This article is published in partnership with Newsy.
Worried officials in Sullivan County, Tennessee, called a press conference on July 10 to address the county’s spiking number of COVID-19 cases. “Only this week have we seen those double-digit increases,” said Mayor Richard Venable, who instituted a mask mandate to try to slow the spread. “We find it necessary for government to take this action.”
What state and local leaders didn’t do, however, was change their plans for hosting NASCAR’s All-Star Race. Just five days away, the event was slated to bring up to 30,000 people to Bristol Motor Speedway.
The race would be the largest gathering in the U.S. since the coronavirus pandemic began, held at a time when other sports leagues like the NBA, MLB and NHL were all preparing to operate in hermetic bubbles or stuffed-animal lined stadiums. But to Tennessee officials, the speedway touted the potential of a multimillion-dollar economic boost from the 19,800 fans it estimated would come from out of state.
New documents and emails obtained through public records requests paint the clearest picture yet of how Tennessee brought thousands of fans back to large live events — and raise questions about whether officials prioritized possible economic benefits over health risks.
Making The Switch
The All-Star Race was originally scheduled to take place in Charlotte, North Carolina, which had been home to the event for over three decades. As of early June, the race was still set to be held there. But North Carolina was restricting outdoor public gatherings to no more than 25 people.
By June 10, records show that Bristol Motor Speedway had started discussing the event with officials in Tennessee. On June 15, the speedway formally announced that it would host the All-Star Race, with as many as 30,000 fans in attendance.
What unfolded to enable the shift in venue is murky. In the June 15 press release announcing the change, Marcus Smith, the president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, which owns both the Charlotte and Bristol racetracks, said he was grateful to “Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Sullivan County officials” for allowing fans to come.
Multiple state and local agencies in Tennessee have not responded to specific questions about the process, including who set or approved the speedway’s capacity limit. The state’s Department of Tourist Development has also withheld potentially relevant documents “on the basis of the deliberative process and/or attorney-client privilege.” And Gary Mayes, director of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, told the Bristol Herald Courier in July that his office did not have input on the decision.
What is clear is that Tennessee and the speedway invited tens of thousands of fans back to Bristol during a pandemic. According to Dr. David Kirschke, the northeast regional medical director for the Tennessee Department of Health, “events where people travel from areas with more coronavirus to our area where we may have less — that’s definitely a risk for importing cases.”
Local residents, in emails to the Sullivan County health department, also addressed the possibility of outsiders carrying the virus into the community. “No doubt the visitors could bring a boost to our economy,” said one skeptical citizen, “but what else might they bring with them?”
While there is no record of county health officials responding to those complaints, Mayes told a local reporter in an email that he thought the speedway’s initial written event plan ― which he received on the day the race was announced ― was “comprehensive.”
That plan called for reducing the stadium’s capacity from 120,000 to 30,000, eliminating public shuttle buses, and directing social distancing of 6 feet, as well as temperature checks for staff and guests in suites ― but not in general seating. Spectators were “allowed and encouraged,” but not required, to use masks.
A voluntary directive has limited effect, said Brian Labus, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Public Health. “For masks to be effective, everyone must be wearing them,” he said. “This is analogous to allowing a few people to smoke in the non-smoking section.”
By early July, when Sullivan County was seeing community spread of the coronavirus, the speedway had made a few adjustments to its safety protocols. Most notably, masks became mandatory for all fans in common areas — though the speedway also sent the state’s tourist development commissioner, Mark Ezell, an email the day before the race stating that it “strongly suggests” mask use.
As the daily number of new COVID-19 cases climbed in Sullivan County, a family medicine doctor urged the local health department to stop the race. “I work daily to limit the spread of this disease,” said the email, “but this one event could undermine much of the hard work by local physicians.”
The only evidence of a real threat to the event, however, revolved around whether the state would meet the racetrack owner’s demand for tax incentives.
Driving For Dollars
Two days before announcing the All-Star Race, Bristol Motor Speedway had applied for public tax dollars to help pay for the event. Under the Event Tourism Act, a state law the speedway says it helped pass in 2018, organizers of state-certified events can recoup costs of up to half the value of all taxes on sales and alcohol collected at the event. The law had never been put to use.
“I am supportive of our tourism partners and their efforts to attract guests and tax dollars to the state,” Ezell said in a statement to state officials deliberating the speedway’s request. He emphasized that hosting the race this year could position the state to host it for “years to come.”
On June 22, when the process of certifying the event hit a roadblock, speedway general manager Jerry Caldwell sent a terse email to Butch Eley, the commissioner of the state Department of Finance and Administration, threatening to relocate the race.
“If our company needs to reconsider the decision to move the All-Star Race to Bristol due to narrow, and we believe incorrect, reading of the statute, please let us know as soon as possible,” wrote Caldwell, adding that Texas, where another Speedway Motorsports track is located, “has been especially aggressive in the past to offer incentives to attract major sporting events.”
Neither Caldwell nor Eley agreed to interviews or addressed questions asking for more details about the impasse referenced in the exchange. But the state did ultimately certify the event, making the speedway eligible for reimbursements.
Eley’s department has not responded to repeated requests to disclose the amount of money the speedway could receive from the race ― which Gov. Lee personally kicked off on July 15 with more than 20,000 fans in attendance.
Unsafe At Any Speed
Josh Miller, 27, of Roanoke, Virginia, was among those in the stands. When making the calculus to brave the event, he had assumed fans would be subject to strict temperature checks and other safety protocols like the ones he had seen drivers and crew posting about on social media. Instead, he said he was greeted by a parking attendant whose mask was pulled down to the chin, smoking a vape pen.
