Texas Motor Speedway is in the final stages of preparations for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 Sunday, where fans will be allowed up to 50% of the venue’s capacity, despite the recent spike in cases in many states, Texas included. After approving larger scale outdoor events including the race in June, Governor Greg Abbott recently rolled back reopening guidelines to limit the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the state. Motor sports, however, are exempted from the restriction on crowds to 10 or fewer – paving the way for tens of thousands to decent on the Ft. Worth venue when NASCAR comes to town.
“I don’t have any concerns. I’m going to be there, my family’s going to be there,” TMS President Eddie Gossage told the Star-Telegram. “I’m not concerned about it, if everyone will follow the directions.”
Capacity rules could mean as many as 62,500 in attendance Sunday, though expectations are far below that number. Mitigation efforts in place for the race include closing off of the infield space, and a closing of a number of facilities that are in close proximity to one another, such as every other sink in restrooms and close-quarters concession stands. Printed tickets were also eliminated in favor of a contactless mobile-only format. But beyond such measures, the onus will be on the crowd itself to stick to the guidelines in place and avoid mingling with people they did not arrive with.
“There’s a whole lot of reliance on personal responsibility,” Gossage said. “It’s on the individual’s shoulders to do the right thing.”
Public health officials have concerns that such a large gathering would feature compliance of that nature by the race fans in attendance. The race is the first time since March where sports fans will be allowed to attend an event, and fears are that it could spur a spike of its own, similar to belief that a Tulsa, Oklahoma rally held by President Trump’s campaign led to a local spike of coronavirus cases. According to worldometers tracking, Texas has seen its 7-day average of reported new coronavirus cases rise steadily since mid-June. After passing 2,000 for the first time on June 15, it shot past 5,000 11 days later, and went to 9.243 as of Tuesday morning.
“This looks like a mistake in the making, and there will be consequences, I would predict,” said Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and head of Texas A&M University-Texarkana’s biology department. Neuman has studied coronaviruses for more than two decades.
Neuman said it may be impossible to estimate how much the coronavirus will spread at a gathering as large as the race since most modeling stops at crowds of 100. But he was confident the race posed a high risk.
Based on “common sense and virology, epidemiology 101,” strangers gathering in any number exponentially increases the risk of spreading contagious diseases, he said. A spike in cases after the Memorial Day weekend shows that even small holiday gatherings grew the number of positive cases.
Despite the concerns, race organizers are thrilled to be bringing some sense of normalcy back to life with the race.
“This is a step in the right direction,” Gossage said. “Still won’t be like it is when the place is full and rocking, but they’re going to hopefully hear some fans Sunday and it will be nice to have them back.”