HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- Race fans will be allowed inside Richmond Raceway for this weekend's NASCAR races. But it won't be like any of the previous races they've been allowed to attend.
One of the reasons Dennis Bickmeier studied communications in college was because he hated math. Now the Richmond Raceway president has a giant math problem in front of him. He had to figure out a seating chart for his grandstands.
COVID safety protocols in Virginia allow for outdoor venues like Richmond Raceway to operate at 30 percent capacity. But fan groups still have to remain six-feet apart
"The word pods, we've used that more in the last couple of weeks than I think I ever have in my life, but that's how we have to seat people," Bickmeier said.
He and his ticketing agents have come up with what they are calling the zipper approach to seating fans for this weekend's Toyota Owners 400. Selling tickets in groups of two or four depending on how many fans attend in each group.
If a group can't fill out a pod, the raceway loses that seat because protocols do not allow the track to seat people from different groups or families together. That's part of the reason why this weekend's crowd won't be all that close to the allowed percent.
"A lot of people look at how big our venue is but when you get down to solving the math problem between setting up groups of four and two and how you have to stagger those in the grandstands to keep six feet of social distancing around everybody, it's a challenge," Bickmeier said.
Fans also will have staggered times to enter and exit the track based on their seat. That's another way to keep down foot traffic and maintain distancing.
Other changes include cashless concessions and a limited number of merchandise and exhibit trailers on the midway outside.
"We won't have a lot of the pomp and circumstance and the other fanfare and festival type of feel to this weekend. That's OK. Again, this is a starting point for us to reopen this facility," Bickmeier said.
And it's a focal point for all other venue operators across Virginia.
At Martinsville last week and at Richmond this week, NASCAR is the first high-volume event to be held in the state since the pandemic began.
Bickmeier and his staff want to make sure it's done right so it can be done again at other sites on other levels.
"We've had to think through all these things for ease of movement but movements that are associated with the requirements that we have to operate under," he said. "In a lot of respects, this has been harder to do than a normal race weekend when you have tens of thousands more people."
A large majority of Richmond's season ticket holders will be in attendance on Sunday, even if not in their usual seats. Just being at a race again is good enough for now.
"People want to come out and see live racing. They want to come out and see live events. I think they understand the requirements that are in place for them to be able to do that," Bickmeier said. "What we've heard from fans is, they're just happy to be here. They're thankful. If we can get them close to what they had, that's a win. "
Bickmeier said well over 90 percent of their season ticket holders will be attending Sunday's race. Because of seating rules, the track was not able to offer any tickets to the general public. It's an issue Bickmeier hopes will be resolved by the time racing returns in September.
Tickets are still available for walk-up fans for the truck series race on Saturday.
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