BRISTOL — If the weather cooperates, NASCAR will begin a new chapter today with a return to its past.
The Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway will be the first NASCAR Cup Series race on dirt since September 1970. The race is 250 laps, broken into three stages, over the track’s temporary clay surface. NASCAR announced changes Saturday with the first and second stages to end at laps 100 and 200. There will be two more competition cautions at laps 50 and 150.
NASCAR fans will hear terms like slide jobs as a preferred way of passing, rooster tails when the cars kick up dust in the high groove and the track “rubbering up.”
This hearkens to the beginning of the Cup Series in 1949 with the first race on a 3/4-mile dirt track in Charlotte. Jim Roper was credited with the victory after Glenn Dunaway’s car failed post-race inspection.
Seventy-two years later, it’s far from a normal Bristol weekend, starting with a lack of traditional pit stops and the list of pre-race favorites.
The past five Bristol Cup Series winners — Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch — are all underdogs. Combined they have 29 Bristol Cup Series victories on the Bristol concrete.
Yet Truck Series racer Stewart Friesen, USAC Triple Crown champion Chris Windom and 2018 World of Outlaws Late Model champion Mike Marlar — all making their Cup Series debuts — have better odds on some sites to win than last year’s winners, Harvick and Keselowski, on the dirt.
Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell have been installed as the odds-on favorites. They have the most experience on dirt, have both won in the NASCAR Truck Series on the Eldora, Ohio, dirt track and drive for top-notch organizations.
Larson, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has been getting all the track time available, also racing a NASCAR Truck and a Super Late Model. Bell, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, took another route, entering the iRacing NASCAR Pro Invitational on the virtual Bristol Motor Speedway.
The next pair listed are Austin Dillon and Chase Briscoe.
Dillon won two features in the 604 Crate Late Model cars at the Bristol Dirt Nationals. The driver of the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was also the winner at the inaugural Truck Series race at Eldora. His dirt experience also includes a win at nearby Volunteer Speedway, while his Cup Series team is coming off a strong sixth-place finish at Atlanta.
Briscoe, a rookie in the Cup Series, won nine races in the Xfinity Series last season — including the Food City 300 at Bristol. Tyler Reddick, also a Bristol winner in the Xfinity Series and a teammate to Dillon, was an accomplished dirt late model driver before making it to the NASCAR ranks.
Other drivers listed among the top picks include Friesen in the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet. Stenhouse won a winged sprint car race on an Alabama dirt track last week to prepare for the Food City Dirt Race.
Defending NASCAR champion Chase Elliott, who won the 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race on the Bristol concrete, and Kyle Busch, who leads all active drivers with eight wins on the Bristol concrete, have proven to be fast on the dirt. Both posted top-six speeds in Friday’s first practice.
Heavy rain turned the converted dirt track into a muddy mess Saturday, bringing the postponement of the Pinty’s Truck Race on Dirt for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to Sunday at 9 p.m. The Food City Dirt Race is still scheduled for Sunday at 3:30 p.m. on FOX.
Heat races for both series were canceled after an earlier attempt to race.
The speedway released a guide to enjoying the Food City Dirt Race weekend. While creature comforts like ear protection, seat cushions, blankets and sunscreen are customary, dirt fans know a good set of goggles or sunglasses is suggested.
That’s something NASCAR Truck Series driver Matt Crafton emphasized. The high-banked, high-speed Bristol track is likely to create some dusty situations.
“Bring some goggles. It’s going to get dusty,” Crafton said. “Those or some kind of safety glasses will keep the dirt out of your eyes.”
Other tips include bringing a clean sock or stocking to cover beverages with no lids. A hat, cap or hoodie is recommended to keep chunks of mud out of your hair and eyes. Boots are a good idea, especially if it rains.
Sanitizing wipes and Swiffer dust pads can be used to clean scanners, cell phones and seat cushions. Fans are required to wear a mask, but can remove it once they get to their seats.
Comfortable clothing is suggested, although it’s not a good idea to wear white shirts, pants or shoes.
