KINGSPORT, Tenn. – It’s 5:30 on a humid Friday night and Rob Austin has returned to his happy place.
Following a long layoff due to COVID-19, Kingsport Speedway is back in business and the 56-year-old Austin is a star of the show.
“Oh yeah, it’s great to be back,” Austin said.
With five track championships and nearly 80 victories, Austin is one of the most successful racers in the region.
When Kingsport finally received approval to open two weeks ago, the hard charger from Castlewood was prepared.
“I won my race, so I had to come back again,” Austin said.
Austin, who was among 24 entrants in Friday’s Pure 4 class, relinquished driving duties to his brother Doug last year.
“Doug ended up winning the track title,” Rob said. “This was my year to drive the car, and then all this other stuff happened with the virus. We’re just trying to make the best of it.”
William Hale knows the feeling. The 45-year-old from Kingsport spent weeks getting his sleek Pure 4 ride ready.
“We came over and practiced before the season and we wanted to have some fun. Then everything went down,” said Hale, referring to COVID-19.
Like his fellow competitors at Kingsport, Hale endured nearly three months of a stressful waiting game.
“We had everything ready, but we just had to leave the car sitting in the garage,” Hale said. “It just kills you every weekend.”
Last week’s racing program was canceled by rain, but Kingsport Speedway media director Will Bellamy said nearly 2,100 fans turned out for the season opener two weeks ago.
“It was one of the biggest crowds we’ve had in a couple seasons,” Bellamy said. “And we had an excellent car count.”
Bellamy donned a face mask for trackside interviews Friday. Other track staff members and a limited number of fans also wore facial protection.
“The use of masks is not required, but we are encouraging it,” Bellamy said. “We’ve also set up sanitation stations around the track, and we’re following social distancing guidelines.”
Due to state restrictions regarding COVID-19, only a handful of short tracks around the country have restarted with fans.
“We’re lucky to be in Tennessee where things are opening back up,” Bellamy said. “Our racers spent the off-season working on their cars, and they had all just been waiting to get the call to go racing again.”
Bellamy said 40-50 tier parking spots overlooking the track were sold within the past two weeks.
“We’ve had great support from the community,” Bellamy said. “We wouldn’t want to race without our fans like some tracks are.”
Ron Smith was in his usual spot Friday at Kingsport Speedway. The 50-year member of the Kingsport Life Saving Crew directs the safety efforts from the press tower overlooking the track.
“This is a good opportunity for people to have fun as a family,” Smith said. “We all missed not being out here the first few weeks, but drivers were very excited when we came back and so were the fans.”
Smith came equipped with his face mask Friday.
“I knew people have health concerns, but track officials are keeping everything as safe as they can,” Smith said.
Gate City resident Jimmy Sturgill, 62, was in the concrete grandstands Friday over two hours before the start of qualifying.
“This is the first time I’ve been back since the virus,” Sturgill said. “I’ve just been staying home and watching TV. It’s great to hear the engines again and to be in the stands.”
Does Sturgill have concerns about the spread of COVID-19?
“No, the Lord is taking care of me,” Sturgill said. “I just pray about it, and then go on and live my life.”
And that’s exactly what Austin is doing. In addition to his success at Kingsport, Austin won many times at now-defunct Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn where he competed against hardcore racers such as legendary Roger Neece, a coal miner from Trammel, Virginia.
“I was looking through some old pictures and programs recently,” Austin said. “I really enjoyed those days racing against guys like Roger.”
Austin said he counted down the days until Kingsport Speedway finally got the green flag this season.
“You get the car ready, and then you tinker on it and tinker on it some more. But there was nowhere to race,” Austin said. “Now, I’m having fun again.”
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