Despite Rain, NASCAR Weekend Marks The Return Of Big Events To Austin
Rain cut short the first NASCAR race at Circuit of the Americas on Saturday, but the event managed to pull in the largest crowd in Austin since before the pandemic canceled all large gatherings last March.
And with recent changes in mask guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Austin Public Health, it felt very much like old times.
Months ago, NASCAR and Speedway Motorsports set limits on how many people could attend the weekend races to allow for distancing. But after Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited government entities from enacting mask rules and Austin health officials responded by ending the local mask mandate, most of the crowd of about 45,000 people decided to go without face coverings. The masked staffers and the limited number of people at COTA’s sprawling facility — it has a capacity for more than 120,000 attendees — were the only reminders that COVID-19 was still around.
And after more than a year of cancellations of Austin’s biggest events, race fans did not let the rain deter them from having a good time.
Raul Moreno of Austin decided COTA’s first big event since 2019 would be a good time for his first-ever trip to the race track.
“As soon as I heard about it I had been planning it as kind of like a date for me and my wife to come out here," Moreno said. "Luckily I got tickets right off the bat.”
And after the last 14 months, his wife Bernice Moreno was all in.
“It feels weird not wearing a mask,” she said. “It feels liberating. It feels good. I mean, we’ve been cooped up. We’re ready to have a good time."
Melinda Osburn felt the same way.
“It’s great to see people’s faces and smiles,” Osburn said. “Feels like home again.”
And for some fans, the trip to COTA was personal. Construction worker Ty McCarver returned to the track on Saturday for the first time since Formula One debuted in Austin in 2012.
“Me and my daughter helped build this and so we saw the first race and figured we’d see the first NASCAR race here,” he said.
But Austinites weren’t the only ones at the party. People came in from around the country. A thousand RV camping spots were sold at COTA for the NASCAR weekend — almost double COTA's previous sales record for other races.
"This is a destination city that people want to come to, as evident this weekend with all the people coming in from out of town and out of state," said Bryan Hammond, executive director of the Austin race.
Sean Bowman is from Baltimore and travels all over to watch NASCAR. This is the tenth venue he’s visited and he was impressed.
“For the size of the track, the amount of action you’re getting is intense, number one,” Bowman said. “Number two, next year I’m praying for more rain because that race in the rain was insane. So, you guys do racing right.”
Right now there is no guarantee that NASCAR will be here again but Speedway Motorsports, which owns several race tracks around the country and partnered with COTA for the weekend's race, hopes to make Austin a regular stop on NASCAR’s calendar.
“That’s our hope, that’s the whole goal,” said Hammond. “We’ll take things back to the home office in Charlotte and evaluate some things. But hopefully, we didn’t do all this work to not come back again.”
A local race is just what some NASCAR fans like Tracy Lechler have been hoping for.
“We’ve been to NASCAR before, so it is kind of nice to have it here at home where we don’t have to travel to Dallas and do the road trip,” said Lechler. “To be able to go down the street and enjoy the same festivities here in Austin is going to be super exciting.”
Saturday's undercard races saw some rain, but light enough to allow Kyle Busch to win the Pit Boss 250 Xfinity Series race. Todd Gilliland took home the Toyota Tundra 225 Truck Series trophy.
Perhaps the most disappointing part about the weekend was the marquee event, the NASCAR Cup race, couldn't finish.
It is rare that NASCAR tries to complete races in the rain, reserving those occasions for "road" courses like COTA (versus oval race tracks). Sunday’s conditions made visibility difficult for drivers, especially in one of the fastest straightaways on the track, and several accidents happened as cars slowed down and were hit from behind. There were stoppages to dry some problem spots on the track, but with conditions too unsafe, the race was called with 14 laps to go.
Chase Elliott was declared winner of the inaugural Texas Grand Prix while waiting in the pits for a restart.
Meanwhile, a good number of those who attended Austin's largest crowd in 14 months were already making their way to the exits.