Chase Elliott won the Cup Series All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday night in front of approximately 25,000 fans—the most-attended sporting event in the U.S. since coronavirus altered life as we know it back in mid-March. Speedway Motorsports Chief Strategy Officer Mike Burch said, the “first at-scale fan event of this new era exceeded expectations. There were no issues with people pushing back on the steps in place [to keep everyone safe]. People were just so happy to be back at the track that they were willing to do things differently.” While every venue has a unique layout and every jurisdiction has its own set of guidelines (thus ensuring there will be a degree of variation in health and safety protocols across the industry), there are lessons to be learned from NASCAR’s showcase event.
Our Take: Perhaps the most important takeaway is that “[pro sports organizations] can host these kinds of events if everyone works together and follows good practices”—none more important than wearing a mask. Fans in attendance at Bristol Motor Speedway were expected to wear masks at all times (unless they were in their seats or in a location where they could maintain a safe social distance from other parties). To ensure fans complied, Burch said, “Everyone had to have a mask on when they came onto the property and into the venue.” Those without masks were given one (bottles of hand sanitizer were also made available).
It wasn’t until June 15 that NASCAR announced it would be moving the All-Star Race from Charlotte to Bristol, so all +/- 25,000 tickets were sold within 30 days of the race (an impressive total considering the limited window and Wednesday night timeslot). There was no walk-up crowd due to the complexity associated with manually seating guests in a socially distant manner. Burch explained that fans agreed to purchase tickets in one of two pricing sections and that their seat locations were assigned “once it was determined how many people were in their party and where they could be seated relative to other groups.” While Speedway Motorsports “put the jigsaw together” for Wednesday night’s race, it must be noted that there is mapping software available that enables venues to keep their box office open for day-of or last minute sales in a socially distanced environment.
Bristol seats 165,000 fans, so Speedway Motorsports had no problem “comfortably achieving social distancing between parties.” In fact, there were several sections that went unoccupied; including one that was “kept closed [from fans] to provide a clean environment for all of the NASCAR officials and spotters to get from the suite level up onto the roof.” Keeping those who work/compete from crossing paths with spectators is a consideration all organizations will need to work out before they can re-open their doors.
The 2020 All-Star Race was the first NASCAR event that exclusively used digital tickets. Burch said the transition went “really smoothly” and “helped with the traffic flow [into the stadium]. Lines were manageable, and people did a real good job of maintaining social distancing.” To ensure connectivity issues didn’t hamper fans’ ability to get into the venue (and ultimately cause crowding at the gates), Speedway Motorsports spent the 72 hours leading up to the event urging the 30% of ticket holders who had yet to download their passes to do so. Organizers also assigned staff to the parking lots, to ensure fans downloaded their tickets before reaching the venue entrance.
There was no pre-race concert or fan-zone to mill around, but inside the venue, just about every amenity was open—including luxury boxes and several hospitality areas (albeit at reduced capacities). Patrons were required to wear masks within common areas, but suite holders were ultimately left responsible for policing activity within their own box.
While lines to get into the venue were manageable, the wait times once inside for concession and merchandise were longer than Speedway Motorsports would have hoped (despite all of the transactions being cashless). That’s because it was “really hard to place an order with a mask on, a Plexiglas shield [in front of the employee] and the rest of the noise [in the stadium].” Burch wasn’t sure if a pre-order/pick-up system, a simplified menu/line of products or clear face shields—which some of the staff wore (it made reading lips and thus communicating from a social distance easier)—would completely solve the issue, but he said the company intends to work to make the process of buying F&B and merchandise “smoother” moving forward.
Concourse layout is another area where Speedway Motorsports believes there is room for improvement. Burch suggested venues stagger the locations of concession and merchandise stands “so lines from one, don’t back up into the other.” Remember, there’s a need to place six feet between patrons, so lines are going to be longer than usual. The motorsports executive acknowledged that Bristol would have benefited from having more stands open, but said the company struggled to find enough part-time employees to staff. Many prospective hires did not feel as if it was worth risking—or taking a reduction in—their unemployment benefits (currently higher because of the government stimulus package) to work the one-time event. Venues will want to consider giving themselves more time to fill positions.
At the close of the race a group of fans “got caught up in the moment” and pressed up against the fence—in some cases without masks on—to get close to Elliott. Burch suggested adding security/ushers in locations where fans historically gather to keep fans and athletes safe. In this case it was at the flag stand, but the same could be said of the areas alongside the tunnels in an NBA arena or on top of the dugout at a baseball game.
Once the post-race festivities concluded fans were “released by rows” to prevent crowding at the exits. To Burch’s surprise, “most people remained in their seats” and waited until it was their turn to leave. Still, the volume of people exiting at the same time made it a challenge to maintain social distancing guidelines. Stadium egress is among the areas still needing improvement.
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