Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: NASCAR Racing Needs to Return

Do you remember where you were on the evening of March 11, 2020? I do.

While writing at Frontstretch hasn’t been able to pay all the bills (hopefully it will, sooner rather than later), every writer on the website needs a second job, in addition to bringing value to the website. That day, which seems like an eternity ago, is when sports began to shut down and I, too, was at work.

At work, people often catch me thinking about racing and how to better myself when it comes to writing. The old adage, if you enjoy what you do, you will never work a day in your life is so true, especially when it comes to racing.

To me, covering this sport isn’t just an escape, but a lifestyle. I’d be lying if I said during quarantine part of me doesn’t miss long nights traveling to and from racetracks, getting very little sleep, only to do it again and again…. and again!

Going to a multitude of local dirt tracks growing up in the heart of Big Block Modified country – central New York – you understand what racing is and what it means to the community. For whatever reason, there is something attractive about the smell of dirt, burnt rubber and gasoline. You also see the determination of those racers. They know if you work hard at something, maybe, just maybe, a bigger opportunity will arise. I see you, Tim McCreadie and Stewart Friesen!

I miss it. I miss the local tracks. I miss our sport. I’m just one of many people who feel a part of me is lost, hurting and hoping in just a few short weeks away we’ll be whole again.

The guys in the Xfinity Series are hurting, too. When a casual person thinks of NASCAR, they think of the glitz and glamour, the big-name drivers winning races. They might not realize how much travel is involved to do it, how much money it costs and how much time it takes away from ones you love. The competition still makes you go to extreme measures to be successful, whether you’re running first or 20th.

Those drivers, crew members and team owners have worked their asses off. Racing is their life. If a fan buys a hot pass enabling them to enter the NASCAR garage – the sport’s workspace – they’ll see certain Xfinity drivers working on their respective cars.

Now? Those engines are silent. Everyone’s livelihoods have taken a back seat to a pandemic. And the positive momentum they’d been a part of to start 2020 has been stopped dead center in its tracks.

It’s taken a toll on journalism, too. If you’re a frequent reader of this Eyes on Xfinity column, you know I like nothing more than being able to tell positive stories (on a personal level, staying positive in my own life is something I’ve tried for roughly four-five months, and it’s paid great dividends). I focus on teams of all sizes in the garage, finding the good parts of what makes them tick.

But you also know over the past six weeks, that’s no longer a story to be told. We’ve all been steeped in negativity because that’s the story now, turning over rocks to find nothing but people suffering. Will this team shut down? Will that team shut down? How can your team survive this mess?

When the season resumes in mid-May at Darlington Raceway, it’ll have been 10 weeks since the previous race at Phoenix Raceway. That means nine full weeks on the mend (eight Cup races to makeup, six Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races). A typical offseason is also 12 weeks, meaning teams have only received four paychecks from NASCAR in more than a half year. Ouch.

To some degree, every race team in all forms of motorsports has been affected by COVID-19. Racetracks, race teams, employees, people have all been hurt from this virus. Millions upon millions are applying for unemployment in the United States every week, while others fight to survive, including those working the front lines. The economy has tanked, costing some jobs while others have paid with something much worse: their life.

Enough of that crap.

We’re all ready, eagerly anticipating real racing’s return as a distraction to the crisis at hand. I know it needs to be done safely. I know it needs to be done right. But count me first in line as just being ready for it to come back.

The video-game edition doesn’t do NASCAR justice. Since its first race on March 22, iRacing has been a great escape for all race fans. Viewership is great, ushering in the highest-rated eSports event of all-time on network television (1.3 million viewers). Hell, its viewership is better than an average Xfinity race, which is typically the second most-watched racing series in the world (only behind Cup).

But, I, like others, have seen enough. iRacing is a great form of entertainment that’s become greatly oversaturated. It’s also a game, albeit one that just so happens to be the closest simulation to real-life sports that’s been created.

I can most definitely respect the skill it takes to be successful in eNASCAR. But it’ll never replace the real thing. The smell of an engine once it starts up on pit road. The sound of fenders rubbing as drivers fight to the line at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Even iRacing, meant to give NASCAR fans something positive to look forward to, has led to trouble instead. When Kyle Larson used a racial slur in the Monza Madness race, hosted by Landon Cassill and Garrett Smithley, the public heard the word. It was a matter of time before sponsors left. (Rightfully so.)

Within 36 hours after the event, Larson was gone, too, fired from Chip Ganassi Racing. The move came just nine days after Bubba Wallace and Richard Petty Motorsports lost Blue-Emu as an associate sponsor for the famed No. 43 car for essentially rage quitting during the virtual race at Bristol.

When NASCAR returns in May, it’s going to be different. There will be limited people at the track and no spectators in attendance. Competitive pit stops may not even happen. Fans won’t be able to see the glory or disappointment of drivers and teams because of face masks.

It won’t seem normal, people say. Who cares? As we live in the midst of the biggest pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu, there will be a new normal anyways. What that is, nobody knows.

The closest thing NASCAR and other racing series can lean on is last weekend’s racing events in South Dakota. Was everything perfect? No. If you ask Park Jefferson International Speedway track owner Adam Adamson, he would tell you the event was uninspiring, with no extracurricular activities going on at the track.

NASCAR veterans Kenny Wallace and Ken Schrader both participated in the events at Park Jefferson and Raceway Park. While the crowd wasn’t the same, both men were pleased with how the tracks followed the Center For Disease and Control Prevention guidelines.

“They were monitoring everything,” Wallace told me. “I don’t know how [the tracks] could have done it any better.”

It was a start.

As more and more states begin reopening, there will likely be another outbreak in coronavirus cases. Some tracks on the NASCAR circuit will lose dates because some state governments won’t support mass gatherings (Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events may not be approved in the city for at least one year.”)

But teams need to race in order to survive. With no income, teams were forced to furlough and lay off many, if not all, employees over the past two months.

When NASCAR returns at the track Too Tough To Tame, everyone knows the risk, and in this case, the risk might be worth the reward. With a limited number of sports back up and running, all eyes, for the time being, will be back on racing. There’s a chance to recapture some of the magic that led to explosive growth in the early 2000s.

Every driver I’ve talked to over the past six weeks is chomping at the bit to strap in behind the wheel. They simply can’t wait. Fans are also craving racing, wanting to hear the roar of engines, albeit through a television set for the time being. (Make sure to have that surround sound on!)

NASCAR, though put in a ginormous box, made the right decision on going forward with the season. It had to for its future. Whether it should return can be debated. If just one driver in the garage gets sick, I’d expect another shutdown, likely for the season. Remember, risk vs. reward.

But it’s time for NASCAR to take the chance. Simply the sight of a return date fuels fire for our passion. And I don’t know how much longer people who form the lifeblood of this sport can stay sane with the fire out.

About the author

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Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.

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