Just two weeks before the green flag was set to drop for the 60th running of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, the nation went into emergency shutdown mode. While America focused all of its energy on slowing the COVID-19 pandemic, most events and activities were put on hold, including all races in the NASCAR Cup Series.
For more than two months NASCAR, like most other pro and college sports, was on an indefinite hiatus. After some quick but effective work by the collective industry, the circuit returned to competition with a strict set of protocols and guidelines at an eerily quiet Darlington Raceway on May 17. Many changes were made, including running races without fans and holding races midweek. All participants were required to wear masks while in the garage and pit areas. The schedule was reworked to put make-up races closer to NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte, N.C. so the teams could travel easily. These races were one day shows.
In late May, Bristol Motor Speedway hosted the newly named Food City Supermarket Heroes 500, renamed at the request of Food City officials to shine a spotlight on the great efforts put forth by frontline grocery store workers amid the pandemic, and the Cheddar’s 300 presented by Alsco Xfinity Series race without fans in the stands. Shortly after, during some additional schedule shuffling BMS was selected to host the 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race and in accepting the challenge, track officials set out on a quest to bring a limited number of fans back to the stadium for the prestigious event.
Up to the challenge, the team at BMS, working alongside leaders from the State of Tennessee and Sullivan County, created a blueprint for how to safely conduct sports events with approximately 30,000 attendees amid a worldwide pandemic, as the iconic short track welcomed thousands of guests to the prestigious All-Star Race in July. Bolstered by the success of that event, the track also hosted fans during a critical round of the NASCAR Playoffs in September.
Despite much scrutiny, the track held both events with large socially-distanced crowds and had no reported outbreaks of the virus. Spectators who attended the race gave many positive reviews of their experience on social media.
The year 2020 proved to be quite an adventure for Bristol Motor Speedway. In addition to hosting three major races with spectators, BMS also led the way on several fronts in bringing entertainment to fans during a pandemic. Some of the additional highlights included:
• Collaborated on a successful iRacing event in April for the NASCAR Cup Series regulars called the Food City Showdown; provided virtual entertainment and fan communication as if it were an at-track race weekend;
• Was the first sporting event to welcome fans to consecutive events, as the track hosted a limited number of fans at a NASCAR Xfinity Series race on a Cup weekend for the Food City 300 during the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race playoff weekend in September;
• Conducted a successful late model race, the Pinty’s U.S. Short Track Nationals, in late September;
• Embarked on a successful PSA campaign, “Be an All-Star, Wear a Mask”;
• Announced it will transform its famed short track into a premier dirt racing facility in 2021 to host the Food City Dirt Race on March 28, the first NASCAR Cup race on dirt in more than 50 years.
“I am so proud of everyone on the team here at Bristol Motor Speedway for rising to the occasion in 2020 and putting our best foot forward in all situations despite some extremely difficult circumstances,” said Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager, Bristol Motor Speedway. “It took a lot of hard work, a ton of strategy, planning, execution and plenty of prayers to make it all work. We are blessed to have leaders like Bruton and Marcus Smith, partners throughout Speedway Motorsports and NASCAR as well as officials from the State of Tennessee and Sullivan County, to help us accomplish all that we did together.”
The NASCAR All-Star Race, held for the first time in history at the northeast Tennessee high-banked half-mile, drew plenty of eyes from around the world as BMS was the first major sports venue to step forward and establish a comprehensive list of protocols and guidelines to be able to allow a substantial number of fans to return to their seats in the grandstands for the first time during the months’ long pandemic. BMS worked with local and state government leaders, along with NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports officials, to pull off the feat during the tradition-rich event that shines a spotlight on NASCAR’s most prolific drivers.
Among the event protocols developed by BMS were socially-distanced seats in the grandstands, a mask mandate for fans in common areas of the facility, deep cleaning procedures throughout the facility and cashless and paperless transactions, among other ground-breaking measures.
