Races will run under a COVID-19 caution flag
By Bobby Bryant
NASCAR’s vice president of racing operations, John Bobo, puts it like this: “Events are going to look different than they have in the past.”
The biggest difference: There won’t be any fans at NASCAR’s next several races, including three that will be held nearly back to back at Darlington Raceway next week.
Welcome to the world of professional racing in the age of COVID-19, the virus that has paralyzed the United States, killed tens of thousands and put tens of millions out of work.
As NASCAR restarts its season with races May 17, 19 and 20 in Darlington, then four more in Charlotte in a four-day period, coronavirus caution will rule the track. NASCAR plans to allow only “essential” personnel into the venues, and even those people will be held to strict “social-distancing” rules.
Also, NASCAR says, it’s limiting racing team rosters to 16 people (including the driver). NASCAR said in a statement: “Everyone at the race track will then be regularly evaluated by temperature and symptom checks. NASCAR has chosen not to test people specifically for COVID-19.”
And according to at least one report (in USA Today), if you’re involved in putting on a race under these COVID-19 regulations, and if you break the rules designed to limit exposure to the virus, NASCAR is prepared to fine you up to $50,000.
“We know we have to work together as an industry to keep our own folks safe, to keep each community safe,” Bobo said in NASCAR press materials. “But it is the discipline and the safety culture of NASCAR. We’re the organization that puts cars on the track four days a week at 200 miles an hour. We think it’s that same discipline and eye towards safety that every –
is going to help us execute on this.”
Even with “essential” personnel only, there likely will be a significant number of people at Darlington Raceway for next week’s three races. In March, Forbes magazine’s website pointed out that it takes “2,000 to 2,500 people … just to stage a NASCAR weekend, even with no one in the stands.”
But having no fans at the track will be a major departure for a sport whose lifeblood is its fans and the exuberant show they bring to the infield, even to the parking lots.
“Lady in Black is going to be lonely without her loyal spectators in the infield or grandstands,” someone posted on Darlington Raceway’s Facebook page.
Another fan posted: “I’ll take it however I can get it right now. TV ratings will be high. Maybe pick up some new fans.”
Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp told NASCAR.com: “It’s going to be very different — the type of event that we’re putting on compared to what we’re used to, when we usually have 50, 60 thousand people on our property for three or four days, having a big, festival type of atmosphere.”
“We’re not going to have that right now, but now’s not the time for that,” Tharp said. “We’re trying to get back in the best way that we can with live sports and NASCAR, and this is the step that we have to take. So, it is a great deal different than what we’re used to doing, but I feel confident in our team and all the plans that have been put in place that we’ll put on a super event.”
Here’s the lineup for the Darlington races:
Sunday, May 17: NASCAR Cup Series race, 400 miles, starting at 3:30 p.m., televised by FOX, also broadcast by FOX Deportes, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
Tuesday, May 19: Xfinity Series race, 200 miles, starting at 8 p.m., televised by FS1, also broadcast by MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
Wednesday, May 20: NASCAR Cup Series race, 500 kilometers, starting at 7:30 p.m., televised by FS1, also broadcast by MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Channel 90.
“I think it’s pretty cool to look at a Wednesday race,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said last week during an interview on “The Dale Jr. Download” with host Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“I know it’s something that we’ve been looking to do for a while and test out,” Phelps said. “Now we have the opportunity to test it out and see how it’s going to go. It is different, right, to be going to a racetrack for a Cup race, two races in a row, but I think everyone is starved to get back to racing.”
“You look at the success of the iRacing and the number of eyeballs that it has put out there,” he added. “We think (resumption of racing) is going to be a really good test for us and a real opportunity for us to not just have our core fans consume the sport like they never have because we haven’t been racing for so long, but also an opportunity for other people to see our sport, sample our sport.
“I think we’re going to have millions of fans that will tune in who otherwise wouldn’t that are going to see how great our sport is. I think we’ll have a potential (number of) lifetime fans that will come out of this really difficult situation that we’re experiencing.”