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More than 185,070 Virginians packed the state's sports venues Saturday in a return to live events
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More than 185,070 Virginians packed the state's sports venues Saturday in a return to live events

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. discusses coming out of retirement to race at Richmond

A beautiful day and some big events brought out swarms of sports fans across Virginia on Saturday.

It was a long-awaited return to something resembling normality, though most facilities still require face coverings in indoor areas because of the coronavirus pandemic.

At Richmond Raceway, a NASCAR doubleheader featuring a playoff race and the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr. drew a near-capacity crowd, with the main section, the track’s frontstretch, appearing to have sold out.

The circuit doesn’t release attendance numbers, but Richmond Raceway’s grandstand seating can accommodate 46,087 patrons.

“It’s huge,” Cup Series driver Aric Almirola said. “The electricity the crowd brings, and the energy, really builds the excitement. For a competitor, it’s way more fun to compete in front of a crowd. The energy and the atmosphere is just way more exciting.”

The crowd was significantly larger than the 2019 fall race, a sign that there may be a pent-up demand for big events in a postpandemic world.

Meanwhile, across town at The Diamond, the Flying Squirrels hosted their last Saturday game of the season in front of 8,796 fans, a number that seemed difficult to fathom at the start of the season, when the Double-A team was operating at a limited capacity.

College football also brought out droves of people, with Virginia Tech (reported attendance: 53,680), Virginia (36,036), James Madison (22,108) and Old Dominion (18,363) all hosting home games.

The Hokies led the way last week with a sellout crowd against North Carolina. Attendance dropped off this week against a lesser opponent, Middle Tennessee, but the school was able to iron out a handful of issues that emerged with digital ticketing and concessions that emerged in the opener.

Most state colleges are requiring students to be vaccinated, further paving the way to enjoying large, outdoor events without fear of them becoming major COVID-19 events.

That tally of 185,070 doesn’t account for smaller colleges like Virginia Union, other minor league baseball teams, or a handful of high school football games that were played around the commonwealth.

The day also marked commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. At Richmond Raceway, Earnhardt reminisced on the day — he won NASCAR’s first race back.

“I remember when we waited to go back to the racetrack in 2001, and how good it felt to go to Dover a couple weeks later,” he said. “How amazing the energy was.

“And there’s some of that same feeling here today in Richmond. It’s awesome to have this doubleheader and give these fans a great afternoon and a lot of action, and hopefully they enjoyed themselves.”

mphillips@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6546

Twitter: @michaelpRTD

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