NASCAR roars back to Dover in front of fans for first time since 2019

A “sold out” crowd of about 20,000 are expected Sunday at Dover International Speedway for the track’s first race with fans in the stands since October 2019.

Dover International Speedway (courtesy DIS/Twitter)

Dover International Speedway (courtesy DIS/Twitter)

Thousands of Delawareans have visited Dover International Speedway over the past few months, but not to see action on the track.

The facility’s huge parking lots have played host to the state’s mass vaccination events since February, with nearly 80,000 residents getting a shot outside the track.

Now, after more than 18 months without fans, Delaware’s biggest sporting event returns.

“Auto racing is one of the sports that you really have to see in person to get a real feel for not only the atmosphere, but the speed involved and the whole team concept of NASCAR,” said the speedway’s Michael Lewis. “It’s good that we will be able to welcome at least a small portion of our fans back here to the Monster Mile. It’s the first time we’ll be hosting fans since October of 2019.”

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State officials gave the track permission to allow fans to attend last month. Since then, officials have been scrambling to communicate with ticket holders.

“They had to make the decision whether to still come to the race or roll their credits over to next year when hopefully things will be even more back to normal,” Lewis said. “The overwhelming majority have decided to come out to the race because they see that we’re reaching the finish line with this COVID-19 pandemic.”

The “Drydene 400” NASCAR Cup Series race at 2 p.m. on Sunday will be the track’s 103rd Cup Series race at Dover, making it one of only ten tracks in the country to host 100 or more Cup Series events. The lower level Xfinity Series race will start at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. The weekend’s events will start Friday at 5 p.m. with the ARCA Menards Series East race.

Even though seating capacity is limited to just 30%, the 20,000 race fans expected for Sunday’s cup series race will be the best attended sporting event in the state since the start of the pandemic. Fans will be spread out around the grandstands, and some typical amenities like pre-race concerts and a kid’s play area won’t happen this year.

“It’s not 100% back to normal, but it’s much further along than we were last August, so we’re thankful for that,” Lewis said.

Last summer, NASCAR crammed Dover’s two race weekends into one, with six races across three different racing series running between August 21 and 23 in front of empty grandstands.

“We had to fit six races and 1,347 laps-slash-miles into a three-day window,” he said. “So that was an unusual task in and of itself.”

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This year, the track will host races only this weekend. 

Dover’s fall race weekend has been shifted to Nashville Superspeedway, ending a more than 50-year tradition of hosting two races a year in Delaware. The Nashville track is also owned by Dover Motorsports.

“When we built Nashville Superspeedway in 2001, our goal was to one day secure a NASCAR Cup Series race for the venue,” Dover Motorsports CEO Denis McGlynn said last year when the move was announced. “Nashville, central Tennessee, and the surrounding market area is filled with passionate race fans.”

McGlynn said the Nashville TV market has some of the highest ratings for NASCAR races in the country.

Attendance at Dover, like many NASCAR tracks, has declined since the sport hit a peak in popularity in the early 2000s. In 2001, the grandstands were expanded to seat 135,000 spectators. But since then, the track has removed thousands of seats due to declining attendance, leaving the current capacity close to 60,000.

NASCAR fans will have a chance to get vaccinated

Even though the state has cleared out its mass vaccination site from the track’s parking lot, NASCAR  fans heading to Dover this weekend will still have a chance to get vaccinated. The state Division of Public Health will set up underneath the massive statue of the track’s mascot Miles the Monster to administer single-dose shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to anyone over the age of 18.

“That’s something that we’re proud of. It’s just part of us being a good neighbor to the community since this pandemic has started,” Lewis said.

“It’s not just at Dover, many NASCAR tracks, due to their ability to host hundreds and thousands of cars at one time, have served as vaccination centers all over the country. So literally hundreds of thousands of Americans have received at least one vaccination shot for COVID-19 at a NASCAR facility.”

Since March 2020, the speedway has also hosted monthly distribution events with the Delaware Food Bank, handing out more than a million pounds of food to more than 18,000 families in need.

In September, part of the speedway’s property called “The Woodlands” will turn into an outdoor concert venue as the site once again plays host to the Firefly Music Festival from Sept. 23 through 26. Concert organizers announced their lineup earlier this week including headliners Billie Eilish, The Killers, Tame Impala, and Lizzo.

Attendance at the festival started in 2012 peaked at 90,000 for Paul McCartney’s performance in 2015. This year, just 50,000 fans will be permitted to attend.

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