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This year, NASCAR can be easily heard but not seen at Dover

Kevin Tresolini
Delaware News Journal

DOVER – In the 50th and final year that Dover International Speedway hosts two races at NASCAR’s highest level, there was nobody here to watch Saturday.

Oh, the sounds were the same. The roar was unleashed at 12:48 p.m. when Drydene 200 NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers sped off.

The NASCAR Cup Series big-leaguers followed after 4 with the Drydene 311 -- that's 500 kilometers -- in day one of a double-header. Denny Hamlin prevailed for the first time in 29 Dover tries. The order will be repeated here Sunday with the first race at 1.

But the deafening din only traveled into the ears of those working here, residents and passersby on nearby roads, visitors to adjacent businesses and the kernels of corn rising tall on neighboring Persimmon Tree Lane.

Only the stalks were likely oblivious.

Cars negotiate the final turn  at Dover International Speedway in front of empty stands and advertising banners covering areas where seats were removed in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race Saturday.

“My house is two miles away and I can hear it,” said John Kozlowski as he visited the Miles the Monster statue outside the track Saturday afternoon. “I can’t wait until all this opens up so I can show him [son Damien] a little better.”

Kozlowski was disappointed tickets weren’t available to celebrate a family member’s birthday at the track Sunday.

What is typically the largest annual gathering of spectators at a sporting event in Delaware had none. They were deprived of seeing drivers zoom their colorful vehicles around Dover’s high-banked turns and then plummet – safely they hope – back down.

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 It’s a captivating and often frightening sight, accompanied by a rumbling cacophony that echoes north into Smyrna and south toward Felton.

 The only way to see both of Saturday’s races, and Sunday’s pair as well, was on the NBC Sports Network, which, of course, isn’t as aurally or visually stimulating.

“It’s the first time I’m seeing it live,” said Kozlowski’s friend Joshua Fuller, who just moved to Dover from New York, after being told by a security official their group shouldn’t have been allowed in to visit Miles the Monster by another guard.

Reminded he wasn’t actually seeing the race, only hearing the sound and feeling the vibrations 100 yards away, Fuller added, “I feel like it.”

Teams and drivers stand for the national anthem before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Dover International Speedway, Saturday.

Dover officials had pitched “a very comprehensive plan” allowing 17,000 to 18,000 fans to attend this weekend’s races to state officials, said Dover Motorsports CEO Mike Tatoian. It was rejected because of COVID-19 health and safety concerns when cases and deaths increased.

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Fans were also barred from fields surrounding the track, where locked fences had large signs that read “Closed.” Parking lots were equally deserted.

The only good thing about that was there was not a single Confederate flag in sight Saturday. The rebel emblem and symbol of racial cruelty that was once a common sight at this event was recently and belatedly banned by NASCAR.

“It’s like throwing a big party and you spend all year with that party and nobody shows up. It’s like, ‘’Ugh, it’s disappointing,’ ” Tatoian said. “The good news is I think we’re a resilient country and we will figure out a way to get through these valleys and we’ll be back next year, so we’re looking forward to having fans in the stands because this whole sport is built on that.’’

One privately owned expanse of grass across Leipsic Road from the track had about 25 recreational vehicles, many with American flags flapping. They belonged to workers who travel from track-to-track providing medical, technical and safety support, said Dover resident Jim Kozel, the encampment’s manager.

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Anyone who stepped inside track grounds had to answer a medical questionnaire and have his or her body temperature checked.

All was an effort, one observer suggested, “to protect the big money inside,” referring to the team owners and drivers who steer NASCAR’s high-powered economic engine. They could not afford to have that stall out with a significant COVID outbreak.

Certainly, there would have been room for fans, even if they were significantly distanced. State officials still preferred not to risk COVID spread.

Since last year’s fall race, seating capacity at Dover had been reduced from 83,000 to 54,000. Several sections of the lower bowl at the concrete oval’s southern end were removed. They were covered by 10 advertising banners Saturday. During NACAR’s heyday in the early 2000s, track capacity was 135,000.

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The busy weekend, which included NASCAR Truck and ARCA series races Friday, resulted from the postponement of the May 1-3 races at Dover as NASCAR shut down competition because of the coronavirus pandemic. Racing resumed May 17 in Darlington, South Carolina.

Justin Allgaier (7) wins the NASCAR Xfinity Series race in front of empty stands at Dover International Speedway Saturday.

Dover’s NASCAR birth came on July 6, 1969, with the Mason-Dixon 300, won by Richard Petty in front of 22,000 fans, though the track only had 17,500 seats. Beginning in 1971, Dover was the site of two races annually. But that will end in 2021.

Nashville Superspeedway, which was built and is owned and operated by Dover Motorsports, will host its first NASCAR Cup Series race next year with Dover giving up one of its weekends. Dover’s concrete cousin made headlines again Friday when Erik Moses was named president, the first Black man to hold such a title at a NASCAR track.

NASCAR has not announced the 2021 schedule, but Tatoian expects the lone Dover race to be in May, its traditional spring month.

“Knowing that it’s really the only shot now fans have to come to the Monster Mile,” he said, “we don’t double the effort but we know that we’ve gotta put on a great show because they’re only gonna be able to visit us once a year.”

After the eyesore of Saturday's empty stands and parking lots, that’ll be a pleasant sight to see.

Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at ktresolini@delawareonline.com and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.