Now Dover has only one chance each year to win back race fans

Kevin Harvick celebrates his win on Sunday before the empty grandstands at Dover International Speedway. (Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder)

DOVER — It might have been just another NASCAR testing session.

The sunshine bounced off the rows of empty silver grandstands at Dover International Speedway.

The vast grass parking lots around the track were mostly deserted, too.

And this was only 30 minutes before the start of the Monster Mile’s biggest event of the year — a NASCAR Cup Series race.

Mike Tatoian

“It is completely strange to look around,” said Dover Motorsports president Mike Tatoian as he looked out on the track on Saturday afternoon. “So much of what we feed off of is the energy of our fans being here. The fact that they’re not is just a little bit crazy.

“We now know what the worst end of this looks like. It’s like throwing a big party. You spend all year with (planning) that party and then nobody shows up, it’s disappointing.”

Of course, the reason Dover was mostly empty despite hosting six NASCAR races this past weekend — including a pair of Cup races — in three days is hardly unique right now.

Almost all sporting events are being held without fans in attendance because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Dover, which host only one NASCAR Cup Series race next year, was not permitted to have fans in attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder)

Still, this past weekend also felt like a pivotal moment in Dover’s history. It’s the last time that the track will host two NASCAR Cup races — a tradition each year since 1971 when the Monster Mile was just two years old.

While the 2021 schedule hasn’t been announced yet, Dover officials expect its one race will be in May. The Monster Mile’s second race will now be held at Dover Motorsports’ track in Nashville, Tennesee.

Naturally, everyone is hoping that fans will be permitted at races again by next spring.

But driver Kevin Harvick said he’s not so sure.

“I still think we’re going to be in a very similar position as we start the season next year with the virus,” Harvick said after winning the Drydene 311 on Sunday. “I don’t know that it will be able to look much different than what it is right now, and I know a lot of people may not believe that. But it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Whenever fans are back in the stands at Dover, there’s a hope that there will be more of them. Dover has taken out large chunks of seating over the last few years because of the drop in attendance that every track has seen.

The Monster Mile, though, still has a prime location along the Mid-Atlantic corridor. Fans who only came to one Dover race or the other in the past may now all come to the track’s one event.

Tatoian said there usually wasn’t much difference to the bottom line in Dover’s two races.

“A lot of our fans will plan. … to some extent it’s a vacation,” said Tatoian. “So they’ll plan the spring or they’ll plan the fall. We have some that overlap — they do both. But now that there’s only one race, whoever was typically coming in the fall now knows if they want to come to the Monster Mile, they’re going to have to come in the spring.

“We would like to think that we’re going to have an uptick (in attendance). I hope we will.”

Tatoian, however, said Dover officials also realize that they’re going to have to win fans back to the track.

In the future, they’ll have just one chance each year to give them a memorable experience.

“We do put a lot of effort in — and have for 50 years — with both races,” said Tatoian. “But knowing that it’s really the only shot now that fans have the opportunity to come to the Monster Mile, we don’t double the effort but we know that we’ve got to put on a great show.

“We’re going to do as much as we possibly can for the one opportunity that they have to come here next year. … We’re looking forward to doing the best we can with the date that we have.”