The COVID-19 pandemic has put this country at a standstill, including NASCAR. The decision to go racing, whenever that is going to be will be controversial. This week it was being reported that NASCAR is considering a return to racing, with no fans in the stands by the end of May. The race everyone is pointing to is the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That race is scheduled for Sunday night on May 24.
If that is indeed NASCAR’s target, is the decision too soon? With the facts that we know about the disease, is NASCAR rushing their way back and should they race by the end of May? Should they wait until they are 100% sure that everyone will be safe before even announcing they are going to return? Or is it still too early to tell? Our writers Adam Cheek and Vito Pugliese debate.
Play the Waiting Game
Race weekends require an incredible team effort to make events go off without a hitch. NASCAR officials, pit crews, drivers, spotters and track staff are all needed to keep everything that goes on during race weekend running smoothly and efficiently.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into all of that. Possibilities have been thrown around with the season on hold of how to bring back NASCAR – whether it’s races without fans or other methods of reducing potential spread of the virus.
Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway have been hotspots of recent debate for this – lawmakers in North Carolina want the Coca-Cola 600 to go on as planned next month and Texas governor Greg Abbott is reportedly working with NASCAR on a potential return date in the Lone Star State. Darlington Raceway has also been pitched as a venue of return.
All of this is way too soon, especially with the current state of things – the graph of new cases courtesy of the New York Times has begun to steady itself, but there are factors including false negative tests and unknown cases that make knowing the virus’ true trends damn near impossible.
On one hand, I understand the impact this has had on teams, particularly the smaller ones – layoffs, furloughs and general lack of work at the moment has hit them hard.
But nothing is a safe bet until this begins to take a downward turn. I’m not saying they should wait until a vaccine is developed and distributed, because with the right precautionary steps it’s entirely possible to begin a return to some semblance of normalcy. However, the biggest risk is a second wave of the virus – it’s not even close to being over yet, and pulling the trigger on a return could send us all back into quarantine and make things worse.
Taking a page from my fellow Frontstretchians, I’ll provide an example alluded to by our own Michael Finley and Bryan Nolen. Say Bubba Wallace walks into the garage to get in his car. A crew member, who hasn’t seen him in a while, absentmindedly reaches out for a handshake, and Wallace doesn’t think twice about doing the same.
No one is safe from the effects of coronavirus, although the severity might vary for different ages and conditions. So, Wallace might recover, but if he happens to see Richard Petty the following week and shakes his hand, it’s possible he might not be as lucky. A morbid example? Certainly. But it’s entirely possible, and the same goes for anyone of any age in the sport, especially the older owners and associates.
It’s too much of a risk to even try to go back racing. I miss NASCAR as much as anyone, believe me – not writing about it week to week has left a huge void, and several of us, including myself, would’ve been at Richmond Raceway for the races last weekend. However, lives and well-being need to be paramount when compared to entertainment and events. – Adam Cheek
The First Step is The Hardest
As stay-at-home orders are nearing their respective deadlines throughout the country, several states have been discussing loosening restrictions for travel and work. Georgia is leading the way this week, with South Carolina and North Carolina working to follow suit. Rumblings in recent days have shifted from talking about when we might be able to go back racing, to what needs to be set in place so we can go racing in the next few weeks.
While hope isn’t a strategy, it does help provide a much-needed emotional and psychological lift in the short term. The last two weeks have been a bummer when it comes to seeing NASCAR in the news, for something that had nothing to do with racing, and picked a 60-year-old scab that maybe was starting to heel. However, we might be at the point where it’s time to start identifying what steps we can take to allow an event to take place.
The logistics of putting on a race itself is a monumental task, one that after so many years we’ve taken for granted. If you’ve ever been able to wander the garage area on Friday morning when it opens for inspection and first practice, it’s a pretty bustling place. The haulers are sandwiched in, less than the six-foot social distance guidelines state, even at some of the larger facilities. Team members filing in behind one another, rolling toolboxes, unloading the trailers, preparing for three days in close proximity among 40 teams. Even walking around is a chore when you get to the area where the TV trucks are, with miles of cables and the small army of production staff and on-air talent to bring the show to the millions watching or listening from afar.
