Bristol Motor Speedway once had a streak of more than 50 consecutive races of completely selling out its grandstand seats for the two NASCAR Cup Series races held in the upper northeastern corner of Tennessee each year. And though that streak has long since been broken and there were events in which it looked as if the grandstands were barely half filled, there were signs that things had turned around and were beginning to head in the right direction in terms of tickets sales, particularly for the night race held each August.
But this Sunday, there is no doubt what the attendance will be. Not a single seat in the massive colosseum will be occupied as NASCAR continues its fan-less reopening tour that has so far seen two races each held at the Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
And while the fans have certainly been missed as noted by drivers, media, tracks, and the sanctioning body itself during this COVID-19 pandemic, no where will their absence be more noticeable than at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Keep in mind that the half-mile track is completely lined with seating. There is no break in the grandstands at all around the stadium-like facility. Every television shot will be aimed at empty seating areas. As in-car camera angles are shown of cars traversing the high banks, the emptiness of the place will be all the more evident.
But it isn’t just the fact that the grandstands will be empty that will make the lack of fan attendance so obvious. This track, probably more than any other on the NASCAR circuit, has become the place in which interaction between spectators and competitors is most glaring.
Drivers such as Earnhardt, Gordon, Busch, and Stewart have been heartily cheered and lustily booed as they rode around the track in the backs of pickup trucks during pre-race introductions. Drivers have been allowed to introduce themselves with declarations such as “Kyle Busch is an ass!” being made by the likes of Brad Keselowski. A kind of mix between professional wrestling and college football has even been created as drivers walk out in front of the enthusiastic crowd to their own chosen introductory music.
The Motor Racing Outreach children’s choir singing the national anthem and celebrities from the worlds of sports and entertainment mingling among the throngs of drivers and crew members on pit road just before the start of the race have been major parts of the pageantry that makes up part of the Bristol show.
All of that will be missed as mask-wearing drivers are simply brought from their motor coach lot to the starting grid and climb into their cars just before some piped in command to start engines is given from afar.
This race may be taking place on the familiar setting of the high-banked concrete oval located in east Tennessee, but this will not seem like typical Bristol. The fans have been missed at each of the four NASCAR Cup Series races held following the re-opening of the sport. But nowhere will they be missed more than here.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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