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What NFL, NHL, MLB and NCAA can learn from auto racing without fans

We talked to four drivers across three series who have competed at fan-less events. They say it's eerie, unearthly and maybe decreases the pressure.
The grandstands are empty overlooking pit lane heading to turn one during the opening day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13 in St. Petersburg. The race has been rescheduled for the fall.
The grandstands are empty overlooking pit lane heading to turn one during the opening day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13 in St. Petersburg. The race has been rescheduled for the fall. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 3, 2020
Updated Jul. 3, 2020

The scene at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March was hard to comprehend: Cars zooming past row after row of empty seats at what is usually one of the area’s biggest sporting events of the year.

Three and a half months later, that surreal morning downtown seems more prophetic than apocalyptic. It was the first glimpse of sports’ new reality in the COVID-19 era.

As the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB and NCAA prepare to return in front of limited, if not eliminated, crowds, they’ll be following the lead of auto racing — the last major U.S. sport to stop because of the pandemic and the first one to restart. Which means teams across the area and state can all learn something from the experience of Kyle Kirkwood, one of the 77 racers who drove at the fan-free Grand Prix (before the three-day event was called off halfway through Day 1).

“It takes a little bit of the pressure away,” said Kirkwood, a 21-year-old Jupiter native who competes in IndyCar’s top feeder series, Indy Lights.

Unlike athletes in stick-and-ball sports, drivers can’t see the crowds or hear their roars when they’re competing. Glancing into the stands at 200 mph could lead to a catastrophic mistake.

But racers do notice fans before they strap into their cars. Interactions at autograph signings, meet-and-greets and a jam-packed starting grid help build the intensity before the engines start.

Normally, the starting grid is buzzing with excitement before a race, like at the 2018 Grand Prix.
Normally, the starting grid is buzzing with excitement before a race, like at the 2018 Grand Prix. [ "LUIS SANTANA | TIMES" | Tampa Bay Times ]

“I think that’s one of the things that I realized the most, is that fans are what bring the atmosphere,” Hillsborough High alumnus Aric Almirola, a veteran driver in NASCAR’s top Cup Series. “They bring the electricity of the event…

“It certainly emotionally affects us when we walk out to our race cars and there’s nobody there live to watch.”

Indy Lights driver David Malukas said the lack of buzz before the practice of the season in St. Petersburg was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. He handled it well; he was the quickest driver of the session.

“It didn’t even feel like a practice or a race or anything,” Malukas said. “(It was like) we grabbed the trailer, we went around the corner to a local track and just started doing some laps because we wanted to.”

The grandstands are empty overlooking pit lane during the opening day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Friday, March 13, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
The grandstands are empty overlooking pit lane during the opening day of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Friday, March 13, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Belleair resident Colton Herta didn’t get to experience the eeriness in St. Petersburg because the Grand Prix ended before the first IndyCar session. But the the youngest race winner in series history did feel it firsthand last month when his season began at Texas Motor Speedway.

He called it “unearthly.”

Normally, the fan-driven excitement starts when he arrives at the track and peaks around the national anthem.

“It kind of hypes you up or adds a little bit of pressure,” Herta said.

With no fans, there was no extra energy. And with no extra energy, Herta felt no added pressure — only what he puts on himself on behalf of his team and his sponsors.

As weird as it felt before the green flag, Herta said the race itself felt like any other. The drive to win was no different than usual.

Colton Herta is one of IndyCar's top young stars.
Colton Herta is one of IndyCar's top young stars. [ SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times ]

“I think the work ethic and everything was normal,” said Herta, who finished seventh. “In that sense, everything felt the same.”

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the early results from racing’s top two series have looked about the same, too, no matter how empty the stands have been.

Related: What would empty stands, partial crowds mean to betting lines and NFL, college football games?

IndyCar’s winningest active driver, Scott Dixon, won his series’ opener. Nine of NASCAR’s 11 Cup races since the pandemic have been won by four of its biggest stars: former series champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, plus three-time Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin. NASCAR’s top two rising stars, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, split the other two events.