CONCORD, N.C. — When Kyle Larson took the checkered flag Sunday night to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the eruption of sound that followed was a thing of beauty.
It was the noise of approximately 50,000 screaming fans celebrating both Larson’s victory and the fact that they could be back on the grounds to witness the accomplishment in person.
After a year of relative silence, due to the absence of spectators at sporting events because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a welcomed sound — perhaps appreciated most by Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith.
Smith took a moment to walk out to pit road and soak in the atmosphere as Larson performed a burnout underneath the flagstand Sunday night, a faint smile on his face as he took in the scene.
Asked what his immediate emotions were watching the fans laud Larson’s victory, Smith tipped that it was a moment that was “something we’ve all waited for” since the onset of the pandemic.
“It’s just really cool to see,” Smith said. “My mom always told me that absence makes the heart grow fonder. And I think all of us race fans were ready to get back to our NASCAR races after the last year.
“I think that really showed through here.”
On a personal level, Smith said he felt great joy in not only seeing a fuller crowd of fans back in the grandstands, but also that the NASCAR community could return and enjoy the action on a weekend honoring the military servicemembers who sacrificed their lives in the name of American freedom.
“It makes me so happy to see all these smiling faces here,” Smith said. “I got to have a lunch earlier with a few hundred Gold Star families. We honored and remembered those sacrifices their family members made and we also celebrated those lives that were lost, because they’re the reason that we’re all able to come back and enjoy this sport like this.
“Having a chance to celebrate here and celebrate life and fun and family … it was really great.”
Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 featured just the second unrestricted crowd since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020 and the good news going forward is that many NASCAR venues for the remainder of the season will be able to operate at similar capacities.
Announced Wednesday, six NASCAR owned and operated race tracks — Michigan Int’l Speedway, Daytona (Fla.) Int’l Speedway, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Richmond (Va.) Raceway and Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway – will all host full crowds for their summer and fall event weekends later this season.
That’s a good omen for the sport, including Speedway Motorsports.
Going forward, Smith believes Coca-Cola 600 weekend and what Charlotte was able to put on for the fans is a signal of better days to come – as well as a fresh start for NASCAR and its fans.
“I really do feel like this is a new beginning for our sport,” he tipped. “This is a great springboard in the right direction.”