Whether it’s a one-time experiment or the first race in an annual tradition, enjoy being part of history with the first Cup race on dirt in 50 years.
It was a perfect storm: The nation’s mental health crisis and the novel coronavirus pandemic colliding to form, in essence, a dual pandemic that behavioral healthcare workers have had to face head-on.
“We were challenged with how we were going to be able to face this overwhelming surge of mental health needs,” said Tim Perry, Frontier Health’s senior vice president for children’s services, “and we’re still seeing that need.”
Perry said the combination of pandemic-related isolation, grief, school shutdowns, limited access to mental health care, job loss and social and political unrest combined in a “wave of mental health need” while providers were forced to deal with staffing shortages due to illness and quarantines, limited access to clinics and the use of telehealth.
“What we did in response to that was pretty phenomenal, actually,” Perry said, noting that they used virtual telehealth services to reach more people, kept clinics open to improve access to care and coordinated with schools to provide virtual student assistance counseling for at-risk youth. “We had to do this at a very rapid and a very limited time-frame to be able to get the services they needed to folks.”
At ReVIDA Recovery, an addiction treatment company with facilities across East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, the phones haven’t stopped ringing — an audible barometer of the surging need for behavioral health services in the region, a surge that’s required an extraordinary response.
“Without question, it was a herculean effort and I’ve never been prouder of our team,” said ReVIDA CEO Lee Dilworth. “But, it’s been very difficult and our team of providers has sacrificed (a lot), but they’ve risen to the occasion because for the people who work in this field, and our team at ReVIDA, it’s a mission as much as it is work.”
In Tennessee, overdose deaths per 100,000 people increased by 41.2%, while a February report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that drug overdose-related emergency room department visits were up 45% nationwide in 2020 compared to 2019. In terms of mental health, a Boston University study found that depression among adults has tripled since the beginning of the pandemic, with the number of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder increasing four-fold during the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Recently, Dilworth announced the ReVIDA Resilience Plan — a phased approach to re-introducing providers and staff to in-person treatment settings, beginning on April 1. And while returning to work in an office setting brings back some sense of normalcy, the surge in need isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
“Our phones have kept ringing with need,” Dilworth said. “Without question, our phones still ring, and ring a lot, with need.”
Perry said he feels the pandemic has helped shine a light on the importance of taking care of your mental health, while also breaking some of the stigma for those who seek help.
“I think the pandemic has really brought to light the seriousness of mental health issues and how it can affect anyone,” Perry said. “It’s kind of reduced the stigma, recognizing that we all went through a phenomenon that stretched our emotions and our mental health and stressed us to a level that was affecting our mental stability, our mental health and our emotions.
“I think it brought to light just how vulnerable any of us are to having mental health problems, and we’re all in need of one another’s assistance to help get through this,” he continued.
Perry also said he expects the need for behavioral health services to continue increasing “probably for another year or so” and said they are “trying to meet the needs as best we can with the resources we have with an overwhelming number of individuals having those services.”
“It pulls on the heart-strings,” Perry said. “We’re in this profession to serve people and because we care about the needs of individuals, and we want to meet the needs of everyone that we possibly can, and you do the best you can to meet those but when you see people suffering and struggling — not only in our community but in our own families, our own coworkers.
“It was taxing on our own, as providers, our own mental health and our own stress levels as we were trying to meet the needs of so many others around us,” Perry continued, “and when you have to set that aside to reach out to help others, it can be very taxing and very challenging for us emotionally.”
With new COVID-19 infections on the rise, Northeast Tennessee finds itself on the brink of yet another surge — this one coming as a potentially deadlier and more transmissible variant circulates in the region.
But with vaccines widely available for all adults in the area, health experts hope that surge can be avoided.
“We obviously believe that (vaccines are) critically important for helping build herd immunity and reduce the impact of the virus on our community — that is even more important today than it has been in the fall or the winter,” said Ballad Health Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels, citing the prevalence of variants in the region and “the impact they could have on extending the pandemic or repetitive surges in the number of cases.”
