No spectators will be allowed, as has been the case since NASCAR began its tightly regulated resumption May 17 following a two-month shutdown triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
But Deehan’s decision to come anyway, along with the city’s decision to roll out its traditional welcome mat, attests to something about the pull of sports that falls between attending in person and cheering from the comfort of home.
It is feeling part of a community — celebrating an experience with kindred souls who share the same passion.
For many, the loss of that sense of community feels particularly acute after two months of relative isolation. For Deehan and dozens of other NASCAR fans, a partial remedy is converging at Bristol’s Earhart Campground again for a race they can’t attend.
“We’ve been locked down for a while and ready to get out of the house,” said Deehan, 77, who has attended more than 50 NASCAR Cup races at Bristol since the track opened in 1961. “We had already planned to go to Bristol, and so we figured, even if we can’t get into the stadium, we can watch it on the satellite TV, and we can hear it and be with all our friends.”
Plopped on the Virginia-Tennessee state line, with roughly half its 45,000 residents living on either side, Bristol was forged by hard work, hard times and two uniquely American traditions rooted in both: country music and stock-car racing.
Today, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum downtown pays tribute to the former, while on the edge of town, Bristol Motor Speedway, which dubs itself “The Last Great Colosseum,” is a towering testament to the latter.
As NASCAR’s popularity exploded in the mid-1990s, Bristol filled grandstands as fast as its owner could add them, building virtually straight up rather than sloping outward, until the entire 0.533-mile oval was encircled like batter at the bottom of a high-sided mixing bowl.
Even after the track scaled back to roughly 130,000 seats amid NASCAR’s downturn, the effect is deafening on race-day. The sound has nowhere to go.
“You better wear ear plugs just sitting in the stands!” said Deehan, who said the decibel-meter readings he has taken from his regular seat overlooking Turn 2 have registered 130 decibels — akin to a fighter jet taking off and ranked between “painful” and “eardrum rupture.”
That’s why Deehan puts on noise-canceling earphones when the 40-car field’s 750-horsepower engines fire up.
With so many cars jammed onto the high-banked concrete oval, there’s plenty of fender-banging, door-banging and wrecking. And there’s not a bad seat given the grandstands’ steep rise, with no obstructed views.
“You’d think there’d be a wreck a second, and a lot of times there is,” said Lori Worley, Bristol’s senior director of communications from 1997 to 2013. “Let’s face it: That is one of the attractions for fans. They love the beating and banging.”
But Bristol has never had a track fatality, Worley noted, largely because cars can’t go much over 130 mph on the tight oval, which makes it easy for fans to cheer the mayhem.
Bristol’s longtime track announcer David McGee, who’s also a reporter at the Bristol Herald Courier, describes the track as a throwback to the era when 500 or 1,000 people would gather to watch fearless men in rebuilt sedans battle on bullring tracks in small towns throughout the south and edge of Appalachia.
“A lot of drivers get upset at Bristol and tend to seek a little bit of justice on the track,” McGee added, elaborating on the track’s appeal. “If somebody gets mad, somebody gets wrecked.”
For a 55-race stretch from 1982 to 2010, Bristol sold out every race, even after capacity ballooned to 160,000, drawing throngs that made Tennessee football’s game-day crowds look quaint.
With only so many hotel rooms within a 100-mile radius of the track, camping on-site became a popular option.
But the lure of Bristol is more than what happens on the track. It’s the welcome the track and town extend, which was a core value of longtime Bristol Motor Speedway president Jeff Byrd.
“That was paramount with Jeff Byrd: The race fan was an extension of the Bristol Motor Speedway family,” Worley recalled. “And that trickled down to all of us.”
In recent decades, many campers arrive a full week early, making Bristol their home base for annual family vacations. They stock up on groceries at Food City on the way into town and, once parked, set out lawn chairs, coolers and cornhole games. Many tow an extra vehicle for day-trips to Gatlinburg or visits to Tennessee Ernie Ford’s birthplace, the country music museum or the three-story Grand Guitar on Interstate 81, which, until it was razed in August, was the world’s only guitar-shaped gift shop, recording studio, radio station and mini-museum of musical instruments.
Margaret Feierabend, who moved to the area in 1982 and has served as mayor of Bristol, Tenn., since 2018, said she didn’t fully appreciate the importance of the NASCAR races to the local economy until she learned that the local schools close the Friday of the spring and fall races because so many teachers and coaches volunteer to staff concession stands or sell programs and souvenirs as fundraisers for the schools.
“That was my wake-up call,” Feierabend said. “This is a big deal.”
For merchants in Bristol’s revitalized downtown, race weekend means as much as the Christmas season does elsewhere.
“The Bristol races are everything to Bristol,” said Karen Hester, owner of the Cranberry Lane home decor shop and the Southern Churn Ice Cream and Candy Shop on State Street. “Economically, the money that comes in from those two races and the fans that come in is literally what makes our businesses. We count on that every year — the grocery stores, gas stations, retail stores, restaurants. It’s a big cycle.”
With fans barred from attending Sunday’s race, Hester knows business will be down this weekend. But any business is welcome as Bristol tries to emerge from the shutdown that has affected every shop, brewpub and restaurant, particularly those on the Virginia side of State Street that can’t resume indoor table service as their competitors on the Tennessee side of the street can.
So Hester has readied her shops with race fans’ tastes in mind — from souvenirs to her 25 flavors of homemade fudge — in hopes a few will stop by and the full crowd of regulars returns for NASCAR’s September Bristol race.
Once NASCAR announced fans couldn’t attend this weekend’s race, Ashley Earhart Thornsberry said she and her brother Aaron weren’t sure whether to open the family’s 100-acre campground next to the racetrack. The business was started in 1961 by their grandfather, who over the years devoted more and more of his dairy farm to Bristol’s race fans. But they got so many calls from regulars who wanted to come anyway, they decided to open the reserved section that comes with full hookups Friday morning.
“Some of these people have been coming for years,” Thornsberry said. “They’ve watched me and my siblings grow up. They’ve made friends over the years, and they can’t wait to get to Bristol to see each other.”
Deehan jumped at the chance to book his regular spot.
He and his longtime friend Nadene rolled into Earhart Campground on Friday, parked the motor home in his customary spot (prime real estate on a crest overlooking the track) and put up the temporary fencing for his three Jack Russell terriers. Then he set out chairs, hooked up the satellite TV and awaited the arrival of two groups of friends from western North Carolina who have been his Bristol race-day neighbors for decades.
On Sunday, they’ll grill hot dogs, sit outside — at a safe distance but close enough to swap stories — and wait for the green flag. This time, Deehan will leave the headphones in their case. He came all this way to soak up the noise.