DPH: too many variables to allow fans for Dover races

NASCAR fans pack Dover International Speedway for last October’s race. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

DOVER — Even though state officials announced Monday that there would be no fans allowed at Dover International Speedway for its NASCAR race weekend on Aug. 21-23, they might have overlooked one segment — guests at Dover Downs Hotel & Casino who have rooms with windows overlooking the racetrack’s backstretch.

Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, laughed at the prospect of race fans trying to buy up hotel rooms in hopes of being able to watch Dover’s upcoming race weekend in person. A quick internet search did not reveal anyone trying to sell a room at Dover Downs that weekend nor any interested buyers.

“With the limited amount of rooms available to the public due to the COVID-19 restrictions, the gaming company’s guests, NASCAR personnel, etc., … there are not likely to be much, if any, opportunity for fans to do that. It is a great idea, however!” Mr. Tatoian said.

Even without fans in the grandstands, Dover will host an ambitious race weekend in August that will feature six races over the course of three days.

State officials reviewed Dover International Speedway’s plans and decided it was too risky a proposition to try to host fans at its upcoming NASCAR races, despite giving approval to the Delaware State Fair to go on this summer.

Jamie Mack, chief of the Delaware Division of Public Health’s Office of Health Systems Protection, said there are different circumstances that surround each event and a variety of things that make each one different.

“The concern related to approving plans for Dover International Speedway was that there was a significant number of people arriving and departing at the same time,” Mr. Mack said. “There was no way to spread attendance over a longer period of time or to adapt to changing circumstances by closing gates or restricting portions of the stadium.

“The total attendance for the six races scheduled for that weekend could have exceeded (100,000) people, which created significant concerns about managing crowds and gatherings within the stadium.”

Mr. Mack explained the differences between letting the Delaware State Fair operate over 10 days this summer and not allowing fans at Dover’s “Monster Mile.”

“In comparison to another large event — the state fair, which was permitted to take place — the fair presents a very different scenario,” said Mr. Mack. “The fair is open for a longer period of time and, with the cancellation of the (fair’s) major concerts, there is no set time that anyone has to arrive. The fair was also able to take steps to encourage people to attend at what are typically less-crowded times.

“In addition, the layout of the fair allows for closure of certain areas if concerns arise, so that additional staff, security, etc., may be dispatched to address the situation. There is also the ability to limit traffic through the gate if the situation inside becomes unmanageable.”

Dover’s Aug. 21-23 race event will include the “Drydene Doubleheader Weekend,” featuring NASCAR Xfinity Series and Cup Series doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday, with all four races televised on NBCSN. It will be a doubleheader because May’s races at Dover were postponed due to COVID-19.

On Aug. 22, the Drydene 200 Xfinity Series race will take the green flag at 12:30 p.m., followed by the Drydene 311 Cup Series race at 4. On Aug. 23, the Drydene 200 Xfinity race begins at 1 p.m., followed by the Drydene 311 Cup Series race at 4.

On Aug. 21, the General Tire 125 ARCA Menards Series East race will start at 2 p.m., followed by the KDI Office Technology 200 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at 5 (televised on FS1).

Just a couple of weeks ago, Mr. Tatoian had hoped to see race fans return to Dover’s high-banked, 1-mile concrete oval for the first time since October.

State officials nixed that plan.

Mr. Tatoian said that with concerns about COVID-19 numbers rising again in several hot spots around the country, he could understand the state’s decision.

“We submitted a comprehensive plan as to how we planned on keeping our fans safe to the best of our ability,” said Mr. Tatoian. “From what I understand, there was not a flaw in the plan or how we were to execute it — the decision was based on the state’s public health officials’ data showing the increase of COVID-19 cases, and they just didn’t feel comfortable allowing the event with fans to take place.

“The decision was certainly disappointing, but with an abundance of caution, the qualified state public health officials didn’t feel comfortable moving forward, and we respect their decision.”

NASCAR returned to racing in mid-May after a 70-day shutdown that began in March due to the coronavirus.

It was the first major sport in the country to return to action during the pandemic when it held a Cup Series race — without fans — at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on May 17.

Since then, NASCAR has crammed in Wednesday night races, doubleheaders and anything else it can possibly do to ensure it completes the 36-race season schedule it had planned before COVID-19 struck. Since returning, there have been many races contested without fans and a couple with a limited number of spectators in the audience.

NASCAR set the benchmark for how major sports in the United States could return to the field — and racetracks — even during the coronavirus pandemic. Major League Baseball started its abbreviated 60-game schedule last week.

Mr. Tatoian said it was NASCAR that set the protocols with how to deal with COVID-19 from a sports industry perspective.

“I think we’re all extraordinarily proud with how NASCAR’s been able to navigate through (the COVID-19 pandemic),” he said. “The benefit I think we’re going to get on our race weekend is now they will have gone through this 10 or 11 or 12 times. It started off with an extraordinarily high benchmark of event protocols and procedures, and it continues to get better and better.

“We’ve been able to learn a lot, and (NASCAR) has been able to learn a lot to create a lot of efficiencies. So, by the time we get to our race weekend so much of this will have already been executed really well, so we get the benefit of everybody that went before us.”