Updated May 23, 2020 - 1:20 pm
Sanniyah Haye arrived a few hours early Friday night for her high school graduation at an unusual venue — the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The ceremony is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the 18-year-old said. “It didn’t fit what any of us were expecting.”
Haye was in a car with her aunt — who was driving — and her mother, grandfather and grandmother. She was wearing a traditional cap and gown.
In total, 256 seniors from Faith Lutheran Middle School &High School received their diplomas in their cars with their families, then took an approximately mile-long “victory lap” around the racetrack.
They heard a graduation address — as well as remarks from the class valedictorian — via their car radios using the speedway’s low-power FM transmitter.
Steve Buuck, CEO at Faith Lutheran, said Thursday that after all the things the high school seniors missed out on this year, he hopes the graduation will be a “unique, memorable experience” they won’t forget.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the private Christian school — along with other schools across the Las Vegas Valley — wasn’t able to hold a traditional graduation ceremony. Some are postponing their ceremonies while others took steps to find alternatives.
Friday night’s event marked the first time the Las Vegas Motor Speedway has hosted a high school graduation.
“We’re just excited we’re able to give these kids the opportunity to have a commencement,” speedway spokesman Jeff Motley said Thursday, adding it will be an unusual story graduates can tell for decades to come.
Over the next week, the speedway will host a handful of smaller graduation ceremonies, Motley said, adding that he wasn’t sure which schools are participating.
Faith Lutheran is Nevada’s largest private school, with more than 1,900 students. Its campus is near downtown Summerlin.
In early April, the school was considering options for graduation — whether to postpone it until the summer or hold an in-person ceremony.
School officials looked into large venues they could rent and reached out to the speedway.
Buuck said holding graduation at the speedway was a “crazy idea” initially, but because it can accommodate tens of thousands of spectators, it offered plenty of space for approximately 3,000 attendees to spread out.
But after consulting with health experts, school officials decided attendees should stay in their cars to be respectful of social distancing guidelines, he said.
On Friday night when each student and their family arrived at the speedway, they were handed a checkered flag, keepsake mask with Faith Lutheran’s logo on it and a graduation program.
Ryan Schofield, 17, was in the driver’s seat of a car with his parents. They arrived about 1½ hours before the ceremony to get in one of the lines, marked with chalk.
He said he’s glad the school was able to do something for graduation under the circumstances and for the chance to see friends.
After school closed and transitioned to remote learning, Schofield said he focused on the “little things” that were within his control. “You kind of make the best of it.”
He plans to go to college in Hawaii to study oceanography and environmental science policy.
Haye said she’s grateful for the opportunity to have a graduation ceremony since a lot of Clark County School District schools aren’t having one this spring.
She plans to attend Virginia State University on a full-ride academic scholarship to study computer engineering.
It was blustery Friday at the speedway as families listened to graduation speakers, honking after each one finished. Some graduates got out of their cars for the turning of the tassels.
After listening to an approximately 30-minute ceremony, each car, one-by-one, drove to the starting line. During that time, each student’s name and information such as their future plans was announced.
Then, each car made an almost complete lap around the speedway. Students and their families weren’t allowed to travel at NASCAR speeds, though. They were instructed to abide by a 40-mph speed limit.
Valedictorian Philip Root was the first to get his diploma on the racetrack.