As Miller donned his mask and headed toward the track, he said conditions improved, at least marginally. Masks were fairly prevalent in common areas, he said, but social distancing was a bit more inconsistent in lines at concession stands and tight seating in some areas. Entire sections of the bleachers were also blocked off, which he found odd if people were meant to spread out.
The speedway declined multiple requests for interviews and did not address written questions about safety protocols at the race.
“It’s been an honor for Bristol Motor Speedway to play a role in welcoming a limited number of race fans back to live sporting events,” said Caldwell in a statement, “and it’s been a responsibility we’ve taken very seriously.”
While there haven’t been any COVID-19 clusters directly linked to the All-Star Race, the counties surrounding the speedway all saw their COVID-19 counts jump in the weeks following the event. The area went from averaging a few dozen new cases each day to over a hundred.
Sullivan County health officials attributed the increase in numbers shortly before the race to people visiting local beaches. Dr. Andrew Stephen May, the medical director of the county health department, told The Charlotte Observer that after the race, “the upswing continued at a pretty steady rate.” Contact tracers asked about large events and travel, though not about the All-Star Race specifically.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, finds it unlikely that beachgoers alone, and not NASCAR fans, sustained that surge. “It makes little biological sense,” said Chin-Hong. “In fact, I would assert that NASCAR COVID risk is likely several-fold higher than the beach.”
NASCAR confirmed that, like most businesses, it does not do its own fan contact tracing. And the Tennessee Department of Health said that its contact tracing identifies the source of less than half of all infections. Kirschke, the department’s northeast regional medical director, said it’s likely that any race-related cases locally would have been “kind of buried in the whole increase of the cases we had going on at that time.”
Part of the difficulty with contract tracing around a large event like the All-Star Race, he added, is all the people coming and going from the area. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there’s no way to really track that.”
Bristol Motor Speedway has been inconsistent in what it’s said about where it expected fans to be coming from for the All-Star Race. As part of the application for Event Tourism Act funding, the speedway predicted that 78% of attendees would be traveling from out of state and would use area hotels or lodging. Only a third of visitors, it said, would be “local/regional.”
Then, one day before the race, Caldwell assured racegoers in a safety public service announcement that “we know most [fans] are coming from right here in this region.”
When asked to explain the apparent discrepancy, the speedway said that its earlier estimate had been based on data from “traditional race weekends” and that Caldwell’s video was filmed closer to the event when “actual data on ticket sales” was available.
The speedway, however, has not released any of that data and its Event Tourism Act estimate specifies that “travel restrictions associated with the global pandemic” were taken into consideration.
A review of tweets from the All-Star Race indicates that attendees appear to have come from at least 10 different states. “Traveling 6 states by truck with your brother and brother in-law was an absolute blast,” a fan from Florida wrote. “550+ miles of good times. #AllStarRace.”
‘We Were On The Road A Lot’
NASCAR was one of the first professional sports leagues in the world to reopen its stadiums to fans, when Homestead-Miami Speedway hosted local military personnel at a June 14 race. And Trey Asbridge, a NASCAR fan from just outside Memphis, Tennessee, said his spectating has actually picked up during the pandemic.
“We were on the road a lot” this summer, he said, including for the All-Star Race in Tennessee and events in Texas, Florida and Alabama. The Talladega Superspeedway race was supposed to have a 150-mile-radius cap on ticket purchases to “limit travel and reduce risk,” but Asbridge, who lives almost twice as far away, was able to use an address for a second home in Alabama to secure seats.
Asbridge said he follows safety precautions, such as mask-wearing, and has generally felt safe going to races. NASCAR, which has seen crew members test positive for COVID-19 and employees criticize its commitment to safety, defends its reopening.
“All events with fans are hosted at huge open air facilities and include significantly scaled-back attendance allowances, temperature checks, face mask mandates and social distancing,” said a NASCAR spokesperson in a statement. “NASCAR’s protocols for both its competitors and its fans will continue to evolve to ensure we deliver the safest environment possible.”
But, as in Tennessee, some health officials in other states say they weren’t involved in safety planning for races. Health officials in Texas and Alabama, for instance, confirmed that they had no contact with NASCAR or the venues before races were held in their jurisdictions.
At least one track, Daytona International Speedway, sent fans a survey after hosting a race in which it asked for feedback on safety protocols but did not inquire if spectators had since developed COVID-19 symptoms or tested positive for the virus. It has not released the results of that survey.
Miller, the Virginia fan, said he is not yet convinced NASCAR is taking all the steps it could for fan safety. “As someone who’s spent tens and tens of thousands of dollars over the course of my life on NASCAR,” he said, “I would hope that the organization would care about its fan base enough to protect their health.”
How NASCAR adapts to the pandemic, Miller said, will dictate whether he uses his tickets to another race in Virginia in November. It’s one of a number of races set to host fans this fall.
Bristol Motor Speedway plans to hold another NASCAR event this weekend. It announced last week that it had already sold all 30,000 tickets for the main event on Saturday night, plus many of the 20,000 tickets for a lower-level race on Friday.
The speedway has updated some safety plans since the July race, including codifying a mask mandate in common areas and expanding temperature checks to all guests. But fans with a low-grade fever will still be allowed in without requiring further screening by medical personnel. Experts at New York University and Harvard have said a low-grade fever is a symptom of COVID-19.
Chin-Hong called the idea of thousands of people flocking to a speedway “scary.” “We hem and haw in our community about whether or not people in groups of five or 10 could get together,” he said.
Another person unlikely to visit the racetrack anytime soon is Kirschke.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to watch it on TV,” he said. “That’s definitely the safest thing.”
Mark Fahey and Lauren Knapp of Newsy contributed reporting to this story.