LONG POND, Pa. — The gray sedan inched along in traffic toward the finish line, then stopped, and a teenager in a graduation gown hopped out and grabbed her diploma.
Her name — Janae Allure Tabb — echoed across the long, empty grandstand as the announcer read it. Down the track, her grandmother raised her hands in the air outside another car when Janae’s class picture appeared on the Jumbotron.
After that, there was nothing but open road in front of Janae’s car, a straightaway to summer, to adulthood, to the hair salon she wants to open in Atlanta. Her father wanted her to pin the pedal to the floor, literally. So she did, speeding toward the first turn much faster than any boys did at Pocono Raceway during one of Pennsylvania’s unique graduation ceremonies Thursday night.
“Get it, girl!” Asa Tabb shouted, as she zoomed past him.
The 126 seniors at Jim Thorpe Area High School in Carbon County were last together in school on March 13. Then, COVID-19 restrictions went into place, canceling many milestones in their final lap. No prom. No spring sports. And graduation appeared to be on the rocks, as well, with Carbon County in the yellow phase, which limits gatherings.
“It seemed like all we were telling these kids was ‘No,’” said John Rushefski, superintendent of the Jim Thorpe Area School District.
In stepped Pocono Raceway in Monroe County with 2.5 miles of “Yes.” The state’s only NASCAR track, known as the “tricky triangle” for its unique three-turn track, Pocono seats 76,812, enough to social-distance the whole school if needed. With all racing on hold at the track, owners decided they could host a few hundred people for graduations.
"It is all about our local Class of 2020 students and giving them the chance to celebrate all they have accomplished during their high school careers,” CEO Nick Igdalsky said in a statement.
Family members were able to pull onto the track’s long straightaway for the 5 p.m. ceremony. Many had fastened balloons and signs to their cars. The students or a parent drove single file past them, each stopping at the finish line to get out and grab their diplomas.
Rushefski said the district paid $4,500 to have graduation at the racetrack, with the money going to staffing, electronics, and a fireworks display. Notre Dame High School of East Stroudsburg was the first school to have its graduation at the track, with 51 seniors getting their diplomas on May 30. In total, the track was hosting eight graduations with 1,800 local students.
Pocono Raceway’s first NASCAR race will be on the weekend of June 27-28, without fans.
“It’s a bit surreal,” said Scott Pompa, vice president of the Jim Thorpe school board. “But I am really glad this is happening for our graduates, because they’ve really been ripped off.”
The commencement was broadcast on FM radio, and the Jumbotrons, which normally show speeding cars and the occasional wreck, replayed videos of teens being teens, before COVID-19.
“We missed out last semester and our chance, for some of us, to say our final goodbyes, but our story is about much more than what we lost in the past few months,” class president Cobe Cameron Frycklund said in a prerecorded message played on the Jumbotron.
On the track, Frycklund’s parents sat in their car, watching. He’ll be playing tackle for Bloomsburg University’s football team later this year.
“This is about as good as it’s going to get for the kids. They’ll never forget this,” said his mother, Shannon Frycklund.
James Adames, 18, was one of the first graduates to drive down Pocono’s victory lane. Cars beeped as he passed by.
“I’m proud our school did this,” Adames, a basketball player at Jim Thorpe, said as he drove.
A handful of students, and one parent, hit the gas hard on the track in Chevy Camaros and Ford Mustangs.
Janae Tabb, 17, drove an Acura.
“This is different, for sure,” she said after she did a full lap on the track. “But we made the best out of it.”