Oh, and everyone in the media center too.
Now, start to strip away who is “essential” to make a weekend work, and to do so within Phase Two – or even Phase One – of the CDC guidelines that were rolled out last week. NASCAR has always operated under the premise that the fans are what make the sport work and as the drivers have always maintained, “if it wasn’t for the fans, we wouldn’t be here!”
Well, guess who isn’t going to be there? Sorry fans, you’re going to have to sit these first few out at home.
Which, in the grand scheme of things, probably not a bad idea and a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. As things are, a lot of fans probably aren’t up for risking contact or crowds. Financially, it’s probably going to be a stretch for a bit too. The salary reductions and furloughs that NASCAR is working through are the same ones that impact the bottom of line of almost everyone in the country right now. Limiting exposure as much as possible would need to be a requirement, and limiting travel is obviously part of that. Even if half of what we’ve come to expect as a normal crowd size were to show up, that’s still upwards of 25,000 people.
The length of the events is another consideration. NASCAR’s typical three-day tour should be whittled down to one if possible. Charlotte Motor Speedway and Darlington are being considered for first events – possibly as soon as May 22, as competitors are lobbying for locations within driving distance of Charlotte, N.C. where virtually all of the teams are based, as reported by Adam Stern of the Sports Business Journal earlier this week. While the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix have been pushed back to August, the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend might end up being something a bit shorter, and a week later – again, without fans. Now, Charlotte does have those seats painted to look like fans, so it’ll look like the iRacing on TV that everyone has been subjected to the last few weeks. But it will be actual live action on TV.
Remember the last time that happened in 1979 with a captive audience? It propelled the sport from a regional underground niche sport to being the staple of burgeoning cable networks and live network exposure.
This is not to suggest that’s going to happen again – and under no circumstance would I ever remotely suggest we put lives in peril to do so. Yes, there are precautions that need to be taken, not unlike many are becoming used to. Having your temperature taken prior to entering a health clinic, wearing protective gloves and masks (both of which should be staples of any race team for body work), coupled with appropriate distancing and disinfecting of the work area. Keep in mind we’re still a month or so out from it even happening, and a sufficient number of testing kits should be available by then to screen competitors in the garage area. All of this is preliminary – and a month away at the earliest. A lot can change either for the good – or if it’s determined we’re not where we need to be.
Or things have possibly even deteriorated to the point where it just isn’t going to happen.
Barring any further state of emergency declarations or legal actions, the competitors of course have the ultimate say. If the drivers or team owners refuses to subject themselves to the environment, it’s likely not going to be one hold out; there will be several that don’t feel it’s prudent. NASCAR isn’t going to hold a race with 20 cars in the field. Keep in mind this is a sport that runs solely on the principles of other people’s money. If sponsors don’t want to be associated with bad actors, they will more than make the feelings felt in the most impactful way possible. McDonald’s, Credit One Bank and Chevrolet proved that out last week over one awful word that was blurted out during a video game.
When examining the path back for NASCAR to resume, let’s not conflate going racing in a month with what going racing meant three months ago. It’s going to remarkably different and probably not recognizable. The potential for a reduction of race length would not be unprecedented. Races were shortened by 50 miles during the fuel crisis in 1974. There might be scheduled, or alternating pit stops to limit activity on pit road, or the elimination of pit stops all together. Do they park the haulers outside and push the cars in one at a time? It’s going to be an adjustment and not like anything we’ve seen in recent memory.
I want to remain optimistic and believe it can happen and be done successfully. Nobody wants to see anyone put at risk of falling ill with what has led to the death of 40,000 people so far in our country. It would do everyone well if it can be done safely and serve as the model for other sports to follow suit when the time is right for their respective teams and players to take the field. For NASCAR to enjoy something positive and step back into national prominence as a leader in the industry would be perhaps the biggest lift the sport has received in the last 20 years. – Vito Pugliese
About the author
Clayton has been writing NASCAR for the last seven years and has followed the sport for as long as he can remember. He's a Jersey boy with dreams of hoping one day to take his style south and adding a different kind of perspective to auto racing.