TALLADEGA, Ala. — Thunderstorms forced NASCAR to postpone its Cup Series race Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway, where the presence of more fans was to be the next step in auto racing's return amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Up to 5,000 fans — all from the state of Alabama and within 150 miles of the track — were to be allowed at Talladega, but those in the grandstands were urged to seek shelter roughly 30 minutes before the scheduled start, leading to a two-plus hour wait that ended with NASCAR rescheduling for 3 p.m. EDT Monday. Fox will televise the race.
NASCAR allowed 1,000 fans, mostly military members and their families, to attend last weekend's rain-disrupted Cup Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida. The event was stopped several times for more than three hours of total delays before Denny Hamlin earned the 40th win of his career on the top-tier circuit.
This week's jump in the number of fans, though, is accompanied by what might be the first real test of NASCAR's recent ban on the presence of the Confederate flag at its events. Supporters of the divisive banner still managed to make it seen Sunday, with vehicles lining the boulevard outside the speedway waving it and a plane flying above the track pulling one that had the words "Defund NASCAR" printed on it.
NASCAR has not stated how exactly it plans to stop fans from displaying the flag on track property — none of the instances Sunday at Talladega were inside the facility — as it tries to follow through on a recent promise to do more to address racial injustice.
Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota was set to run with an all-black paint scheme honoring the National Civil Rights Museum, with the Memphis museum's logo on the hood. FedEx, which sponsors Hamlin for the entire Cup Series schedule — a rarity these days — decided to remove all of its advertising from the vehicle this week to make that happen.
David Radvansky, 32, who started coming to Talladega in the 1990s when his father parked cars at races, was among the fans applauding NASCAR's decision to ban the Confederate flag.
"I don't think there's a place for it in NASCAR, to be honest with you," he said. "That doesn't sit well with all the good ole boys, but it is what it is."
At Ed Sugg's merchandise tent across from the track, there were plenty still being sold.
"They're doing very well," said the Helena resident who has been selling an array of wares at NASCAR races for 21 years. "People are disappointed that NASCAR has taken that stance. It's been around for as long as all of us have been. I don't think anybody really connects it to any kind of racism or anything. It's just a Southern thing. It's transparent. It's just a heritage thing."
Fans had to go through screening and wear masks to get in for the race, though a few were walking around inside without theirs on. Lines seemed to flow quickly, though, and the sun was shining until about an hour before the race, when rain and lightning started. Bathrooms had arrows directing patrons which way to enter or exit, and attendants lined the way holding signs urging them to "please wear your masks."
Longtime fan Faron Elam wasn't thrilled by the fan restrictions and more minimal atmosphere.
"This ain't racing," said the 50-year-old from Cottondale. "This is nothing like it used to be. You used to come up here and have fun, go to all the souvenir trucks, everything. You've got two out front now. That's all you've got, and if you don't like who's in it, then you don't get anything."
Then again, it was to provide the key element for the fan of everything from dirt track to drag racing.
Said Elam: "Just anything with speed."