At 10:15 a.m. Friday, I turned right through the front gate of Charlotte Motor Speedway and faced something familiar and startlingly new.
A traffic jam.
My first since March, when the pandemic put the work lives of thousands of us on home detention, atomized our social calendars and further stress-fractured our country.
Now hundreds of cars — five wide in NASCAR parlance — crawled through the vast speedway parking lot in a rolling testament to the common good, arriving en masse for the opening day of Atrium Health’s COVID-19 vaccine weekend.
It was all so ... Charlotte.
Sprawling. Bodaciously ambitious. And, of course, car-centric. In fact, for the first 20 minutes it was bumper to bumper — like some mini-version of Interstate 77 at rush hour.
Which was also apropos. On this morning, the temporary gridlock felt like part of the shared experience of getting to our jobs and doing our work — namely, by taking the most emphatic step yet to stop COVID-19 from controlling our lives.
That we were inching along outside the region’s monument to speed appears in retrospect as a pleasant irony from a day backlighted by life and death. But getting a needle has never been so much fun.
At 10:36 a.m., we drove onto the actual speedway, already being guided by the world’s largest medical pit crew.
An hour at the track
A confession: I don’t have the brain to understand the level of detailed planning necessary by Atrium and the speedway to get more than 16,000 people to Concord, put a needle in all of those arms then send them safely on their ways.
That the vaccinations took place inside the track gave the experience an almost carnival feel. My wife, Jennifer — who, unlike me, is too young to get the shot — giddily photographed and texted her narrated videos to friends as we drove past the towering grandstands and inched up the banked track where the Earnhardts, Pettys and Allisons have driven before us.
The volunteers, in three words and a modifier, were informed, clear and uniformly pleasant.
Starting with Carrie, the Atrium operator who made my appointment when I lucked into a cancellation late Thursday afternoon, they answered all of my questions. They explained some last-minute forms. And when my old Lab in the backseat stuck her head out of every open window expecting a Starbucks whipped-cream cup, they greeted her like an old friend.
All the while, we drivers followed the cones, signs and volunteers’ hand signals through a series of road-course turns as five lanes of traffic slowly became two and the gridlock disappeared.
After miles of travel, a last left-turn brought us to the garage. A quick right put me outside of Bay 10. A masked volunteer — a Florida Gators football fan — walked up to my window, took one look at the Alabama mask I was wearing and told me she couldn’t let me in. We both laughed.
I rolled my car a few yards further to an open nursing station. It was time for my shot. It was also a time for photos, which the nurses happily volunteered to snap.
The precision of the morning tightened. At 10:57 a.m., the needle went into my left arm and stayed there 10 seconds while a nurse counted down. After the morning’s public hurly-burly, the experience of finally getting the vaccine seemed highly personal.
A short drive out of the garage put me again in five stopped lanes of traffic. There, I waited 15 minutes to make sure I didn’t have an adverse reaction to the shot. We were instructed to blow our horns or turn on our emergency blinkers if any symptoms came on. Just to make sure, volunteers walked among the rows of cars, making small talk to double-check that all was well and that nobody drove off too soon.
At 11:12 a.m., almost exactly an hour after we arrived, Jennifer and I got the green flag to head home. It felt like our vaccination pit crew had given us everything but four new tires and a tank of gas.
Outside the track, the day sobered. The virus still dominates and the country remains divided. From my vantage point, the lines of drivers who had come for the vaccine this day had been far more Subaru than F-150, and as we turned onto Bruton Smith Boulevard an electronic billboard solicited tips about any local names involved in the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol.
Our response to COVID-19 continues to be held hostage by the politics of our times. Many of our neighbors either dismiss the disease as a hoax or haven’t gotten the message that vaccines to save lives are available, with more doses coming in the days ahead. As of Sunday morning, according to the Washington Post, only 15% of prioritized Americans have gotten their shots.
That said, for me at least Atrium’s mammoth speedway drive-thru had reinvigorated my appreciation for the power of a community purpose. It had also been a blast.
We’ll be back at the track in three weeks. Next time, Jennifer gets to drive.
Michael Gordon covers legal affairs for the Observer