“We feel it’s as critical — even more critical now — that we continue to urge people who are able to get the vaccine to receive it,” he continued.
Tennessee to open vaccine eligibility to all adults ‘no later than April 5’; Region’s COVID-19 testing hours reduced
All Tennesseans 16 and older will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine no later than April 5, according to Gov. Bill Lee, and some counties are already opening up eligibility.
Since March 8, when the region’s new case rate fell to its lowest point in months, Northeast Tennessee has seen its seven-day average of new cases increase by 73.3%, while active cases have spiked by more than 56%. Last week, officials with the Northeast Regional Health Office confirmed there is at least one confirmed case of the B.1.1.7 variant in the region, while the Sullivan County Regional Health Department has seen “a number” of suspicious test samples.
The B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the U.K. variant, is more transmissible, and was found to be deadlier as well in a study released earlier this month, though it does not have much impact on the efficacy of vaccines.
“The concern I have is, if not enough people get vaccinated there will be a reservoir of people at risk who will continue to spread the virus, and that virus doesn’t just stay the same,” said Dr. David Morin, Holston Medical Group’s director of research who led the region’s Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial. “Those viruses can mutate and get more deadly and therefore individuals who are currently vaccinated may be at risk because other individuals who didn’t get vaccinated can serve as a host for a virus that mutates and becomes more virulent.”
With new COVID-19 cases on the rise, health officials warn against letting up on safety measures too early
For two months, Northeast Tennessee’s COVID-19 numbers had been steadily declining, the region’s seven-day rate of new cases falling to its lowest point since mid-July on March 8.
Morin said moving to allow all adults to receive the vaccine was “great news” and said “we’re making progress (but) we still have a long way to go.” Morin also said the emergence of the variant in the region underscores the importance of getting vaccinated, again noting that a large population of people who aren’t vaccinated could breed another even deadlier or more transmissible variant.
“In and of themselves, they’re nothing — they’re only something when they’re used appropriately, that is when an individual takes them,” Morin said. “We want to make sure that that critical piece is utilized so that it becomes an effective agent to prevent further COVID infection and put a lid on this (pandemic) so we can get this behind us.”
As of Friday, Northeast Tennessee counties still had some of the state’s highest rates of population with at least one dose, with Hancock County (19.45%) the only one in the region without at least 20% of its population receiving one dose of the vaccine. Ballad Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said she’s proud of the region’s high vaccine uptake number, and pointed to the partnership between Ballad and local health departments in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia as a big reason why the region has seen such strong uptake: “I don’t think we can overlook the importance of that unified front,” Swift said.
During a press conference earlier in the week, Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said the state has seen low vaccine uptake in its rural counties, which was a driving factor in making adults eligible to receive the vaccine. Swift said they’re working hard to ensure the region’s progress doesn’t stall out, though they recognize vaccine hesitancy could be an issue in the region.
“I think our region’s is defying the odds just a little bit when it comes to the data but I do expect as we get more vaccine into the arms of the people who do want it you are going to have that population that has some questions and really has some hesitancy and maybe wants to have a conversation about it,” Swift said. “And so that’s really a goal of ours, too, is to make sure that we’re understanding what those barriers are and trying to remove them.”
Runnels said it’s important to help people understand that, once vaccinated, the chances of having a symptomatic COVID-19 infection are drastically reduced, while the risk of severe illness or death is “virtually” eliminated. Runnels said keeping people out of hospitals is critically important because, when inundated with COVID-19 patients, hospitals are limited in their ability to to provide other services, such as elective surgeries.
“(Getting vaccinated) is a win-win from a standpoint of the patient has a drastically reduced risk of serious illness or death, and you can maintain normal health system operation to continue to province quality care to their communities,” Runnels said.
Swift said now is the time to seek a vaccine if you’re eligible.
“It really is about every vaccine dose in an arm,” Swift said. “We’re seeing our hospitalizations go up, we’re seeing our new cases daily go up, we’re seeing positivity rates go up, so it certainly, from an infection prevention standpoint, is the absolute time to be really having this vaccine push and bringing it to our community at the time they need it the most.”