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McFarling: NASCAR fans return with masks, elbow room

McFarling: NASCAR fans return with masks, elbow room

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Dustin “Rooster” Turnmire got a great parking spot.

They all did, really. A 24-year-old resident of the Virginia side of this city, Turnmire attends the NASCAR Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway every year. He normally parks about 2 miles away, out by the highway, and gets shuttled in.

On Wednesday night, he parked right next to the track.

“All this land you see around you is campgrounds,” Turnmire said, sweeping his hand toward the expansive grass surrounding the coliseum. “Normally that’s all filled. Just like the Battle at Bristol, there were more people outside of the track than there were in the track.”

It’s still different than it usually is, in other words. But the roughly 30,000 fans allowed in for NASCAR’s All-Star Race felt a combination of familiarity and exclusivity as they formed the largest crowd at a U.S. sporting event since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“I was ready to come out to get to another race, but I didn’t feel like it was going to be this small,” said Hunter Nichols, 23, of Abingdon. “I don’t know how to combat the corona or whatever, but here we are.

“There’s usually more vendors and usually the parking is just crammed. Usually none of these spots are open. So it’s way less crowded, but it may be better for the environment.”

Fans dotted the bowl of the 162,000-seat speedway as the sun began to set. NASCAR required spectators to wear masks when they entered the speedway or moved about the concourse, but they could remove them once they reached their seats.

“It’s the first time I’ve had to wear a mask for anything, so I have it with me,” said Brandon McCorkle of Johnson City, Tennessee, adding that he was laid off from his job at a rental car company early in the pandemic. “My wife’s been working throughout this whole thing and she’s been complaining about it this whole time. I wore it going into Food City today and that was enough for me. They’re not fun, but I understand it.”

McCorkle and his wife, Brooke, had tickets for the spring race at Bristol, where they had planned their first camping trip. Fans were barred from that May 31 race.

When a friend texted him that fans would be allowed in to this all-star race — initially scheduled for Charlotte Motor Speedway in May — McCorkle quickly purchased tickets.

“Any chance I have to jump on it, I’m doing it,” he said of attending races. “I think tonight I’m going to buy my [Bristol] night race tickets. I’m jumping on it at any opportunity.

“I think they’re kind of pulling out all the stops. I think NASCAR knows that they’re the first major sport to get back into things, so there’s a lot of eyes watching and a lot of new fans, obviously. The fact that they’re the only ones on TV right now, they really need to make a statement.”

Chandra Nunley of Abingdon had been to every Bristol race for the past seven years before this spring. She said she was bummed when her favorite driver, Brad Keselowski, won in May and she wasn’t there to cheer .

“Even beyond coming, it’s just a really big economic impact on the area,” said Nunley, 21. “I’m a server, so we get a lot of race fans into our restaurant every single year during the race period. When we didn’t have the NASCAR race here this spring, it was a negative impact for us.

“It’s just a big, fun, friendly family event. So to have it canceled was just kind of a hit for everybody.”

And even if it’s still not quite the same, Wednesday was a moment she didn’t want to miss.

“It’s going to be so much fun,” she said. “I honestly can’t wait.”

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