FORT WORTH, Texas – The massive grandstands at Texas Motor Speedway are 2/3 of a mile long and were empty for the last race there.
On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series race becomes the first major sporting event in Texas in more than four months to allow spectators. It could be one of the largest gatherings of any kind in the state since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Just how many show up on a hot day with the virus still raging is another question.
“It can absorb a lot of people and you never cross paths with another soul,” track president Eddie Gossage said of the facility 20 miles north of downtown Fort Worth.
In Tennessee, Bristol was allowed to sell up to 30,000 tickets, about 20% of its capacity of 140,000-plus, and appeared to have at least 20,000 spectators for NASCAR's All-Star race Wednesday night. Speedway Motorsports, which owns Bristol and Texas, is a private company like NASCAR, and does not release official attendance numbers.
Texas has about 135,000 seats and under plans approved by the state could allow as much as 50% capacity. But there isn't expected to be anywhere close to the possible 67,500 or so spectators. The crowd Sunday will more likely be similar to the one seen Wednesday night at its sister track.
“To be perfectly honest, I think the place is going to look mostly empty,” Gossage said, without giving or confirming any specific numbers. “We’re a different configuration than Bristol, and so they won’t stand out as much as they did at Bristol, even if we have the same number of people.”
Frontstretch seating at the 1 1/2-mile Texas track alone is longer than the entire length of Bristol’s half-mile track, where “The Last Great Colosseum” is shaped as a massive bowl.
Texas hosted the IndyCar season opener June 6 without any spectators, then submitted and received approval by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's office to have fans at the NASCAR race. Since then, spikes in new coronavirus cases and a surge in hospitalizations have led to new limits for the public and sports is far from normal.
The PGA Tour resumed its season last month at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth without fans in attendance. With MLB opening without fans next week, the Texas Rangers will play with the seats empty in their new $1.2 billion stadium.
Motorsports for now are still allowed at up to 50% of normal capacity if the facilities, including smaller local tracks, can ensure appropriate social distancing.
“What we took out of it is, it was no surprise. It was execute the plan, every detail matters,” Gossage said of the IndyCar race without fans. “There were no hiccups, no problems, no issues at all. And so do that again, just a little bigger scale. ... There’s a reason for everything that we’re doing.”
While some fans won’t attend because of concerns about the virus, there is also the scorching summer forecast with temperatures expected to be in the upper 90s on Sunday afternoon. The high temp was 67 degrees on March 29, when the Cup race was originally scheduled.
“Most of them are telling us it’s just too hot,” Gossage said.
Fans were offered full refunds or a 120% credit for a future race if they had tickets they didn't want to use Sunday. The track had to reassign seating for those who kept tickets to accommodate social distancing protocols.
No spectators are allowed for the Xfinity and Trucks series races at the track Saturday, but those attending Sunday will be required to wear facemasks, which can be removed when in their seats and socially distanced from others not in their immediate group.
More than 2,000 pieces of signage, including “6 feet apart” decals, were installed to promote social distancing throughout the track, including ticket gates and concession stands. Every other stall and sink will be closed in restrooms, where there will also be reminders to wash hands. The track went to 100% digital ticketing for the first time since it opened in 1997, with no ticket sales on race day, and there will be no cash transactions of any kind.
“I feel good about everything. I know the plan is exceptional," Gossage said. “Personal responsibility is a big component of everything that’s going on in our world right now. And so if folks will be personally responsible and do what they’re supposed to, it’ll be fine."
And there will be constant reminders of that with messages on the track’s massive “Big Hoss” TV and through public address announcements.