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COLUMN: NASCAR led the nation back to normalcy

Ok, I know this headline is likely not what you were expecting to see. That being said, there is certainly a point to be made when it comes to NASCAR playing a part in saving college football and many other sports this Fall.

Remember back in late April and early May when Adam Silver told the media the NBA season might not resume? Or when the only hope of sports excitement came from March Madness re-runs and endless NFL mock-drafts? How about the time The Last Dance brought folks back to ESPN like the OJ Simpson documentaries? 

Now think about how you got your live sports fix back in those dark times. Maybe you gambled on things like rolling quarters as Jordan is seen doing with United Center ushers in the 10-part documentary on his career. You might have gone hunting, fishing or raced up and down the interstate like Lightning McQueen trying to find his hauler in the opening scenes of the 2006 Pixar film. Regardless, you needed a sports fix and the only live event involving star athletes was… you guessed it… NASCAR.

Of course, NASCAR did not officially come back to the track until the first Darlington race on May 17th for the Cup Series. However, those wanting a live ‘event’ to watch were in luck as early as March 22nd. The motorsport debuted its live broadcast that Sunday with 35 of the 40 cup drivers participating in the virtual experience through at home simulators. Still not comparable to real racing, but easily the best experience in the heart of a global pandemic panic. 

Then came that momentous day in May with the field set to go back to green after over 2 months away from the track. NASCAR returned as the first live major sporting event to take place across the country, with two races per week on broadcast TV for fans to enjoy. 

By the start of summer, the sport finally allowed fans to attend the first live event since the pandemic started in a town by the name of Lincoln, Alabama. Talladega Superspeedway allowed a limited capacity of 5,000 fans on Sunday, June 21st to experience sports in person. An unfortunate Father’s Day rainout would postpone the event until Monday, where an ever smaller crowd of about 2,500 arrived at the fastest track in the world. 

Blue-check Twitter elites would complain about the danger of dying from attending the race. Coronabros selected the half-dozen photos of Confederate flags flying outside the track grounds to paint the sport and its fanbase as racists. NASCAR haters laughed at the idea of a few Alabama rednecks wasting their time. Meanwhile, those who actually attended the race would tell you a tale all too familiar in the year of 2020. 

None of what you were told about the race was true. The few fans in the stands embraced driver Bubba Wallace at Talladega Superspeedway back in June and applauded him when the entire sport pushed his 43 RPM car to the front of pit-road during pre-race ceremonies. As Wallace raced his way through the field to a solid 14th-place finish after running out of gas late, those lucky enough to attend let him know he was appreciated and praised his efforts. 

I’ll admit, I was never that into NASCAR before the 2020 season resumed. I grew up a fan of Lightning McQueen in the movie Cars and often enjoy driving the local interstates around Atlanta. However, the Daytona 500 and occasional last stage at Atlanta Motor Speedway were usually it on NASCAR for me. Of course, I kind of believed the stereotypical narrative that “all NASCAR fans are racist rednecks” before this whole COVID thing happened. Or at least the latter and a little bit of the former. 

NASCAR was always an afterthought to me, with this Chase Elliott guy who occasionally popped up at Georgia football or Braves games seeming pretty cool. 

Then, I attended the GEICO 500 on June 21st and 22nd. After a few weeks of watching NASCAR while desperate for sports, I fell in love with the racing at Talladega. Four-wide packs of supercars flying by at speeds of up to 200 MPH? The cheers from the few fans in the stands when Elliott briefly led? The friendly atmosphere and excitement of a road trip after months of lockdown? All of it blended into some sort of special feeling that made me enjoy my time at Talladega as if it were like taking a yacht through the Cayman Islands with 5 of your closest friends.

Ryan Blaney crossed the finish line after a NASCAR overtime to beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by 0.007 seconds right in front of my very own two eyes. That goes without mentioning how Erik Jones had crashed his way to the checkered flag and Aric Almirola came rumbling on in for a third-place finish while backwards by his rear bumper. 

NASCAR gave me hope as a long-time sports fan that there was light at the end of the tunnel to return to play in 2020. Ever since that eventful Monday in Lincoln on June 22nd, I have been clamoring for sports to return and fans to be able to (safely) attend games. 

Well, just a few weeks later and it was off to Bristol Motor Speedway, the ‘Last Great Coliseum’ for an epic All-Star Open and Race between NASCAR’s best. What seemed impressive with 2,500 fans at Talladega had quickly turned into about 25,000 fans at Bristol Motor Speedway. Oh and not to mention Chase Elliott pulled off a remarkable victory, surging up from 14th position to third in a matter of moments, before dominating the rest of the race. 

I felt blessed to be able to attend both the GEICO 500 and the All-Star race, witnessing history in both the first live crowd since COVID-19 for a sporting event and the largest. Later in the summer, I even detailed Bristol Motor Speedway as the prime example for seating fans in stadiums such as Tennessee’s Neyland this fall.

Of course, it would later be announced that the Volunteers would allow 20-25% capacity in their bowl-shaped stadium, similar to what I suggested after visiting the same speedway that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee would give the command to start engines at for the All-Star Race. 

But, as you know, much of the media had other ideas for the 2020 college football season. Playing football was deemed “impossible” for fall. Fans in stands was a joke to writers such as Dan Wolken and Darren Rovell, who probably leave their homes only to pickup groceries and take the dog for a walk. Oh and tennis, Wolken plays tennis. Which brings me to another self-brag of mine. I also attended a Fourth of July Weekend tennis tournament in Atlanta to see former Bulldogs star John Isner take the court and Georgia Tech’s Chris Eubanks. 

Had it not been for NASCAR, I’m not sure that last-minute exhibition tournament would have even taken place in the Peach State. 

But here we are. It’s Monday, October 5th, 2020. Talladega Superspeedway just hosted its annual playoff race with about 15,000 fans on Sunday and Sanford Stadium housed well over 20,000 for the Georgia-Auburn game Saturday night. Masks were worn upon entry, distancing took place and fans who were willing to risk the ‘dangers’ of attending each event felt safe.

After almost losing Big Ten and PAC 12 football to the pandemic this fall, each returned amidst pressure from players, parents, politicans, coaches, fans, alumni and more. Getting college football back on track was a major turning point itself, but allowing fans in stands proved to be the cherry on top. 

The coronabros who have been constantly promoting fear porn and nonstop negativity since the day this pandemic started have lost. 

If you pictured Jalen Rose guarding Kobe Bryant the day the former Laker dropped 81 on the ESPN host, you would have the correct interpretation of the coronabros. 

Those who complained that systems such as a bubble to play sports in 2020 would not work were quickly put a lap down in Stage 1 by the NASCAR iRacing series. While Wolken, Rovell and many others took to Twitter and their column pages to moan and groan about sports, NASCAR was building a well-thought-out plan to return to action across the nation. “If you won’t let us race, we’ll race elsewhere” seemed to be the mindset of the sport for much of the 2020 season.

COVID-19 obsessed states such as New York and Illinois saw their races lost on the schedule due to reluctance in hosting fanless events out of “an abundance of caution.” Even better, the sport decided to stick it to North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper for the All-Star race after a plethora of ridiculous pandemic policies. Instead, the sport took to Bristol, Tennessee where 25,000 butts filled the seats of Bristol Motor Speedway. Anthems were sang, airplanes were flown, fireworks were fired. Bristol Motor Speedway, coupled with Talladega Superspeedway, played a major part in NASCAR’s return to normalcy, which would later pave the way for the entire nation.

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