Auto racing is back at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
Well, sort of.
Forget loading up the family and heading out to the track for the two races coming up today and Monday — the NASCAR Cup Series event at 3:30 p.m. today, the “Food City presents The Supermarket Heroes 500,” and the NASCAR Infinity Series contest at 7 p.m. Monday, the “Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco.”
Thanks to COVID-19 and the restrictions NASCAR has in place for all its events through at least June 21, no fans are allowed to attend or even show up on site.
Sure, people can watch both races on TV on the FS1 sports channel, seeing every interesting twist and turn as the various cars make their way around Bristol’s famously challenging half-mile oval.
But the excitement, attention and — this is especially important — the financial benefits these NASCAR events bring to Bristol will mostly be gone from the equation.
Nobody will be cheering their favorite drivers from the stands. Nobody will be camping out at the venue. No concession stands or souvenir shops will be selling food, beverages and memorabilia.
There will be no huge spikes in business that our area hotels, motels, restaurants and convenience stores depend on for big chunks of their annual incomes from visitors who would normally come to see the races from all over the region (and beyond).
“Bristol is going to be unique with no fans,” said Cup Series driver Erik Jones in a story by Allen Gregory last week in the Bristol Herald Courier. “It’s been odd at every track. But obviously at Bristol, being encompassed by the fans is part of the experience.
“ … The really cool part of Bristol is being so close to the fans and putting on a show for them,” he said.
Although Tennessee has been one of the leaders among the states in reopening after two months of coronavirus restrictions, and now allows venues like the Bristol Motor Speedway to host fans (while observing social-distancing guidelines), NASCAR itself — which governs the races it sanctions — does not yet allow for live crowds.
That’s most likely because of two factors: maintaining fairness among all its racing venues because reopening rules vary state to state; and fears of liability if somehow an outbreak of COVID-19 could be linked to attendance at a NASCAR-sanctioned event.
So even though we can understand why NASCAR won’t allow fans at the Bristol events today and Monday, we still can’t help but wish that things could be different — that we could go to the races, or host the tens of thousands of fans who would normally be expected to attend.
Everyone wants life to get back to normal as soon as possible. That means we want to be able to see people pack the stands again at the Bristol Motor Speedway, and drop lots of money into our community while they’re here.
All of that is just going to have to wait, at least for a while longer.
“I wish we could have a packed house and have everybody cheering us on,” driver Jones said. “But this is what it takes to race right now. Hopefully, we can have the fans in the stands by the time we get back to Bristol in the fall for the Night Race.”
Some involved in the sport believe NASCAR will be the first major sport to bring fans back into their stands.
For now, though, NASCAR fans will have to settle for watching their favorite drivers compete on TV.
While that may be good enough for many aficionados of the sport, it does very little for those in the Bristol area whose livelihoods depend on robust attendance at speedway events.