NASCAR made it’s second better-late-than-never move in the last five days when it said Monday that the All-Star Race would be held at Bristol Motor Speedway instead of Charlotte Motor Speedway on July 15.
Charlotte has regularly hosted the All-Star Race since its inception in 1985. And while the track has produced some iconic moments and great racing throughout the years during All-Star Races, it’s indisputable that the race has gotten stale over the last decade. Charlotte’s repaving and NASCAR’s recent car and tire changes haven’t meshed well at the night race.
So yeah, the All-Star Race needed to be somewhere else. And Bristol is a great option. The short track produced a fun race on May 31 and has the potential to produce a lot of entertainment with no points on the line.
But there’s a whole lot of risk involved in what NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports are doing with this Bristol move. And all of that risk comes attached to the decision to allow up to 30,000 fans in the midst of a pandemic to an event that doesn’t need fans in the grandstands at all to be the entertaining made-for-TV product that it’s turned into.
NASCAR had been racing without fans in the stands
None of the first seven Cup Series races run after NASCAR resumed racing on May 17 — including that Bristol race on May 31 — had fans in the grandstands. Sunday’s race at Homestead was set up for just 1,000 military members across the stands and select VIP guests in suites. Just 5,000 fans are set to attend the June 21 race at Talladega and no fans will be at Pocono, Indianapolis and Kentucky in the three races before the All-Star Race.
That means the All-Star Race will be the highest-attended sporting event in the United States since the pandemic began, something that you can bet isn’t lost on both NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports. And at the very least, the procedures NASCAR and Bristol will put in place can be a window into how attendance at football games in the fall could look.
If the Bristol experiment works and everyone follows the social distancing protocols, then there would likely be some increased optimism in the surrounding areas that fans could attend football games in some capacity.
Experiments don’t always work. And going from 5,000 fans to 30,000 fans at an event in the midst of a pandemic is a huge jump, even if Bristol’s capacity was once over 160,000. The track says it will social distance groups across its massive grandstands and have additional safety protocols and procedures in place though it’s not requiring the use of masks. Instead, Bristol’s website says that mask use is “highly encouraged.”
While social distancing — especially outdoors — can help slow the spread of the virus, research has shown that wearing a mask while also attempting to social distance is a very effective preventative measure. That research is why NASCAR has been making team members and officials wear masks at the track since racing resumed.
Yet fans who may or may not be practicing social distancing in their daily lives won’t have that same requirement, despite being asked when purchasing tickets on Bristol’s site to “waive and discharge the facility, its parent entities, and all related and affiliated individuals and entities, and all individuals and entities involved in the event at Bristol Motor Speedway for which you are purchasing admission, from all [coronavirus] claims directly or indirectly arising from your visit.”
With All-Star Race attendees coming to the race from multiple states and nearly all of them not knowing for sure if they’re infected with the virus on race day, any potential outbreak mushrooming from the race could be wide-reaching.
First real test of Confederate flag ban
In addition to managing its first event in the middle of a pandemic with tens of thousands of people in attendance, NASCAR will also be enforcing its Confederate flag ban for the first time on a larger scale. Though fans can’t camp in the infield at Bristol, the campgrounds will be open outside the track. And NASCAR will be tasked with monitoring all of the flags that will be flying high.
The sanctioning body has offered no specifics on how the ban could and would be enforced at tracks — including for the 5,000 people heading to Talladega this weekend — and seemed to have the benefit of time to figure out those specifics for larger events when it instituted the ban last week.
Instead, NASCAR and Bristol have just a month to determine how they will police their areas around the track for Confederate flags and handle the inevitable enforcement when people rebel and attempt to fly the flag.
That enforcement — which NASCAR said was a major hurdle when it stopped short of banning the flag in 2015 and simply asked fans not to fly it — has to be robust and efficient given the widespread praise NASCAR has gotten over the last week. It can’t be toothless or haphazard. If pictures circulate across the internet of the stars and bars flying on Bristol-owned property, the sanctioning body’s words about the flag and addressing systemic racism and racial injustice will be seen by many as emptier than a 12-pack of beer at the end of a pre-race tailgate.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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