LOUDON, N.H. — The staff at New Hampshire Motor Speedway meets you upon arrival, in yellow polos and caps and mandatory masks, with a smile and an electronic thermometer.
Temperature checks are essential.
The ticket lines are touchless — phones and scanners — and spaced out.
Social distancing isn’t a question.
Concession stands are open — from hot dogs and hamburgers to candy apples and fried dough. So are the merchandise stands — there are plenty of Kevin Harvick hats. But plexiglass separates the fans and the cashier.
The grandstands are vast and waiting, enough space for the 12,000 fans expected to flock Sunday to the track for New England’s first fan-attended sporting event since the coronavirus pandemic froze the country in March. But the seats feel more like an intricate puzzle pieced together to ensure families are appropriately spaced apart.
As NHMS executive vice president and general manager David McGrath walked through the vision for the safety protocols put in place for Sunday’s running of the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301, he was optimistic.
“We are confident that we have protocols in place,” McGrath said. “We’re following guidelines for the CDC all about social distancing. Just the size of this place, you can put thousands of people in these grandstands and they’re not near each other. So you can space them out. We certainly feel comfortable with that plan. And certainly the governor and the health department back that up. So we’re ready to go.”
As much as NHMS is aiming to offer a dose of normalcy under the unusual circumstances of a global pandemic that’s stretched nearly five months, the almost strange stillness at the track two days before race day made it impossible to ignore how different this year’s event will be.
“It’s weird,” McGrath said. “There would be cars on the track right now on a normal weekend. You’d hear it right now.”
Instead, the sound of deep cleaners could be heard from the grandstands as the track continued to prepare.
Normally, there would be hundreds of campers parked in the lots surrounding the track, live concerts, Xfinity Series and Modified Tour races.
More than anything, there would have been fans. In the peak years, sellout crowds of more than 100,000 people were the norm. Even in recent years, the track drew upward of 40,000.
But as the country navigates a new reality where social distancing is a necessity and the sports world wrestles with ways to provide live entertainment in the safest way, NASCAR and NHMS have had to adapt.
The track crafted comprehensive safety guidelines to create a race environment that can offer fans an experience that comes as close to the fanfare they expect of a NASCAR event while also minimizing the risks of the pandemic. Along with contactless ticketing and assigned seating and temperature checks, masks are required at the track’s entry points, restrooms, concession stands, elevators, and hallways. They can be removed in the grandstand seating. Comforts such as coolers won’t be permitted and only clear, soft bags will be allowed in.
“The toughest thing about the entire weekend is that fans love the access that you normally get at a NASCAR event and certainly that won’t be the case, the business as usual this weekend,” McGrath said. “Things like prerace concerts, pit passes, the garage access, none of that exists on this go ‘round. However, allowing the fans to actually attend the race, be in the grandstands safely distanced is, I think, one of the best things you can do and to add a little fun and a little normalcy to what has been an unusual year, to say the least.”
“There is a lot of responsibility that we take personally to do this event — we understand that — to our teammates, to the NASCAR community and to the local community in which we work and live. We take it very seriously. We believe that the plans have been put in place, the way that we have social distancing, the way we can position people in the grandstands all addresses that.”
The Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 will be the first major sporting event to be hosted in New England. The state allowed the speedway to operate at 35 percent capacity (19,000) and anticipates a crowd of 12,000.
“I think this is potentially going to be one of the safest places in New England,” said Taylor Caswell, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs . “Between all the temperature checks and the way that we’ve got everyone socially-distanced here. Anywhere you go these days, you’ve got to judge all of your own personal risks. But I think we’ve done everything we can to make this a really successful event.”
In the early stages of the pandemic, uncertainty lingered over the possibility of even holding the race this year. McGrath said there were fans who expressed that they wanted to be at the track and fans who had concerns.
“Believe me when I tell you, fans communicated to us that they wanted to come and some communicated that they didn’t,” he said.
Around the same time, Caswell said, the state and NASCAR began exploring its options.
NASCAR was the first American sport to push forward with live events when it hosted a race May 17 in Darlington, S.C. In June, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu announced that the NASCAR race at NHMS would be moved from July 19 to Aug. 2.
“We tagged it early on as one of those major events in the summer that we needed to have some sort of confidence on and understand what we were going to do — or not do,” Caswell said. “As we got deeper into the summer, we worked with Dave and his team and put together a plan that — if the Division of Public Health felt that we were going to be in a position given the pandemic right now — would we be able to do it and under what conditions. So we kind of kept going through the process based on the data we were seeing at the time.
“Thankfully, we got to the point where we could have some fans. I think for a time there was going to be no fans. So it was a matter of the data.”
The races carries a significant economic impact and Caswell said it was important to look for ways to preserve it.
“On a normal weekend, this track becomes the largest city between Boston and Montreal,” Caswell said. “So we’re very used to managing large crowds. The impact that this has for Central and Couthern New Hampshire between restaurants and hotels — people come for a week and they’ll go to the lakes and they’ll stick around a little while — it’s a huge benefit to the track, but also to the state, which is one of the reasons obviously we wanted to keep the tradition going.
“This is a massive economic impact to the state of New Hampshire. At the end of the day, whether that’s $190 [million] to $200 million per year, that’s a significant amount. This year, it’ll be down because obviously there’s less action here.”
This will be the fifth NASCAR race held with fans since May. In June, NASCAR welcomed 1,000 military personnel to Homestead-Miami Speedway and 5,000 fans at Talladega Superspeedway. In July, Bristol Motor Speedway hosted NASCAR’s largest crowd this year as 20,000 fans watched the All-Star Race. McGrath said NHMS was able to glean some insight from the races leading up to this weekend.
“We learned a lot,” McGrath said. “And we’ll keep fine-tuning it to make sure we provide a safe, fun event for our fans while we’re here on our property. But, yeah, we did certainly pick up some tips and we’ve implemented them and you’re seeing that in action as you’re here this weekend. "
One of the biggest advantages for NHMS is the amount of space it can utilize. While the size of the crowd will be dramatically smaller, the number of restrooms, concessions stands, sanitizer checkpoints, and other amenities create ways to keep the crowd separated, he said.
“We know the size of the crowd that we’re anticipating and we’ve positioned the property to accommodate that,” McGrath said.
The trickiest part was assigning the seating in the stands to ensure that fans stay 6 feet apart.
“Those guys took that and made it into sort of a math problem,” Caswell said. “Where do you put groups of four? Where do you put groups of two?”
Still, even the best-laid plans aren’t fool proof. McGrath said enforcement will be through encouragement rather than strict monitoring.
“In my opinion, you do it with education and communication,” he said. “You can have folks say, ‘Hey, you might want to remember your mask.’ I think at the end of the day, there’s a balance there. I’m a firm believer that if you tell people what you expect of them, the large majority of them will do what you ask them to do. There’s always outliers.”
For fans, Danny and Vicki O’Donnell of Londonderry, N.H., the race-day protocols were a matter of common sense. Danny said he’d had been coming to NHMS since the track opened in 1990. He and his wife bought their tickets a year ago. They had plans to be on the Cape this weekend, but adjusted them when race day changed.
“We figured we’d see what happens,” he said. “By July, it’ll all be blown over. Then this, it was like, ‘Well, we spent the money, we might as well go.‘ ”
Vicki kept a close eye on updates from the track.
“We were confident that they were going to take all the safety precautions that everyone needs,” Vicki said.
As he got a glimpse of the guidelines, Danny, an admitted germaphobe, said he felt more than comfortable.
“Common sense,” he said. “If you’ve got common sense and pay attention to everything that’s going on, wash your hands, keep clean. Safety first.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.