Darlington, S.C. — Roger Collins just wants to hear that sound again, the car engines rumbling off in the distance. That sound is the lone connection to the way it was before, the way it was two long, long months ago.
The silence today is strange. It’s nearly noon on Sunday — race day — and the streets around Darlington Raceway are lined with checkered flags yet utterly devoid of people. Collins, 57, sits outside of his mobile home, on a campground just off Indian Branch Road. This is where he’ll take in the Real Heroes 400, the first NASCAR race since March 7 and one of the first sporting events to take place in the coronavirus era.
Collins loves living so close to the raceway, loves when every inch of the spacious green grass around him is filled with NASCAR fans and their RVs. It’s an opportunity to make new friends. But today the campground is empty, and that emptiness is strange, too.
Darlington born and raised, Collins is hungry for normalcy. Almost a year ago, on July 27, 2019, he took his motorcycle out for a ride and lost his left arm and left leg in a hit-and-run accident. In the last few weeks, along with the rest of the planet, he’s feared contracting COVID-19. He’s smoked since he was 8 years old. He worked in an underground mine for five years. He’s not sure his lungs can handle it.
But today is race day, and no matter how unconventional a NASCAR race with no fans is, Collins is going to make the most of it. It’s noon, and he’s already cracked open a Michelob Ultra. His friend of more than 30 years, John Ridings, is already shirtless. And both men, being the diehard NASCAR fans that they are, have their eyes locked onto the LCD television screen in front of them. Today is a celebration.
“Yesterday was (Ridings’) birthday,” Collins says, beer in hand. “So we kind of combined yesterday and today all in one.”
Adds Ridings: “Can’t beat it, a day like today, good, cool breeze, good friends. Got the NASCAR back on, and we’re going to be firing up the grill. What else can you ask for?”
On the other side of the track, on Harry Byrd Highway, the scene isn’t much livelier — even as the Real Heroes 400’s 3:30 race time nears.
With police cars parked at every gate and security screeners, bomb-sniffing dogs and SWAT teams out in full force, NASCAR diehards, who would normally flood the highway en masse, have few options for parking their campers. Most of the fan activity revolves around the Raceway Grill, which thanks to the recently relaxed social distancing rules, is allowed to host a small party.
Owner Tony Baird said this week, strangely enough, has felt like a typical race week with the amount of buzz he’s heard from his customers. Baird and his staff set up an outdoor dining area in the back of the restaurant, with spaced out tables and hand sanitizing stations and a 24-foot projection screen to watch the race.
“I think it’s huge not only for the racetrack and for NASCAR to restart, but I think it’s huge for South Carolina for us to be the dadgum focal point for being the first one to kick off sports again,” Baird said. “I don’t think we’re really going to know the significance of it until a little bit later down the road, but I just think it’s huge just for our country to get things back to normal.”
Still, the scene is a bit understated when the race begins – just a small smattering of cheers from the seven occupied tables in the back. Hunter Lee, 15, dressed in a NASCAR T-shirt and hat, sits at one of those tables with his grandparents. The last few weeks haven’t been easy for Lee who said he watches NASCAR races every weekend.
“Well, it’s a big change,” Lee said. “It’s hard to get used to, but I’m just glad we’re out here and we can enjoy this. I’ve missed it so much. I’ve watched reruns, highlights. I’ve been missing it a lot.”