Masks won’t muffle Southern 500 fans’ fervor

By Bobby Bryant

Can 8,000 people have as much fun as 50,000?
Harriet Hobbs suspects that they can.
We’ll find out Sept. 6, when the annual Southern 500 rolls out at Darlington Raceway. This will be a very different Southern 500, but Hobbs, president of the Greater Darlington Chamber of Commerce, is betting none of that will matter: “People have been contacting me for months. They’re still coming.”
But this year, there won’t be a Car Hauler Parade a few days before the race. There won’t be a Southern 500 parade the day before the race. Those annual crowd-pleasers have been sidelined by COVID-19 cautions.
Likewise, the pandemic is going to squeeze Southern 500 fans and probably test their patience. The grandstands at the raceway can hold about 50,000 guests, but state officials have OK’d bringing in no more than 8,000 – about one-sixth of capacity. That’s to allow for “social distancing” in the stands, and fans must also wear face masks – not the most comfortable accessory in hot, humid weather.
Not to worry, says Hobbs. It’s the Southern 500. It’s worth it.
“This is Darlington,” Hobbs says. “We’re excited about (the race). I think people are just excited we’re having our race” despite the pandemic that has slammed the doors on so many other events across the country and across the world.
Despite the smaller number of fans in the stands, Hobbs says, “It’s going to have a great impact. We’re still going to be on the national news. There’s still going to be people coming to Darlington. They’re still going to be staying here. Darlington proper will still feel a great impact. I think it’s going to be a good thing.”
Anna DeWitt, chairman of the board for the Greater Darlington Chamber of Commerce, puts it like this: “If they’re going, they’re true race fans. I feel like the 8,000 (expected to be there) are probably die-hard NASCAR fans. … It’s not going to be the same atmosphere (with the limited crowd) … but I think it’s great that Darlington is doing something and not giving up” in the face of COVID-19.
Even a smaller crowd will have an impact locally, DeWitt says. “They’re still going to use our grocery stores and our gas stations.”
In a typical year, the Southern 500 brings in $75 million to $100 million in revenues to South Carolina, officials estimate. No one apparently has offered any estimates of what this smaller race might bring the state.
The COVID-19 pandemic actually boosted Darlington motorsports in a way, Hobbs says. In May, NASCAR held three races at Darlington Raceway after shifting around its schedule to make up for time lost to a pandemic shutdown. All three were run without fans in the stands, but all got media attention. “I think we’ve sort of been blessed by NASCAR,” Hobbs says.
Last Wednesday, Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp was a guest at a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion in Columbia to honor the Southern 500 and the raceway, and Tharp said the May races were crucial.
“Nearly 10 million viewers nationwide watched those three races on television, and Darlington and the state of South Carolina were at the forefront of bringing back live sports to this country,” Tharp said.
Tharp praised Gov. Henry McMaster for his support of the raceway, and McMaster praised the raceway for its influence and its role in South Carolina. “The Darlington 500 is an iconic race,” McMaster said. “ … It’s really a great celebration.”
McMaster said the raceway represents a combination of “history, tradition, brainpower and the future.” He added: “If you can’t go this time, go next time.”
Race weekend begins Sept. 5 with the NASCAR Xfinity/Sports Clips Haircuts Help a Hero 200 (12:30 p.m., broadcast on NBC). On Sept. 6, there’s the NASCAR Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race (2 p.m., broadcast on FS1). The Southern 500 is at 6 p.m., broadcast by NBCSN.

Author: Stephan Drew

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