WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Saturday night’s season-opening event at Bowman Gray Stadium had a familiar atmosphere – thousands of fans packed into the stands cheering on their favorite driver.
It was the same energy and enthusiasm that comes with every normal season opener at the Madhouse, but this opener was anything but normal.
Instead of taking place in April, it was held in June, and it was held 658 days since the last race at the quarter-mile track that circles the football field at Winston-Salem State University. Saturday’s Hayes Jewelers 200 was of the largest public gatherings in the State of North Carolina since the coronavirus pandemic seemingly brought many aspects of society to a grinding halt.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Bowman Gray Stadium public relations director Loren Pinilis told Short Track Scene. “There was a lot of unsure nature of this crazy pandemic where we were trying to figure out if we’d be able to open, when we’d be able to open, so we’re very excited that we were finally able to open the doors tonight and throw the green flag.”
When the coronavirus pandemic began to take its toll, countries such as China and Italy imposed strict quarantine guidelines and shut down public gatherings. In March of 2020, much of the United States soon followed Europe’s lead in regards to social distancing and bans on public gatherings on the initial hope that it would only take two weeks to “flatten the curve.”
Two weeks became two months, then became a year. In that time, Bowman Gray Stadium had hoped and planned to reopen at some point in 2020 – but that hope turned to disappointment for the track, its racers, and its dedicated fanbase.
“It was a roller coaster ride for sure,” Pinilis said. “It’s kind of almost, you sound naïve when you think back to how you were then, but we thought it would be a couple of weeks we’d be on lockdown and we’d start our season in April. Of course, that obviously didn’t work out, then maybe we’d start in May, maybe we’d start in June. It’s like you said, it was a roller coaster ride. The situation evolved on a world level. Then, when we did make the unfortunate decision to cancel our season, I figured for sure, for sure, the situation would be resolved by the time our season was supposed to start in April of 2021. I was shocked when it still wasn’t and we had to postpone our season opener. But the good news is, it was worth the wait tonight.”
In mid-May, following guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper lifted virtually all restrictions – including all limits on outdoor sporting and entertainment venues and eased the mask mandates. On Saturday, a near-capacity crowd congregated at Bowman Gray Stadium for the first time since August 2019, shoulder-to-shoulder, unmasked, and eager to return to normal in a still unnormal time.
“You know, it’s weird,” Pinilis stated. “It felt like we’ve been here the whole time. Once we got back in here and it’s like things were normal all along, racing like we were in 2019 with a packed house. It was a taste of what normal used to be like.”
Saturday’s reopening of Bowman Gray Stadium is a pivotal moment for short track racing as its most iconic venue has risen again like a Phoenix from the ashes amid a cloud of uncertainty. The darkest days, days that had become consumed with uncertainty and the fear that the light would never return, are in the past. The lights shined bright at Bowman Gray Stadium on Saturday and short track racing, while still facing several challenges related to the pandemic, is one step closer to normal again, or a step closer to a new normal.