Before this year, NASCAR crowned Cup champions in Miami, home of sunny skies and crowded beaches. This year the crown jewel of the series finished in the desert, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Avondale’s Phoenix Raceway played host to its first championship weekend by implementing safety protocols that included a limited number of fans, mask requirements, temperature checks and social distancing.
Jim Campbell, who represented Chevrolet and Chase Elliott’s winning car, said it was great to see fans in the stands for Nov. 8’s season finale.
“I’ll tell you when Chase got to the lead it was fun to see the reaction from the stands,” Campbell said. “There were a lot of Chase Elliott fans out there today.”
Elliott, who at 24 became the third-youngest Cup Series champion, said the atmosphere was different, but the track to victory remained the same.
“Certainly a strange year and a different outlook,” he said. “But when it comes down to it when all people clear off pit road, it dwindles down to the drivers and their cars.”
The raceway permitted about 8,400 fans spread across the 42,000 seats. Masks were required in common areas, but spectators were able to use their discretion at their seats and while sitting at the distanced infield tables, a Phoenix Raceway employee said.
Signs reminding racegoers to socially distance and wear a mask were displayed all over the venue. Some employees held up the same signs for continual adherence to protocols.
The event was the largest attended sporting event in Arizona since March, when the pandemic started to spread nationally, temporarily shuttering leagues and canceling games.
On Nov. 8, about 14 miles from the track, the Cardinals allowed over 4,000 fans for their game against Miami at State Farm Stadium in Glendale. COVID-19 cases in the state have been steadily increasing, with 2,030 new cases and 36 deaths reported Nov. 11, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Regardless of the uptick in cases, racing fans eagerly flocked to the Avondale track.
Lynne Masoner and Ron Blake, both Chandler natives, said they’re hardcore racing fans. They were coming one way or another.
“It’s kind of eerie. It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Masoner said. “It’s nice to not have to deal with the crowd so much, but on the other hand the crowds create quite an experience.”
The tradition of camping was modified. The facility required all vehicles to park in the same direction, with the entryway facing left to allow ample distance between each space. The maximum number of guests was limited to six, preventing large crowds.
Instead of concerts performed in the middle of the track, NASCAR held a Facebook Live concert featuring Christopher Shayne and Harry Luge.