Dirt track racing's return gives a glimmer of hope to other leagues amidst coronavirus pandemic
A first look at what a sporting event with fans looks like during a pandemic
Auto racing is back, but sports during a pandemic look, and feel, a lot different than we are used to. The World of Outlaws (WoO) has already held their first race with no fans and are now preparing to welcome people back to their events. They have updated their schedule to hold events in cities and states where fans are permitted.
World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car racing took place at the iconic Knoxville Raceway dirt track, giving fans a first look at a sports comeback, but an empty stadium is not what this sport, or any sport, is used to.
Ben Geisler, the Chief Marketing Officer of WoO, gave insight as to what an event looks and feels like without fans, something many leagues will slowly start to experience.
"It's eerie. It's just not natural," he said.
The event saw other changes for health reasons, including interviews conducted from six feet away and more space than usual left between crews. But even with all the new safety precautions in place, the event was a glimmer of hope in the mostly sports-less world we have been living in.
The World of Outlaws will be one of the first to have fans present when they welcome spectators into the Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 in Missouri on May 22.
Restarting during a pandemic is as complex as you would imagine, with safety being the main priority.
Getting approval to have fans present takes much more than getting the governor's approval. They worked with governments on a local level and set up a plan to make sure each fan who arrived was entering a safe environment.
The success of their other races made officials confident they could safely welcome fans in, Geisler says.
He said interpreting announcements was one of the most difficult parts of bringing it all together because wording is often vague. Another challenging part is getting the approval, because Geisler says, "there is a ton of confusion and a lot of different people who have to touch it."
To ensure safe social distancing practices, a limited crowd will be present at races cleared to hold fans. Geisler says even in states and counties where a larger crowd is permitted, they are starting small, mostly 10% of the area crowd size.
All fans will be given a health screening before they enter and everyone will be handed a mask and hand sanitizer before they walk in. Lines are marked for the food vendors and bathrooms, with stalls blocked off so at all times people are separated.
Every twenty minutes, announcements will be made reminding everyone to practice social distance guidelines.
One of the most important elements of putting the race together is establishing a confident and health-conscious feeling right away, Geisler said, commenting that, "The more the more calm that we're projecting, the more confidence that we're projecting, the more that that catches on."
"If we want to be able to enjoy our passion, we're going to have to take some safeguards, and we need everybody's cooperation. We feel like, if at the moment you arrive on the facility, you start building confidence in the event organizers approach that tone is then carried throughout."
Fans will not be sitting in the stands like we are used to either. Those putting on the event had to measure out seats, doing so in every direction no two groups of people were sitting closer than six feet apart.
Going back to sports with fans will be interesting from a ticket vendor perspective as well. No one can predict what the demand will be and if people will be too nervous to attend in person.
WoO saw an incredible demand, with fans flooding to the website for tickets. There was a maximum of $200,000 worth of tickets being sold on Tickets.com and within seven minutes, $48,000 worth was sold.
This return with fans is good news that things are starting to go back to normal, but Geisler says this doesn't necessarily mean other leagues will return. He acknowledges that each league will have their own challenges along each step of their own return, but says they can all learn from each other.
For a while, athletes will celebrate touchdowns, goals and home runs without the usual backdrop, but WoO is giving fans a preview of what life back in stadiums and arenas will look and feel like, and it's far from what we are used to.
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