivan County is conducting the fewest number of tests in the state per 100,000 residents.
“We’re working at increasing that capacity right now,” May said, citing “a combination of multiple factors” for why there isn’t more testing.
May said the county is “still battling clusters in various localities,” referring to the 37617 zip code, which has among the highest 21-day case rate in the state, as well as the highest testing rate.
A grocery store with a 37617 zip code is a seven-minute drive from the speedway, but a few coronavirus clusters probably won’t keep ticket-buyers away. May didn’t recommend that fans not attend the races.
“I don’t have a recommendation either way right now other than we’ve got to follow safety measures,” May said. “Including the masking and six-foot distancing both at the race and out in public.”
After Bristol this weekend, tracks at Talladega, Kansas, Texas and Phoenix have announced they will host limited fans in the coming weeks for NASCAR’s playoff races.
So, yes, the ball is rolling! Sports are back! NASCAR is a leader!
But I still don’t know if that’s good or bad.