The resulting pandemic playbook became a hot ticket item among leagues and facilities from across the sports landscape.
“We were more than happy to pass along all of our best practices to as many of our colleagues that reached out,” Caldwell said. “During this whole process our primary goal was to try and return things to some sense of normalcy for our fans in the safest way possible and I believe we were able to accomplish that.”
In addition, the All-Star Race showcased several innovative concepts, as the Choose Rule was used for the first time, neon underglow lighting was prominently displayed on the cars and the sponsor logos and car numbers were presented in a new modern design on each car. The Choose Rule, where drivers pick which lane they are going to take in real time on the track prior to each restart, was adopted for all Cup races following its successful debut in the All-Star Race at Bristol.
One of the primary initiatives during the All-Star race was BMS’ wide-spread public service announcement, “Be An All-Star, Wear A Mask,” which encouraged all community members and guests, participants and event workers to wear face coverings to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The campaign included videos, outdoor banners and social media outreach with graphics and information. Special “Bristol Strong” masks were created in partnership with the Tennessee Governor’s office and sold at Food City stores with proceeds benefitting Speedway Children’s Charities. Former Bristol Motor Speedway and All-Star Race winners Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth were among the drivers featured in special NASCAR video messages.
“We required all of our guests to wear their masks when they were at track with us in high-traffic common areas of the facility for both the NASCAR All-Star Race and the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race weekend,” Caldwell said. “We also strongly encouraged them to wear their masks whenever they were out in the community shopping or visiting our local businesses.”
In September, BMS hosted its first NASCAR Playoff race for the Cup Series and again opened its spectator gates to a similar size crowd that attended the All-Star Race. In addition, BMS was the first track to offer fans two NASCAR events at the same venue during the pandemic. A limited number of fans were admitted to the Food City 300 on Friday night. Thursday’s NASCAR Truck Series Playoff opener was held without fans.
Additional safety measures for the September race included temperature screenings for all guests as they entered the facility, a full deep cleaning of the facility between races on Friday and Saturday, and further social-distancing guidelines to better assist spectators as they exited the facility.
Other highlights of the year included collaborating on an iRacing event for Cup Series regulars, the Food City Showdown in early April. Talented sim-racer William Byron captured the victory at the Showdown on the virtual high-banks of The Last Great Colosseum. Short track racers Trevor Noles, Josh Brock, Brett Hudson and Tom Gossar earned victories and BMS Gladiator Swords at the fourth annual Pinty’s U.S. Short Track Nationals in late September.
In early October, it was announced that BMS will transform its racing surface to dirt to host the Food City Dirt Race on March 28, 2021, the first NASCAR Cup Series race to be contested on dirt since the 1970 season. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series teams also will race in the Bristol dirt during the Pinty’s Dirt Race on Saturday, March 27. The highly-anticipated dirt events will be one of the cornerstone events of BMS’ 60th anniversary celebration next year. The track also will host more NASCAR Playoff racing in September as the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race will once again be the first-round elimination race. The Food City 300 will once again be the final regular season race of the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the Truck Series will compete in a Playoff race during the UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics.
As the year winds down, BMS is already in holiday mode, hosting the 24th season of the Pinnacle Speedway In Lights, a tradition-rich holiday lights show that benefits the BMS chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities, which provides funding to numerous child-based agencies throughout the Appalachian Highlands. This year’s edition of the Pinnacle Speedway in Lights is being conducted under safety protocols and guidelines, including social-distancing measures in the popular Christmas Village and the Tri-Cities Airport Ice Rink presented by HVAC. The Pinnacle Speedway in Lights runs until Saturday, Jan. 2 and the Ice Rink remains open until Sunday, Jan. 10.
Season ticket packages for 2021 NASCAR weekends at Bristol Motor Speedway are on sale now. To purchase tickets, please visit www.bristolmotorspeedway.com or call the BMS Ticket Sales Center at (866) 415-4158.