CONCORD, N.C. — Walking back inside Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday morning after more than a year away from the track I grew up sitting in the stands at felt like sliding on a comfortable pair of shoes.
It was more than just coming back to a race track. It was coming home.
For a number of industry folks, myself and other media members included, this weekend is the first time we’ll have the chance to be back inside the infield, working a NASCAR event since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt back in March of 2020.
It has been a long 14 months of Zoom calls, remote coverage and watching races on television screens — or from press boxes, in some cases — since then.
None of us ever envisioned that last spring would be the end of normal as we knew it at that time. I think something like what we’ve been through over the past year was, truthfully, unfathomable to most of us because we’d never lived anything like what we’ve experienced during the past 15 months.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to nod to all those who have lost family members, friends or colleagues as a result of the coronavirus. My thoughts remain with all those affected through this time.
But this weekend is special for more than being back at the track. It also marks, in a very striking way, the completion of a circle that was broken when the pandemic began.
Alongside Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, Charlotte was one of the first venues which helped NASCAR return to racing from its two-month, pandemic-induced hiatus. This weekend, America’s Home for Racing will host an unrestricted grandstand crowd — becoming the second NASCAR venue to do so since last March. Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, also held its NASCAR weekend with no advertised restrictions from May 21-23.
The lack of fans at so many races was one of the most striking things, not just to me, but to drivers and everyone else over the course of last season and during the height of the pandemic. It was a sort of eerie silence that haunted us as we tried to navigate daily life and find our path forward.
This weekend, and particularly Sunday evening when NASCAR’s longest race takes the green flag, that silence will be fully shattered with a — finally — healthy crowd of fans taking in the action once again.
Not only will I have come home at that point, but so many of them will be able to say the same.
This moment feels the closest to normal, at least for me personally, that I’ve had since NASCAR left Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway last spring. That week, I was preparing to head south to Atlanta Motor Speedway when the world skidded to a halt.
Finally, after a long wait, I can say I’m back at the race track and covering the action from the place where I feel like I best belong.
This Coca-Cola 600 weekend, NASCAR is maintaining many military-based traditions and honoring those that fight for the freedom which allows us to come to the race track and enjoy the sport we all love.
But it also marks the start of a renewed tradition — that of getting back to what we all know best — at long last.
The journey to normal isn’t complete just yet, but we’re well on our way, I feel like. Sunday, that feeling will amplify when a much-missed Coca-Cola 600 crowd is cheering its favorite drivers toward victory again.
It’s good to be home. The journey back, at least for this writer, is finally complete.