IN THE LAST FEW days before NASCAR weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, parking spots normally are hard to find at the nearby Brookside Mall plaza on Route 106.
People wait in a long line for tables at The Eggshell breakfast restaurant.
Brookside House of Pizza is typically busy helping a throng of customers and preparing catering orders for teams that race in Saturday’s events before Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.
On Friday, as the speedway prepared to host the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 on Sunday, it was hard to tell this was a racing weekend, said Susan Colby, who has owned The Loudon Station gift shop in Brookside Mall for two years and lived in Loudon for 38 years.
“It’s not anyone’s fault,” said Colby, who previously worked at NHMS in the ticketing and guest services department for 25 years. “They’re trying to do the best that they can, but it’s not going to be the same.”
Sunday’s race, which will be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network beginning at 2:30 p.m., will be New England’s first fan-attended sporting event at a major level since the coronavirus pandemic began. The race originally was scheduled for July 19.
NHMS is permitted to operate at up to 35% capacity for the race, which is about 19,000 fans.
Scott Cooper, Vice President of Communications for Speedway Motorsports, which owns the track, said between 12,000 and 14,000 people are expected, which is about what they can handle because of social distancing requirements for seating.
Camping was not allowed on track grounds before the race, and the usual Saturday races were canceled.
For businesses, a smaller purse
With fewer NASCAR fans arriving days or even weeks ahead of race weekend, local businesses have missed out on their usual annual boost in traffic and sales.
“We’re waiting to see how today and tomorrow turns out, but it’s definitely slowed down quite a bit,” said Erofili Roesel, Brookside House of Pizza general manager, during lunchtime on Friday.
“Usually I have catering orders starting this morning, so I’m usually coming in at 5 (a.m.) Friday, Saturday and Sunday trying to get those done, but we don’t have any catering orders this year, so it’s kind of a little scary, a little nerve-wracking.”
Roesel, 25, whose parents, Billy and Sandra Lazos, opened the pizzeria in 1987, said the usual lift in sales accompanying race weekend gives the business a financial cushion and helps fund staff bonuses.
“We’re hoping to get a lot of the people that are camping” around the area, said Roesel, who lives in Loudon. “Because that’s most of our income for the race week — it’s the people that are camping during the week. It usually starts on Wednesday that we start picking up. Haven’t had that this year, though.”
As they do most days, Loudon residents Geoff Higman, David and Tami Drake and her mom, Shirley Tatavlo, dined at The Eggshell on Friday afternoon. On a typical Friday before race weekend, they wouldn’t have bothered trying.
David and Tami Drake usually do their grocery shopping on Tuesday ahead of race weekend to avoid the large crowds later in the week.
“It’s been pretty quiet,” Tami Drake said.
The Eggshell, which is limited to 50% capacity, has alternating tables and booths marked off to keep customers socially distanced.
“I feel bad for the businesses that kind of depend on it, but I feel good about not having a bunch of people from other states coming in and bringing the virus with them,” said Higman, who is not a big race fan. “I hate to say that, but that’s reality. The only way we’re going to get rid of it is if we just stay home.”
Loudon resident John Cronin, who has owned The Eggshell for 32 years, said there hasn’t been much enthusiasm around town leading up to the weekend.
Cronin, 77, said visitor traffic usually keeps the restaurant busy from the Sunday before race weekend through the Monday after, but “As we look at the restaurant right now, they’re all regular customers,” Cronin said.
“There’s not one person here that I don’t know. We’re not seeing any traffic from the race at all. Usually the road is slamming.”
Cronin and Roesel said they will miss the familiar faces they only see during race weekend. Roesel said former NASCAR driver Bobby Allison usually comes by Brookside each year to visit. The pizzeria has a wall adorned with signed photos of drivers who have stopped in through the years.
“Over the years — we’ve been here a long time — we’ve gotten to know the drivers and their crews and every year we look forward to seeing them,” Cronin said. “This is the only time we see them.”
For fans, lots of rules
The atmosphere will be different at the speedway, too.
Fans will have their temperatures taken before their digital tickets are scanned and must wear face coverings while anywhere on the grounds except their seats. They also will be socially distanced in the stands, with designated open seats around each group.
Cooper said at the two other Speedway Motorsports tracks that have hosted NASCAR events this season, they lost 16 to 17 adjacent seats for every four people they sat.
Plastic shields will be in place at the track’s souvenir and concession stands, and all transactions will be cashless. Fans can bring in food and unopened drinks in a soft-sided, clear bag no larger than 14-by-14-by-14 inches. Standard coolers and glass containers will be prohibited.
Northfield resident Nelly Roache, who has been going to NASCAR races at NHMS for about 18 years, will attend Sunday’s race with her daughters, Jocelyn, 16, and Ashlee, 14. A few years ago, the family started camping at the track leading up to race weekend. Not this year.
The Roaches participated in a media walk-through of the track Friday to showcase COVID-19 safety protocols for the race.
“It’s going to be a little bit different, because we’re not camping,” said Jocelyn Roache, who was wearing a handmade mask with Chase Elliott’s No. 9 painted on it. Nelly had Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48, and Ashlee sported Kevin Harvick’s No. 4.
“We always camp. That’s always fun being able to stay after the race and go into the fan zone and stuff, so it’s just going to be a little bit different.”
Nelly Roache said the track’s protocols eased any lingering fears she had about the virus.
“I wasn’t too concerned,” Nelly Roache said. “Our numbers are so low up here. Even with people coming from out of state, it really didn’t concern me because they wouldn’t be holding this if our safety wasn’t first and foremost.”
Londonderry’s Daniel O’Donnell, who was at Friday’s walk-through with his wife, Vicky, said he hopes next year’s race weekend will be different.
“It’s just not like it used to be — (it’s) very low-key,” said Daniel O’Donnell, who has been going to NASCAR races at the track since it opened in 1990. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s race weekend. I mean, look around. It’s Friday and there’s nothing going on here.”