Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: Weighing Risk vs. Reward on NASCAR’s Return

It was April 30 when NASCAR announced its plan to return to racing, beginning May 17 at Darlington Raceway. There’d be two Cup events at the Track Too Tough To Tame, followed by a couple more at Charlotte Motor Speedway with some Xfinity and Truck Series events intertwined.

It’ll be 71 days, almost an entire normal offseason, when the green flag drops at Darlington. And boy, is it going to be fun to watch.

Drivers with literally zero laps turned for months barreling down into one of the toughest corners in all of NASCAR. No practice. No qualifying. Just buckle up, hammer down and hope it sticks.

Happy. That’s what I’ll be while watching 40 of the world’s best racing again. I’ve missed it dearly. I know almost all NASCAR fans share that sentiment.

It’s going to be a welcome distraction from what has been a worldwide tragedy. The COVID-19 pandemic has been just that–a tragedy–with hundreds of thousands dead, over 80,000 in the United States alone.

But dammit, I’m so… torn.

As a sanctioning body, NASCAR has done pretty much everything it can to ensure all bases are covered and individuals who’ll be at the track will be as safe as possible, with no fans in attendance, team rosters limited to 16 per car, cloth masks being a requirement, drivers quarantined to their motorhomes, teams working in the garage with social distancing enforced, temperature screenings upon entering the facility, random temperature checks, every person maintaining a contact tracing log and more.

Frankly, most of those measures put in place are going to work. They have across the country and the world up until this point for the most part. But most is not all.

I don’t pretend to act like I’m a know-it-all when it comes to this stuff. I’ll leave that up to the medical professionals, as we all should. But here’s what I do know.

People at the racetrack will contract this virus. Period.

When the race begins, I’m sure everybody, myself included, isn’t going to worry about the ramifications of what’s going on at Darlington. Heck, I’m sure the crew members, FOX and Darlington employees, medical workers, drivers, etc., aren’t going to either. They’re there to do a job.

Maybe besides the occasional pit stop where social distancing can’t be enforced, but it’ll be an afterthought. Drivers are isolated in their cars, crews isolated in their pit stalls, camera operators isolated on their posts.

NASCAR can and will do all it can to prevent the spread of this virus. But it can’t be 100% successful. It won’t be. The statistics say it’s nearly impossible.

16 roster spots multiplied by 40 cars equals 640 individuals. That’s not counting the camera operators, track employees, security, medical workers and the like. Make no bones about it: this ain’t no small gathering.

Sure, the grandstands won’t be full and the capacity of the venue will be down probably 99% from what it usually is. But in case you’re not understanding me, let me again try to make myself clear.

People at the racetrack will contract this virus. Period.

The rapid spread in Melbourne, Australia, at Formula 1’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix though the McLaren team was largely due to asymptomatic cases. NASCAR will not be testing anybody for COVID-19, citing the waiting period for results and the need for the general public to have access to testing.

“Those tests remain in short supply,” John Bobo, NASCAR vice president of racing operations, said in a teleconference on April 30. “Getting results can take two to three days. Really, those tests should be targeted for people most in need.”

While that’s all good and well-intentioned, it makes me nervous.

I have faith that if a crew member or driver is symptomatic, they won’t put others in harm’s way and go to work. They’ll stay home.

But if that person is showing no symptoms, what’s to stop them from going to work, earning a living, putting food on the table for their family? Hell, I’d do it. Anybody would. I feel fine, I go to work.

Ronaldo Souza, a UFC fighter who tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend in Florida, was asymptomatic. Yet he yielded a positive test, and the UFC went through with its event, which was widely regarded as a success.

Knowing Souza had the virus and it was possible he somehow transmitted it to others even while social distancing and remaining quarantined in his hotel room, millions of people watched on TV. I did, and I enjoyed seeing a live sport back in action, as did millions of others.

I love NASCAR and want to see it succeed. If you’re reading this, you do too (I hope). I mean, you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think the incredible opportunity to be one of the only live sports competing in the United States didn’t play into the NASCAR return coming when it is.

The upcoming race at Darlington has been compared to the 1979 Daytona 500, when pretty much the entire East Coast was snowed in with nothing to watch on television besides, wouldn’t you know it, the first ever live flag-to-flag telecast of a NASCAR race on CBS.

The race was a hit, and so were the ratings. That’s largely thanks to a finish for the ages that saw Richard Petty claim victory while Cale Yarborough and the Alabama Gang traded blows on the backstretch after the checkered flag flew.

The opportunity presented now, 41 years later, is one too big for NASCAR to pass up.

“We realize upfront it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport,” NASCAR vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said. “But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together. Our entire industry has come together to believe in the plan.”

But that plan is (here comes the magic word!) fluid. O’Donnell said the current plan they have in place is “version 65” and insinuated it’s written in pencil, with changes likely to pop up here and there once they see how the first race at Darlington goes.

But once the excitement wore off of NASCAR returning, I couldn’t knock a hypothetical (which I hope never happens) that entered my mind.

Let’s say a star driver tests positive for COVID-19. Since NASCAR is not administering testing on site, the driver would have gotten a test from an outside vendor. There’s no telling how they got the virus, how long they’ve had it in their system and how far in their contact tracing log one would need to go in order to figure out who may be at risk.

Then comes the business side of things. For nearly 80 days, NASCAR and its partners have worked tirelessly to build a schedule that attempts to recoup lost time and dollars for race teams. And yes, really, teams need the money. Many had furloughed employees, taken pay cuts and began to make contingency plans for the possibility of a reduced schedule in 2020. And it wasn’t just the teams; NASCAR as a sanctioning body did so as well.

But with one positive test, that plan could go out the window at a moment’s notice. For a week, a month… who knows how long.

Or it could remove said driver from the seat and trek onward. But as we know, the public relations 30,000-ft. view of that situation may be too bad to continue. Then again, look at Dana White last weekend.

But what if “John Smith,” let’s say a shock specialist for the 38th-place car, tests positive. Will NASCAR know? Will it find out? Will the he willingly remove himself from the situation, or will his need to provide for his family outweigh the bigger picture?

Or will anyone even care? After all, it’s not Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

What happens then?

You’re also kidding yourself if you think not just NASCAR, but also the general public, cares more if a star athlete has COVID-19 compared to a nobody who’s replaceable. As frustrating as that is, and in a perfect world everybody would be on an equal playing field, it’s the truth.

I realize that example is perhaps on the extreme end and may be a bit morbid, but it’s a distinct, realistic possibility.

As my colleague Bryan Keith stated this week: “Despite relying on temperature checks and health screening that are publicly acknowledged as not 100% accurate to keep competitors safe, NASCAR is proving the exception, not the norm, in professional sports going back to work.”

The reward for NASCAR’s return could be returning to the mainstream, ratings increasing, sponsorship dollars rushing back in and the sport receiving that boom it’s been searching for the past decade.

But if the cost of that reward is just one life, it’s too steep a price to pay.

About the author

Davey is in his fifth season with Frontstretch and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the "NASCAR Mailbox" column, spearheads the site's video content and hosts the Frontstretch Podcast weekly. He's covered the K&N Pro Series and ARCA extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as an associate producer for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and production assistant for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter @DaveyCenter.

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