BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Fans are trickling into Bristol Motor Speedway for Wednesday night’s All-Star race in NASCAR’s largest event with spectators since the coronavirus pandemic shut sports down in March. They were greeted by a plane flying over the Tennessee track that was pulling a banner of the Confederate flag, which NASCAR has banned from its races.
IndyCar raced last weekend at Road America in Wisconsin and there was no limit on tickets sold to the event held on a 4-mile road course. Crowd estimates for that event have been around 10,000 spectators, but the NASCAR race would likely be the largest sporting event in the United States since March.
The All-Star Race was moved from Charlotte Motor Speedway for just the second time since its 1985 inception because Tennessee officials allowed Speedway Motorsports to sell up to 30,000 tickets. North Carolina, where the race was held at Charlotte Motor Speedway its first year and every year since 1987, would not authorize spectators.
Bristol, dubbed “The Last Great Colosseum,” can hold about 140,000 people. Speedway Motorsports has those in attendance socially distanced through the grandstands and masks were only required upon entrance. Fans were told they could remove them once in their seats.
Because the speedway is privately owned, attendance numbers will not be released. Tickets were on sale through Tuesday evening and still available on Bristol's website until the deadline.
Concession stands were open, but typical shopping opportunities were limited and independent street-side souvenir stands along Speedway Boulevard hawked driver items and even a few Confederate flags.
NASCAR in June banned the flag at its events, but protesters at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama paraded past the main entrance waving them from their vehicles. A plane also flew over the speedway that day with a flag that read “Defund NASCAR,” a play on the “defund the police” slogan of some protesting racial injustice.
President Donald Trump has criticized NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag, blaming the decision for the sport's “low ratings,” although TV ratings for NASCAR have been up since racing resumed.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans of Columbia, Tennessee, claimed it had paid for the banner over Talladega. The one flying over Bristol Motor Speedway listed only the group's website address.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports