Fans take ‘calculated risk’ returning to New Hampshire Motor Speedway

  • The McDonagh family from Norfolk, Mass., checks out a car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday. Tim and Brittany McDonagh have been bringing their kids, John, 8, and Abby, 6, to NASCAR races at NHMS for the last four years. “We feel comfortable here. We know they’re working very hard,” Brittany said. “We’ll keep our masks on and we have to look out for ourselves, too. I feel better about bringing them here than sending them to school.” TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

  • Nelly Roache (far right) of Northfield and her daughters Ashlee (14) and Jocelyn (16) wait to go through a paperless ticket entry during a media event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Friday. The Roaches and two other groups of fans helped demonstrate some of the new safety protocols put in place at NHMS for Sunday’s NASCAR race. TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

  • Daniel and Vicki O’Donnell of Londonderry (right) help pick up some souvenirs at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon during a media event on Friday. The O’Donnells and two other groups of fans helped demonstrate some of the new safety protocols put in place at NHMS for Sunday’s NASCAR race. TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Motor Speedway general manager David McGrath speaks to the media on Friday in Loudon. TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

  • Taylor Caswell, Commissioner of the Department of Business and Economic Affairs for New Hampshire, speaks to the media on Friday at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

  • Fans tailgate outside of New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon prior to Sunday’s NASCAR race, New England’s first professional sporting event with fans since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

  • Fans tailgate across the street from New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon prior to Sunday’s NASCAR race, New England’s first professional sporting event with fans since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

  • Framington’s Bryce Spartichino (right, stars and stripes tank top), his stepbrother Anthony Hogan (to Spartichino’s right with his thumb up) and his stepfather Patrick Hogan (gray t-shirt) wait in line at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon prior to Sunday’s NASCAR race, New England’s first professional sporting event with fans since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

  • Fans wait in line at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon prior to Sunday’s NASCAR race, New England’s first professional sporting event with fans since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. TIM O’SULLIVAN / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/2/2020 4:33:36 PM

Greg McCabe of Falmouth, Mass., has been coming to NASCAR races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon for years. So back in June when NHMS announced it would allow fans at Sunday’s race, McCabe was inspired to buy tickets.

Still, he thought twice before making the purchase. Yes, this was a chance to see the first fan-attended professional sporting event in New England since March when the coronavirus pandemic halted most large gatherings in this country. But there was still some hesitation about being in a big crowd with the pandemic still in effect.

“It’s tricky for me,” McCabe said as he sat in the shadow of the NHMS grandstand waiting for the gates to officially open on Sunday. “I saw they were doing the social distancing, and you hope people are wearing masks, and they’re cleaning and sanitizing just like we do at work. So, it seemed like a calculated risk.”

Calculating, and trying to mitigate, risk kept NHMS and state officials busy during the weeks leading up to Sunday’s Foxwoods Casino Resort 301, the only Cup Series (NASCAR’s top level) race in New Hampshire. Gov. Chris Sununu started that process by limiting the number of attendees to 35% of the track’s grandstand capacity, which would be about 18,500, but the final number of fans in Loudon on Sunday was likely fewer than that.

“We don’t release official attendance numbers, but based on where we’re spacing and our estimated attendance, we’ll probably have between 12 and 14,000 people here on Sunday, and that’s really about the most we can do and do it safely,” Scott Cooper, vice president of Communications for Speedway Motorsports (the company that owns NHMS), said on Friday during a demonstration of the new safety protocols at the track.

Those protocols included assigned and socially distant seating in the grandstand. Cooper said that for every four occupied seats NHMS would leave 16 to 17 adjacent seats empty in order to maintain safe social distance.

Other new protocols included temperature checks for everyone entering the track and paperless tickets. Fans were required to wear masks upon entry and keep them on when they were not in their assigned seats. Signs throughout the facility reminded people to stay six feet apart, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer. The concession and souvenir stands had plexiglass dividers in front of the cashiers and accepted only payments made with a card.

This was the fifth NASCAR race with fans since the organization returned to competition on May 17. Two of the other fan-attended events – July 15 at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and July 19 at Texas Motor Speedway – were held at venues also owned by Speedway Motorsports, and Cooper said those experiences helped inform the new protocols put in place at NHMS. There have also been 12 fan-less NASCAR races, at 10 different venues, since May 17.

Northfield’s Nelly Roache was one of the fans who participated in Friday’s safety demonstration, which helped ease her mind about going to the race on Sunday.

“I was hesitant until I saw the protocols and policies and procedures, and being here (Friday) has been great because we’ve been able to see it a lot more,” said Roache, who has been attending races at NHMS for 18 years.

When Cup Series races came to NHMS in the past, there were usually race-related events during the week at the track or around Concord, racing and qualifying on Friday and Saturday, the big race on Sunday and camping all weekend at the facility. This year, there was only the Sunday Cup Series race and no camping at all, but that didn’t stop Brittany and Tim McDonagh and their children, John, 8, and Abby, 6, from leaving their home in Norfolk, Mass., and making a full weekend of it in New Hampshire.

“This is our fourth year coming here, it’s like our tradition,” said Brittany, who was also part of Friday’s presentation at the track with her family. “We feel comfortable here. We know they’re working very hard. We’ll keep our masks on and we have to look out for ourselves, too. I feel better about bringing them here than sending them to school.”

Although many fans were wearing masks and keeping socially distant as they waited for the NHMS gates to open at 1 p.m. on Sunday, there were also many who were not wearing masks or keeping their distance. And the television broadcast showed fans out of their assigned seats and standing shoulder to shoulder at the fence for the green flag signaling the start of the race at 3 p.m.

“I’m not worried about it. I’m more interested in having fun than anything else,” said Jalina Picard, who drove to Loudon with a friend from Warwick, R.I., and was not wearing a mask as she waited for the gates to open. “If you’re worried about it you can wear a mask. If not, you don’t have to worry about it. I know I have to wear a mask inside, but whatever, I’ll follow the rules.”

McCabe and his brother Dana Hickey-McCabe, who both live in Massachusetts, were sitting apart from the crowd as they waited to enter, and they had masks hanging from their necks and ready to be worn. But, like Picard, they were there to have fun.

“It’s nice to be able to get out and actually do something finally,” Hickey-McCabe said, “just get out and kind of live again.”


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