CONCORD, N.C. — Chris "Pops" Bowyer sat in a lawn chair wearing a plain white T-shirt and drinking a beer alongside wife Jana and their friends outside of their motorhome a few hundred yards from Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Bowyer knew he wasn't getting into the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday to see his son Clint drive in the NASCAR Cup Series crown jewel race, but he decided to make the trek from Kansas to be close to the action.
"Well, we're here," Bowyer said as his dog Hank laid on the grass near his feet. "The kid is racing, so we're here."
Added Jana: "We don't like it. We'd like to be in there where we could watch, but we can't."
Clint's mother certainly wasn't alone in such feelings, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR isn't allowing spectators into its races until further notice. The only people to see the race in person were those working it and those with access to the view from the condominiums on the track property.
The Bowyers came anyway, though, taking up temporary residence in Jerome Little's Route 29 Pavilion RV campground and entertainment center located just across the street from the speedway. It was a dual-purpose trip for the Bowyers: They wanted to spend time with an old friend who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, and they wanted to be near the track to support their son.
Because the campground property isn't owned by CMS, Little was allowed to host those in motorhomes while still encouraging social distancing.
In a normal year, he hosts approximately 175 motorhomes and two acres of cars on his property. On Sunday there were only a handful of cars in the lot, and those were owned by members of the media. But there were 33 motorhomes on his properties, with race fans traveling from as far away as Maine, New York and Texas.
"These fans are dedicated, and they've come from all over the country," Little said.
Like many around the country, Little has taken a financial hit due to fans being shut out of sports, but the third-generation owner of the campground said, "Honestly, I feel just terrible for the race fans."
If you didn't know better, you'd never know one of NASCAR's most popular events was in town. CMS has sometimes attracted more than 100,000 fans to the epic race that began in 1960, but on Sunday it was eerily quiet, resembling a ghost town rather than the epicenter of the NASCAR world.
Bruton Smith Boulevard, which is normally bustling with cars on race day, was virtually empty except for an occasional passing car or truck.
Absent were the hundreds of North Carolina state troopers who line the entrance routes to the track, as well as the vendors selling NASCAR T-shirts, hats and flags. There were no pedestrians crossing the walkways, no bands blasting music outside the track, their absences contributing to an eerily quiet atmosphere. All campgrounds owned by the track were closed and vacant.
The Coca-Cola 600 promotional signs that normally adorn the front of restaurants during race week were nonexistent. Restaurants such as Hooters, Iron Thunder Saloon and Twin Peaks, which are typically packed on race day, were half empty just two days after the state entered "phase two" of its coronavirus recovery plan, allowing them to open at 50% capacity with plenty of restrictions.
"Usually we would be packed out with NASCAR fans," said Mindy Segovia, the general manager of Iron Thunder Saloon, about a mile from the track. "I figured that fans would go the race track and hang out outside of the track, but they are not allowing that either. So we're losing a lot of money."
Mike Dishong wasn't planning on making the trip from Solomons Island, Maryland, after learning fans wouldn't be allowed to attend the race. However, when his 7-year-old grandson Carson, who lives a few miles from the track, pleaded with his grandparents on FaceTime last week to come down anyway and watch the race on TV and listen to the roar of the engines from Little's campground, he and his wife Peggy couldn't refuse.
"That's what racing is about: family, friends and being together," Dishong said. "It brought us together even though we're not going to be inside the track. We're having fun."
Jana Bowyer understands. She's sad that Clint, who drives for Stewart-Haas Racing and won the fall race at CMS in 2012, won't have the support of his family inside the track.
"He hates that his family can't come, his wife and kids," Jana said. "And that goes for all of the fans, too. That's part of his racing day, is meeting with the fans, shaking hands and signing autographs. So everybody is missing out on that."
Added Chris Bowyer: "When the drivers' families can't come, that's tough. We're here to support him. This is a dangerous sport, and things happen."