A monstrous effort: Dover Speedway submits plan to DPH to have fans at May’s NASCAR races

Posted

DOVER — Ever since Dover International Speedway celebrated its 100th NASCAR Cup Series race in October 2019 by hosting an extravagant weekend party designed with the sport’s fans in mind, those same ardent supporters have not been back to the Monster Mile.

Just like everywhere else on the sports and entertainment landscape, Dover International Speedway has not been immune to the COVID-19 pandemic — and has not hosted fans over the past year-and-a-half.

The coronavirus forced the cancellation of last May’s NASCAR race weekend, before it was run as a doubleheader in August in front of a sea of empty seats.

Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, is hoping that will change when NASCAR’s top drivers return to Delaware for a tripleheader weekend of racing May 14-16, climaxed by the Drydene 400 Cup Series race.

Mr. Tatoian said the racetrack has submitted a plan to the Delaware Division of Public Health and is waiting to hear back very soon.

“We have submitted a comprehensive plan to state health officials that includes appropriate health and safety protocols to keep our fans and the NASCAR industry safe,” Mr. Tatoian said. “To date, we have had positive conversations with them and should know in the coming days as to what the health officials believe to be a safe environment for us to operate for our race weekend.”

It appears as if Dover could eventually fall in line with just about every other facility that has hosted NASCAR events this year by limiting attendance to around 20% capacity to allow social distancing. If Dover were permitted to reach that threshold, it could potentially host around 12,000 fans.

Mr. Tatoian certainly hopes fans will be in attendance, considering the excitement that has been generated over the first portion of this Cup season — with seven different winners in the first seven races.

Outdoor gathering limits revised

Gov. John Carney signed the eighth revision to the COVID-19 emergency order March 29, increasing outdoor gathering limits and easing capacity restrictions in outdoor venues as of April 1.

According to the revision, Dover International Speedway had to present a plan to host spectators to the DPH for its approval. Gathering restrictions apply in outdoor spaces that do not have a stated fire capacity.

“We know that gathering outdoors poses a lower risk of COVID-19 infection and transmission,” Gov. Carney said in a statement. “That’s why we’re comfortable easing certain outdoor restrictions as we head into Spring. But until we can get enough Delawareans fully vaccinated, keep following the basic, common-sense public health precautions.

“Wear a mask when you’re around others. Avoid large gatherings when possible. Get the COVID-19 vaccine when your number is called. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Stay vigilant.”

Hosts of outdoor gatherings and events must provide materials and equipment necessary for proper hand hygiene and require attendees to follow masking and social-distancing guidelines — including having a mechanism for limiting attendance.

Mr. Tatoian said officials at Dover International Speedway are poised to meet all the COVID-19 criteria.

Last year, many people in Delaware scratched their heads when fans weren’t allowed to attend NASCAR races, even while the Delaware State Fair was allowed to host visitors for 10 straight days.

Jamie Mack, chief of the DPH’s Office of Health Systems Protection, said there are various circumstances that surround each event and many things that make each one different.

“In comparison to another large event — (like) the state fair, which was permitted to take place — the fair presents a very different scenario,” said Mr. Mack. “The fair is open for a longer period of time and, with the cancellation of the (fair’s) major concerts, there is no set time that anyone has to arrive. The fair was also able to take steps to encourage people to attend at what are typically less-crowded times.

“In addition, the layout of the fair allows for closure of certain areas if concerns arise, so that additional staff, security, etc., may be dispatched to address the situation. There is also the ability to limit traffic through the gate if the situation inside becomes unmanageable.”

Race tickets for sale

The Monster Mile’s website is currently selling tickets to all the events for its tripleheader of racing in May.

“We are selling tickets without any limitations and will do so until we hear from the public-health officials as to what they believe to be a safe environment to bring fans back to the track,” said Mr. Tatoian. “As we did last year and again this year, as a courtesy, fans will have an option to attend the race, receive a credit for 2022 or be refunded, depending on the outcome of the decision that is made by the state officials.”

Driver Martin Truex Jr. secured a victory March 14 at Phoenix Raceway, in front of one of the largest crowds so far this Cup Series season. He admitted that it’s a different feeling racing in front of fans as opposed to empty grandstands.

“It’s the most (fans) we’ve seen in a while and, you know, the more the merrier,” Mr. Truex said. “We love having them. We miss seeing them in the infield and miss pre-race. We miss qualifying. We miss practice, just like everybody else. It’s great that we’re able to have a good crowd here.”

Mr. Tatoian said NASCAR’s passionate fan base is a large part of what makes race weekends so special. Every fan has his or her favorite driver, proudly wears T-shirts and hats to the track and are the No. 1 reason sponsors join the sport to advertise their products.

“The drivers really seem to enjoy their work even more when they get to perform in front of fans,” he added. “The sports industry is built with one thing in mind — entertaining fans on television, digital media and in person. The ultimate excitement in any sport is to experience it live — to hear it, feel it, see it and even smell it — while it all unfolds in real time right in front of you, surrounded by family and friends.

“The energy that fans bring to the track is felt by the drivers and our staff, and that is what drives all of us to put on the best show possible, both on and off the track. Nothing is better than hearing the command for drivers to start their engines and to hear the rumble of the cars as they fire up. It’s about the most hair-raising fan event a sports fan can experience, and the only way that happens is to be here in person.”

‘Original Zoom’

Now, Dover is reaching out to those fans to come back, no matter what the eventual plan for May’s race weekend will be.

There is already a billboard on U.S. 13, just north of Dover, promoting the races. It reads, “The original Zoom,” referring to the online meetings that have become commonplace during the pandemic.

NASCAR has served as a sports and entertainment leader ever since the pandemic arrived in March 2020. It was the first professional sport to return to competition last year following the virus outbreak and came up with strict protocols for drivers and their pit crew members to enter the racetracks once they returned to competition.

There has yet to be a serious COVID-19 outbreak in the NASCAR industry.

“In the past 12-plus months, all of the stakeholders of NASCAR quickly came together and worked remarkably well to set the bar as to how to reintroduce live sports back to the sports world,” Mr. Tatoian said. “The pandemic divided the country, and NASCAR brought the country back together again to start the path back to normalcy. We are proud to play a small part in it.”

Now, he is just hoping Dover International Speedway is granted permission to have some normalcy — and fans — of its own in May.