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(SPEEDWAY, Ind.) – The television host of the 500 says the return of fans to the Speedway is a symbolic turning point as the U.S. emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

NBC’s Mike Tirico hosted his first 500 in 2019. In a Speedway Q&A with the Economic Club of Indiana, he recalled arriving before dawn to get ready for the broadcast, to find blocks-long lines of cars waiting for the track to open. He says driving through the gates of a deserted Speedway three hours before the green flag last year drove home how awful the pandemic had been.

Tirico says broadcasting the race without spectators was strange, though not as strange as Sunday Night Football later in the year. At the 500, he points out, the roar of the engines is the background sound of the broadcast. For the NFL, he recalls, he’d hear the simulated crowd noise added by the TV production team, then look around to see empty stands.

Tirico says sports provided needed relief during the stress of the pandemic. Once sports resumed, starting with Major League Baseball in July, he says it was one of the few entertainment events which went forward more or less normally, even if the fans were absent. And just as the vacant seats at last year’s race dramatized the pandemic’s toll, Tirico says reasserting the race’s longstanding boast of being the largest single-day sporting event marks a milestone toward a return to normal. Attendance for Sunday’s race is capped at 40% capacity, but Tirico points out at the Speedway, that’s about 135,000 people.