It’s race week in Loudon, which takes on a whole new meaning this year thanks to COVID

  • A television production truck sits in an empty parking lot of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Derek Dolan (left) and Freddy Naciac of Christian Party Rental pile drive a stake into the asphalt as they erect a tent at the ticket office of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Tuesday in preparation of the Sunday race. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Motor Speedway Ashley R Dickerson—Courtesy of NHMS

  • New Hampshire Motor Speedway Garry Eller—Courtesy of NHMS

  • New Hampshire Motor Speedway Garry Eller—Courtesy of NHMS

  • A television production truck sits in an empty parking lot of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Derek Dolan (left) and Freddy Naciac of Christian Party Rental pile drive a stake into the asphalt as they erect a tent at the ticket office of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Tuesday, July 28, 2020 in preparation of the Sunday race. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/28/2020 5:10:03 PM

Two of the top issues concerning Americans, interconnected as they continue to damage the nation’s health and subsequent economy, will converge Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

On the coronavirus front, the Loudon Police and Fire Departments worked with speedway officials and the governor as part of their annual procedure, this time choosing to allow a maximum of 18,000 fans – or one third grandstand capacity – into the 1.058-mile track for the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301. The race was postponed from July 19 because of the pandemic.

Also of concern is the continued trouble facing the United States economy, directly attributed to the deadly outbreak and the fear it has caused. Local businesses and in fact those around the state have had to balance their thoughts, between safety for themselves and their customers, and earning a living.

Thousands and thousands of fewer fans on Sunday can only reduce the risk of infection compared to crowds in previous years. Attendance, normally counted as part of a three-day weekend, will be lower by tens of thousands more without qualifying and lower-division competitions on Friday and Saturday.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Dave McGrath, the track’s executive vice president and CEO, said tickets are still available, but he declined to reveal how many have been sold.

He said it’s racing on Sunday and that’s it.

“No camping, no fans zone, no pre-race concert, no concert Friday night,” McGrath said, “and these are all protocols to keep people from congregating in large groups.”

Fans will be required to wear masks under the stands and while in line at the concession stands. They can take them off once they return to their seats.

Family members can sit side-by-side in their own group, but people who are not related must sit six feet apart from another group. All groups will be six-feet apart as well.

Conversely, fewer people means fewer customers, something businesses in the Concord area can barely afford now, if at all.

“I’m disappointed,” said John Cronin, who’s owned the Eggshell restaurant for 31 years. “But under the circumstances, I understand what they are doing, but unfortunately, the right thing will affect us dramatically, and that’s not just on Sunday. We’ll be here the whole week without camping. You won’t see any of that this year, and that’s kind of devastating.”

Once upon a time, when NASCAR was thriving in the 1990s and into the next century, the Loudon speedway often drew an announced attendance of 100,000 fans each Sunday that the NASCAR Cup Series staged its race here. It hosted two summer races for 20 years and now hosts one.

Once the track stopped selling out – seen over the past 10 years as star drivers retired and sponsorships dollars dried up – the speedway stopped announcing attendance figures, but thousands of empty seats stood out, overlooking the oval.

But that won’t come close to inflicting the kind of financial damage expected this weekend.

Jimmy Makris, who owns Makris Lobster and Steak House, where Route 106 and I-393 meet, has been hit hard lately, and that includes the death of his brother and longtime business partner Greg, who died suddenly last June.

Makris’s restaurant is nearly on life support from the recent statutes and suggestions issued by Gov. Chris Sununu that forbade in-house dining or congregating in bars.

The Makris place has long served as the informal headquarters for NASCAR-connected people who enjoy late-night dinners and drinks, and that included Bruton Smith, who owns NHMS under the umbrella of his Speedway Motorsports Inc. Smith purchased the track in 2017 from Bob Bahre. Speedway Motorsports owns eight tracks on the Cup Series circuit.

Bahre died last week at the age of 93, adding yet another subplot to those already in place.

Makris wondered if members of NASCAR Cup teams will be permitted to follow their usual routine and stop at his restaurant after the race.

Restaurants are back open, told by the state government to provide hand sanitizer and promote social distancing, and to strongly suggest that patrons wear masks.

“As a business owner, If you restrict crews from going to the city for dinner and to spend time together, maybe I won’t get any business,” Makris lamented. “People who might go out into public to eat out, they’re probably going to be worried. We are not going to have anyone from that crowd? That is the big question.”

The Eggshell had been packed on mornings during race weekend for years, giving fans the coffee and breakfast they had always come to expect to start their day. Cronin said business was down 80% in May, two months after quarantine regulations took effect. Restrictions have been loosened, and Cronin now says his business is off by 30% to 40%.

“Our clientele is older and more skeptical, so it’s harder to get them out,” Cronin said. “I’ve got a lot of crew members I won’t see this year. They would have been here by Tuesday of Race week, and that is quite a lot of people who have been coming to our restaurant for a long, long time.”

Meanwhile, Loudon Police Chief Kris Burgess said that despite the culture shock that will no doubt greet fans and law enforcement Sunday, it was business as usual for his staff during preparation.

“I met and discussed with all those who are involved and planned the event accordingly,” Burgess said.

That would include police, fire and track officials, with final approval coming from the governor. Burgess and fire chief Tom Blanchette also met with medical personnel and members of the New Hampshire Department of Public Health. The police chief says he’s ready.

“There will always be concerns about people being infected,” he said, “However, both NASCAR and first responders are putting protocols together to help alleviate the situation from occurring.”

Blanchette said recent signals this summer in the Granite State have suggested that an influx of thousands will not increase the rate of infection in any significant manner.

He cited the crowds that have already hit the beaches and North Country, without coronavirus numbers spiking.

“Friday you see out of state traffic going north and Sunday you see them going south,” Blanchette noted. “It is important to keep people working and keep the tourism strong, and, honestly, there does not appear to have been increased cases, and hospitalizations do not appear to have increased, and that is with this big influx.”

NASCAR’s Cup Series canceled eight races starting in March due to the virus and did not return until May 17 at Darlington Raceway. No fans were allowed in then.

Racing in Tennessee, Texas and Kansas sold a limited amount of tickets leading up to Sunday’s race. Bristol Motor Speedway drew 20,000 fans to its 162,000-seat facility.

NASCAR joins all sports around the world in trying to figure out if a season or an event should be staged during the pandemic, and if so, how?

Major League Baseball began its season last weekend, allowing no fans into stadiums and asking players to wear masks.

Disaster struck Saturday, though, when 14 members of the Miami Marlins’s organization, including 11 players, tested positive for the coronavirus. That led to the postponement of two games on Monday and an uncertain future.

The NBA season, interrupted on March 11, will resume on July 30 with a reduced number of 22 returning teams.

All games will be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida.

Fans will not be allowed in.

 


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