Above: Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable and Bristol, Tenn., Mayor Margaret Feierabend. Photos by Earl Neikirk, Courtesy Bristol Chamber of Commerce
GM Jerry Caldwell says track is ready to be under world’s microscope
by Scott Robertson
On July 15, Bristol Motor Speedway (BMS) will host what will likely be the most important event in its history. The irony is that from an attendance standpoint, it will be one of the smallest events the track has ever hosted. Yet though only 30,000 or so fans will be in the seats for the 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race, the world will be watching to see how, or if, a sporting event can be conducted safely with that many fans in attendance during the COVID-19 crisis.
When The Business Journal met with BMS Executive Vice President and General Manager Jerry Caldwell to discuss preparations for the race, evidence that BMS was taking the crisis seriously was conspicuous. The Bruton Smith Building was locked and virtually empty of staff, despite the pending event. A space that is usually a beehive of activity in the weeks leading up to a race was unsettlingly quiet. Outside empty staff offices were notices on the walls that meetings could only be held in conference rooms, because many offices had been too small for social distancing.
Instead of meeting Caldwell in his office, as we have always done in the past, we sat in the second-floor lobby, about ten feet apart. With the crisis playing such a large role in the day-to-day operations, Caldwell said BMS, and its parent company, Speedway Motorsports, felt safe hosting a 30,000-fan spectacle after having had lengthy discussions with public health officials at all levels.
“I think the state and county and city officials were all extremely supportive,” Caldwell said. “They certainly had questions, as they should, and wanted to see plans and talk through the way we would do it in a safe way.
“One of the beauties of having a 156,000-seat facility is you can put 30,000 people in there,” Caldwell added. “You have plenty of space to social distance everyone.”
The ticketing process is unlike anything ever undertaken, Caldwell said. “We can make sure that we seat everyone safely, and our ticket office across Speedway Motorsports has done a great job of getting those orders in and making sure that we’re spacing parties out. However many people are in that party, we’re allowing for social distance for those that are around them.”
The ticketing process allowed for holders of season tickets for Bristol races to have first dibs on seats at the All-Star Race, followed by ticket-holders to other Speedway Motorsports events. Once those fans had a chance to purchase All-Star tickets, then the general public was offered the remaining seats in the pool of 30,000.
Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said that while most of the sentiment among those who he’d spoken to about the event was positive, some locals expressed concern about inviting outside fans into an area of the country where the COVID-19 case count has been consistently low. “There have been some concerned individuals, of course,” Venable said. “But the health department has been working with the speedway, and we think everything is being done the right way.”
The balancing act between public health concerns and a desperate need for an economic jolt for the region has been a microcosm of the national debate. The economy needs the injection of money from tourists bringing dollars into the region, but the fear those tourists might also bring something altogether unwelcome is real.
Caldwell tamped down those fears somewhat with an expectation that a higher percentage of fans at the All-Star Race than normal will be locals. “It’s easier for them to get here. This is a middle of the week event; it’s a Wednesday. They’re comfortable, so they can come over and enjoy the race and then go back to their house.
“But, we’re certainly having response from folks coming from far outside the region to come in and enjoy this event. We do have camping open. We’ve had a good response to that.” Caldwell hastened to add that the window available for camping before the race is shorter than normal.
In addition to social distancing in the seating areas, Caldwell said, public health and safety measures have been paramount throughout the process, from the cashless, paper-ticketless digital ticketing process all the way through race night.
“We’re looking at all the touch points from how we distance people as they show up to the gate – we’re going to schedule times for people to come in so that they’re spacing there,” Caldwell said.
In addition, the lines in the concourse area will be marked for social distancing, elevators to the suite level will take only a certain number of people at one time, and masks will be mandatory on the elevators and in the suites.
In fact, fans will be “strongly encouraged” to wear masks even while social distancing in the stands and concourse areas, and Caldwell said the speedway will have enough masks on hand to provide one for every single fan in attendance.
“Every BMS employee will be wearing a mask the entire time, every food vendor,” Caldwell said. “Every NASCAR official and participant will be wearing a mask the entire time.”
Caldwell said the fans will have to make some allowances that this racing experience will not be exactly what they’ve become accustomed to over the years at BMS. “We won’t have displays like we always do for fans to go interact anywhere people were congregating. We’re not going to be doing those things this time, so your Chevrolet display – we won’t be having trailers set up to sell merchandise. Again, we don’t want folks congregating there.”
But, Caldwell said, he believes NASCAR fans will understand and appreciate the speedway’s efforts.
“Someone has to be the first one to step out there and say yeah, we’ll put on a major event in a pandemic and we feel strongly that we can do it in the right way and that our visitors will cooperate,” Caldwell said.
“It’s important to have a really good team and to trust your team and to have really good relationships with those that can help you down this path,” Caldwell said. “We’re all figuring this out together. None of us have ever operated on a major sporting event in a pandemic. But we have great partners at the state level and the local level and our partners at Ballad Health who have reviewed plans and consulted with us and given input and made sure again that we can do these things in the right way. I feel confident in the Speedway Motorsports team and the Bristol Motor Speedway team that we can do that.
“I want it to be an event that people leave and they say, ‘you know what? That was – we had a lot of fun. I felt safe while I was there. And I’m ready to go back.’
“We don’t take this lightly and it comes with great responsibility,” Caldwell added, acknowledging the event will be under a world-wide microscope. “Every time we take a step forward, we have to do it in the right way so that we can take another step forward. I look forward to seeing folks say, ‘okay, that was done well. Now, where can we do that somewhere else and do it in the right and the responsible way?’”