The lights of Knoxville Raceway lit up the track for the first time this year as the World of Outlaws put on its first race of the season in front of an empty grandstand. Des Moines Register
KNOXVILLE, Ia. — When David Gravel lines up for a four-wide salute at the start of a race, he pays homage to the fans sitting in the stands with a quick wave. But as Friday night's race began at Knoxville Raceway, Gravel looked out his vehicle and saw something strange about the iconic Iowa dirt track.
The stands were empty.
“There was nobody to wave to, so I didn’t wave this time,” Gravel said.
Gravel won the main event of the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series, slipping by Ian Madsen late in the race. The race was the first in the series after a nearly three-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Definitely a different vibe,” Gravel said. “But I’m happy we’re racing, happy it’s a point race and happy it’s real money.”
All eyes were on Knoxville after COVID-19 shut down the sports world back in March. The race, broadcasted on DIRTVision, had the spotlight to itself as one of the few live sporting events taking place. NASCAR isn't even scheduled to resume until later this month.
"We're trying to kick-start racing here at a national level in Knoxville," said World of Outlaws CEO Brian Carter.
Carter said series leaders began brainstorming ideas for a return once it sunk in that they would lose all of March and April. He figured the perfect place to pick up the action would be Knoxville, known as the "Sprint Car Capital of the World."
In order for it to work, there had to be necessary adjustments. Every media member, worker, driver and crew member had their temperature checked Friday and went through a sign-in process. They were provided masks and hand sanitizer. Every team was limited to just five people, including the driver. A small pool of reporters was credentialed to cover the event.
But the biggest change was the absence of fans at a venue that holds 24,000. The track not only shut its doors to spectators, organizers also added security and received assistance from the Marion County Sheriff's Office to prevent entry. Less than 400 people were there Friday night to work.
Kendra Jacobs, the track's marketing director, estimated around 3,500 fans stroll in for a typical Saturday night event. A World of Outlaws race, she guessed, would have brought in around 6,000 fans.
Instead, only a few fans stopped to watch as they walked by. The closest anyone got to the action was a tailgate taking place near the track as fans gathered to watch drivers and their rides arrive. The only sounds were the engines of the 48 cars chasing the $10,000 prize.
There would have been plenty to cheer about, too. The main event boasted a talented field that included 10-time series champion Donny Schatz and last year's reigning series champion Brad Sweet.
Kasey Kahne, who retired from NASCAR after the 2018 season but has remained a player in the dirt-racing scene, was there. So was Kyle Larson, who was superseded earlier this year by NASCAR for using a racial slur during an iRacing event and later fired by Chip Ganassi Racing.
"For us to have the World of Outlaws here and not have a soul in the grandstands is really, really odd," Jacobs said. "We hope that they're watching at home. We hope that this brings a little sense of normalcy for them that they at least get to see a live race."
Drivers practiced social distancing when they did interviews during a qualifying draw. The microphone used for the interviews was continuously cleaned. Even Gravel's victory celebration was toned down with confetti quietly spraying him as he got out of his car in Victory Lane.
Following the win, Gravel took part in a conference call with reporters and answered questions in a Facebook Live session.
"Nobody's hugging or handshaking or anything like that," Gravel said. "I think it helps we're outside and all those things. It's not like we're all buddy-buddy with each other at the concession stand or in the corner of the track. Everybody kept their distance and had their mask on."
Friday's event could be a preview of things to come not only in the racing world, but the rest of the sports universe, with many organizations considering competition without fans.
"The one thing that's wonderful about our community is y'all love it so much," Carter said. "We want it to work."
Tommy Birch covers Iowa State athletics and the Iowa Cubs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8468.