E.A. Sports Today

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Long-time local NASCAR fan and aspiring reporter Gregory Kirby was among the 5,000 who braved the rain in the fans’ return to Talladega

The 5,000 NASCAR fans allowed into Talladega Superspeedway Sunday are effectively scattered throughout the grandstands as they await the start of the GEICO 500. The race eventually was postponed to Monday because of the weather. (Photos by Gregory Kirby)

By Gregory Kirby
Special to East Alabama Sports Today
TALLADEGA – Sunday was a special day for me as I am old enough to work a real job and buy my dad tickets to the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway that turned out to be a great Father’s Day surprise.

It also was a special day for NASCAR as the sanctioning body allowed a limited number of guests to return to track to watch its premier racing series as the sport slowly returns to normal operations from a long spring of coronavirus lockdowns.

The author (L), his father and brother were among the 5,000 on hand at Talladega Superspeedway Sunday.

My dad, Bar, grew up around the speedway and attended a lot of races as a kid. He remembers meeting the greats like Bobby Allison, Red Farmer and the legendary Dale Earnhardt. As he got older, he and his dad worked the fire crews in the pits and one of the fire trucks stationed around the different part of the track. He often tells how the track was before it became family friendly. Great memories and stories. 
Now, I am making my own memories and stories. The day started out great, but the drive felt strange. Normally, you have around 100,000 people at the track, but today, due to COVID-19-related protocols only 5,000 fans are going to be allowed in. (NASCAR opened it up 1,000 in Homestead the week before).
We get off the interstate and there is hardly any traffic on a road that’s typically bumper-to-bumper to then entrances. The vendors row that normally lines the road is barren. There aren’t any broken-down RV’s on the side of the road with an owner worrying how to fix it so he can get back home after the race is over. Also missing are the old-school buses painted up like the cars of their favorite driver (big ol’ No. 3 is especially popular).
As we pull down the main road there is a group protesting and a group protesting the protest. Earlier in the week, NASCAR announced a banning of the Confederate flag from its properties. Before the race, a plane flew over the track pulling a banner that carried the Confederate flag and read “Defund NASCAR.”
Talladega officials opened its gates to persons who had purchased tickets to the race in April before it was postponed because of the coronavirus and living in-state within 150 miles of the track to mitigate spread of the virus. All the ticket holders had to enter from the road behind the press box and park right next to the gate. There were two check points: one to make sure we had tickets and the other to ask each passenger a few COVID-19-related questions and take your temperature. Everyone got a clear bag as you entered the gate and if you had a backpack they made you walk back to your vehicle. Good thing we read the press release letting us know that already. 
As we find our seat we notice some of the seats are covered with advertising banners, perhaps to help hide some of the empty seats. Then my dad got an alert on his phone — rain in 25 minutes. No way, we thought. Not today, I hoped. We could see the storm clouds closing in on our position and track officials made some announcements about clearing the grand stands. We stand and wait for the rain.
As the storm approaches, the rain drops in Turn 4 and then Turn 3. Suddenly it’s a downpour and the pit crews are scrambling to place covers over the cars. Then the wind hit. Several of the team tents went up into the air but the crews pulled them back and held them until the rain ended. Lightning was popping very close and thunder was clapping very loudly. The crowd would scream out a Ric Flair-style “W-o-o-o“ that started a contest of who was loudest!  I did really well.
NASCAR sent out the track dryers and we went back to our seats only to be met with another weather alert more rain was coming. It was back to the hiding place.
The crowd itself was typical of a race day, just a lot less of them. There were lifelong fans who’ve been coming to NASCAR’s most competitive track since the ‘70s and some who said this was their first race. It was different not seeing any campers in the infield, but the only RVs and fifth-wheels with access to the track were those allowed in the new area near the Alabama Gang Superstretch.
Once the fans got to their seats they were talkative and ready for the race to start. When the track dryers started, they got a huge cheer from the crowd.
We got some food from the concessions stands that were open and it was small package chips and the kind of sandwiches you get out of the vending machine in a hospital waiting room. We talked to a few fans but the attendant kept telling everyone to maintain social distance while holding signs that show a mask and read “Please wear your mask!” Dad hates wearing a mask. He does not think it helps keep down the spread. He is a certified safety professional and understands that kind of stuff. He just said washing your hands a lot will keep the spread down more.
Well, after all the rain delays, the public-address announcer delivered the news that dampened everyone’s day: “Sorry race faces, today’s race has been postponed.”
It’s been moved to Monday with a 2 p.m. start. We will be going back.
It wasn’t a completely lost day. As we were leaving the track I was listening to the satellite radio and called in and got to tell my dad Happy Father’s Day on a national radio show.
Gregory Kirby is a Jacksonville State student who has been a NASCAR fan since age 6 when he and his father watched the races together on Sunday afternoons. He is a featured guest of the Garage Guys Fantasy Sports Podcast that can be found on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcast app.

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