DARLINGTON, S.C. — The stands were empty. The streets were sparse. But after two months of silence, the sound of 40 engines wheeling through the turns of Darlington Raceway was the sweetest of noises.
NASCAR returned to the track Sunday at Darlington after an eight-week pandemic-induced layoff, and it was a welcome return to something that looked kind of like normalcy … as long as you focused on just the track, and nothing else.
Like the rest of the country, NASCAR shut down in mid-March, just days before it was scheduled to run its Atlanta race. But as states near NASCAR’s hub of Charlotte began looking toward relaxing restrictions on gatherings and operations, plans began to develop about how to bring racing back.
“I got a call in late April from Steve Phelps wanting to know if we would be willing to host a race in mid-May,” said Kerry Tharp, president of Darlington Raceway. “I told him, ‘We don’t have anything on our schedule then.’ ”
So with the help of South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, who gradually rolled back restrictions in the Palmetto State, NASCAR began making plans to reintroduce racing, starting at one of the sport’s most storied tracks.
“It was a big honor to be asked to be the first race back,” Tharp said. “A big opportunity, but also a big responsibility.”
Track officials worked around the clock to prep Darlington for its moment in the spotlight. But outside the track, life went on much as it has for the last eight weeks.
“Damn reporters are getting on my nerves,” grumbled a man at the Raceway Grill just outside Darlington’s Turn 2. With an old-school car on its roof and memorabilia from NASCAR days gone by covering every inch of wall space inside, the Raceway Grill made for a tempting backdrop for Person on the Street interviews and local news stand-ups.
For one afternoon, this tiny, humid, sandy town in the middle of South Carolina was the center of the American sports universe. In a nation and an industry starved for news, that meant sending crews from far afield to cover one of the first major sporting events after the start of the lockdown. But since NASCAR only permitted four media members inside the track, and even those were restricted to a single press box, that left a dozen or so other outlets wandering Harry Byrd Highway looking for people to interview.
And that, naturally enough, brought many of them to the photogenic Raceway Grill. Media members outnumbered diners at the site, though only one bought a Coke and a burger. (It was delicious.)
Raceway Grill is one of dozens of small businesses outside the track’s walls that’s suffering in the pandemic, and like most around the speedway, the return of racing won’t mean the return of revenue for them. The money won’t come back until the fans come back.
Stopgap measures are just attempts to hold off the inevitable. South Carolina allowed restaurants to begin seating people inside on a limited basis on Friday, and Sunday morning, the Raceway Grill was hoping to fill its souvenir-laden dining room to its permitted capacity of half-full. On normal race weeks, the restaurant would be jam-packed with an hours-long line waiting outside for five straight days. Sunday? You could count on one hand the patrons inside just 90 minutes before the green flag.
On a normal race weekend, the highways and parking lots around Darlington would be filled with race fans sporting Kyle Busch or Chase Elliott T-shirts, toting coolers and chair-backs and downing beverages by the armload. Now? Nothing but the slow trickle of occasional traffic just passing through.
The situation was no better down the road at the Piggly Wiggly. Normally a jammed-up last-second race-day stop for ice and an extra case of beer, the grocery store was all but abandoned on Sunday, the cardboard cutouts of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. watching over empty aisles.
Just west of the track, merchants at an impromptu roadside tent selling Trump merchandise posted a quiet vigil waiting for customers. “Haven’t sold much,” said Dave Dixon, who drove up to Darlington from Sarasota, Florida, with his wares. “NASCAR races are usually our best sellers.” He travels with piles of MAGA hats and TRUMP 2020 shirts to campaign rallies and NASCAR races; he wouldn’t disclose how much revenue he’s lost to the pandemic, but allowed that “it’s been a cut.”
From a purely sports-focused standpoint, NASCAR cashed in big on Sunday. Like the 1979 Daytona 500, which took place on a day that most of the East Coast spent snowed in, Sunday’s race had the almost-undivided attention of a sports-hungry public.
The race itself featured the return to the track of Ryan Newman from his death-defying crash at Daytona, a wreck from win-starved Jimmie Johnson while in the lead and a victory for Kevin Harvick, the 50th Cup win of his career.
Sunday’s race also drew the eyes of other major sports looking for a path back to the field. Granted, NASCAR is a different beast than, say, basketball — competitors have several tons of sheet metal between them — but the simple logistics of getting people into, around and out of an event facility remain the same.
“It can be done,” Tharp said. “You’ve got to be organized. You’ve got to put in a lot of effort and a lot of time. You’ve got to over communicate to your team. You have to plan for everything. But if you have a solid plan, it can work.”
For NASCAR, that plan included tight restrictions on how many people could be inside the track’s walls. The infield was filled with hundreds of cars, but that’s only because drivers and crew members were told to drive individually to the race. NASCAR permitted only the bare minimum of officials, spotters and media, and everyone entering the track grounds was subject to a spot temperature check.
But there were no fans in attendance, and that will be a substantial problem for sports going forward. Tharp estimated that a race weekend with 50,000 to 60,000 fans in attendance brings an economic impact of $65 million to Darlington County, and that’s a substantial impact in a county with a population of 67,000.
Yes, NASCAR itself will enjoy a bump in awareness and prestige from this seven-races-in-11-days run. But how much of that will filter down to the Darlingtons, Martinsvilles and Bristols? If college football is played without fans, how will that impact the Tuscaloosas and Stillwaters across the country? The businesses that depend on fans — not games, fans — are going to struggle. Restaurants, hotels, souvenir sales … all will feel the pinch until fans are back in the stands.
Getting sports back does wonders for the soul. But as Darlington shows, until we can get fans back in the stands, there’s still work to be done for the local economies.
“If this was race weekend, it would be crazy,” said Devin Patel, clerk at the OYO Hotel five minutes from the track, as circling cars echoed in the distance. “Now, nothing.” He pointed out at a seventy-five-space parking lot with only one car. “Nobody’s coming.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at [email protected]
More from Yahoo Sports: