BRISTOL, Tenn. — Chase Elliott put his face mask on and went into the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday to watch the qualifying event for the NASCAR All-Star Race, with the eventual winner of that night's main event briefly becoming a part of the largest group of spectators at a sporting event in the United States since March.
Tennessee officials permitted Bristol to sell up to 30,000 tickets — less than 20% of its capacity of 140,000-plus — as NASCAR slowly begins to reopen the gates to spectators during the coronavirus pandemic.
Texas Motor Speedway has the green light to admit up to 67,500 on Sunday, but soaring summer temperatures are an expected deterrent to the Fort Worth track reaching 50% capacity. Iowa Speedway, which is owned by NASCAR, will allow up to 6,000 into its facility for IndyCar racing this weekend.
Elliott won the $1 million exhibition Wednesday and celebrated by bumping fists with one of the many fans who surged to the fence as he collected the checkered flag. The popular Hendrick Motosports driver from Dawsonville, Georgia, had been energized earlier in the evening as he discreetly sat in the stands along the back straightaway.
"I'm looking around, seeing all these kids and families, people wearing (merchandise representing) their respective drivers," Elliott said. "You don't realize how much impact you have on people you never met, you never will meet, who genuinely want to see me do well, and they don't even know me. It's pretty dang cool to experience that.
"I felt like I had a special night sitting up there with them watching that (qualifier) from the grandstands, really seeing and getting back to the roots of what this sport is built on. Then to engage with them after the race, to me it made it mean that much more."
Speedway Motorsports, which owns Bristol, moved the NASCAR All-Star Race to Tennessee from Charlotte Motor Speedway because North Carolina would not permit spectators at the track in Concord. The event debuted in 1985 at CMS, which has hosted All-Star activities every year except this one and 1986, when Atlanta Motor Speedway was the site and another Elliott was the winner — Chase's father Bill, a NASCAR Hall of Famer whose last Cup Series race was in 2012.
NASCAR led the way in the return of organized sports in the country after the mid-March shutdown, returning in mid-May at Darlington Raceway and holding events at the South Carolina track as well as at Charlotte, Bristol, Atlanta and Virginia's Martinsville Speedway without spectators before allowing 1,000 fans — mostly service members and their guests — at Homestead-Miami Speedway on June 14 and up to five times that at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway the next week before returning to racing in front of empty stands at Pennsylvania's Pocono Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.
Bristol was the biggest step yet, and allowing the largest group of fans since the pandemic shut down sports meant implementing health protocols for admission. There were no paper tickets given, so fans used their phones for scanning at the gates. Tickets were still available at the Tuesday evening deadline.
Masks were required to enter and suggested for high-traffic areas, but fans could remove them once in their seats. Sanitizer stations were located throughout the facility, as were markers to indicate six feet of distance. And because "The Last Great Colosseum" is shaped as a massive bowl, Bristol had the ability to allow spectators ample space throughout the stands.
"Limiting capacity certainly didn't limit a good time," Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said in a released statement. "NASCAR and Bristol Motor Speedway showed the future of safe, live sporting events with an electric night."
The event was not without glitches. Video from before the race showed a fan was able to climb the catch fence — typically an indicator of a lack of security — and some complained on social media that guidelines weren't being followed, bathrooms weren't cleaned and the event felt disorganized. Fans were supposed to be dismissed by row, but it appeared spectators poured out of the grandstands at will and into crowded parking lots that lacked organization for exiting.
Matt Harrington, who drove 2 1/2 hours from Greenville, South Carolina, for his first event at Bristol, said the track sent directions with times fans could enter and he didn't encounter a single person besides the person who scanned his ticket when he arrived. However, he also said an instructional video on exiting procedures was useless because it couldn't be heard over the noise, and he added that his section of seats along the back stretch only separated groups of fans by one empty seat and that the areas near concession stands were overcrowded.
"They did do a lot right, but it wasn't perfect," said Harrington, 23. "With the way things are going on right now with the virus, you can't make mistakes, and they definitely missed it on leaving the track. Security, personnel, everything felt like it was at 25% operation."
Harrington said it took more than 15 minutes to find help for a friend in need of medical assistance and that the exiting crowd was overwhelming.
"I don't think I'd go back again this year," he said. "I put too much trust in other people and really thought we'd be more spread out."
New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara — the former University of Tennessee standout is a new NASCAR fan thanks to Bubba Wallace — had no complaints about his experience, writing "fans in the stands, felt great" on Twitter, with others sharing the sentiment.
Both NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports are private companies and do not release attendance figures, but Bristol appeared to have at least 20,000 spectators. Texas Motor Speedway may not have that many Sunday, but Speedway Motorsports can adjust its health and safety protocol if needed.
"The NASCAR All-Star Race has been a great example of what can happen when sports, government and community work together for the fans," Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith said.