By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Since the sports world went dark due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, it has been a waiting game to see which sport would be the first to make its return.
As of Thursday afternoon, it appears NASCAR will be the first out of the gate to start competing again, as the sanctioning body announced races, without fans, are scheduled to begin on May 17 with a visit to Darlington Raceway for the NASCAR Cup Series.
Over the next 11 days, all three NASCAR national series (Cup, Xfinity, and Trucks), will run seven races at Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway. These two tracks were chosen for the opening salvo of the new scheduled due to their proximity to all of the race teams located in and around the Charlotte area.
“NASCAR and its teams are eager and excited to return to racing, and have great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer.
“NASCAR will return in an environment that will ensure the safety of our competitors, officials and all those in the local community. We thank local, state and federal officials and medical experts, as well as everyone in the industry, for the unprecedented support in our return to racing, and we look forward to joining our passionate fans in watching cars return to the track.”
The announced schedule which runs from May 17 to May 27 is as follows:
- Sun, May 17: Darlington (Cup) – 400 mi – FOX – 3:30 PM
- Tue, May 19: Darlington (Xfinity) – 200 mi – Fox Sports 1 – 8:00 PM
- Wed, May 20: Darlington (Cup) – 500 km – FS1 – 7:30 PM
- Sun, May 24: Charlotte (Cup) – 600 mi – FOX – 6:00 PM
- Mon, May 25: Charlotte (Xfinity) – 300 mi – FS1 – 7:30 PM
- Tue, May 26: Charlotte (Gander Trucks) – 200 mi – FS1 – 8:00 PM
- Wed, May 27: Charlotte (Cup) – 500 km – FS1 – 8:00 PM
All of the announced races will be one day shows without qualifying or practice, with the exception of the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24. The announced races will also include live pit stops.
In accordance with guidance from the CDC, social distancing guidelines will be followed, with mandated use of personal protective equipment throughout the event. There will be strict limits on the number of individuals granted access into the facility, with health screenings for everyone prior to entering the facility, while on the grounds, and after exiting the facility.
NASCAR vice president of racing operations John Bobo gave a length description of the procedures that will be in place for the upcoming races, with some of the highlights including the following items:
- Asking teams and all participants, organizations, to self-monitor people for five days for symptoms before they arrive, along with filling out a medical questionnaire and an initial temperature screening.
- Any concerns arising in the initial screening will go into secondary screening with medical personnel, which will include heart rate, pulse oxygenation. Medical personnel will make decisions at that point.
- Limit of 16 for team roster, including driver, owner, pit crew, and road crew
- Cloth masks for everyone entering the infield and using the entire infield to effectively spread out and create enough distance between teams, driver motor coaches, etc.
- One-way walkways for people, with the rules strictly enforced. If people aren’t complying with rules for masks and social distancing, they will be removed from the premises.
- Mandating that those on pit road have a fireproof sock mask that will go from their nose down below their chin, or they have to use the face screen from above their eyes to below their chin.
- Spacing out spotters around the top of the stadium, with at least six to 10 feet between them.
- Temperatures will be taken randomly throughout the event of people as needed. Symptomatic patients will be processed and removed from the event and given medical attention if needed.
- Those efforts will take place outside the Infield Care Center to preserve that space for emergency needs during the race.
- Staggering exits post-race. Looking at temperature and other factors as they leave. Also requiring all the teams to disinfect as needed and we’ll even seal haulers and things like that to make sure as they go to the next event they’re safe.
Bobo added that teams and drivers wouldn’t be tested for the virus, since the tests remain in short supply and should be instead used for those most in need in the general public, but the sanctioning body will be keeping an eye on the development of antibody testing for future use.
He went on to explain that they are working with teams to keep a log of who they have interacted with over the course of a day, so if there is a positive test, they can contact trace it and quarantine those who may have been affected.
O’Donnell noted that the sanctioning body is still planning on trying to run all 36 races on the original schedule, hence the return at Darlington and Charlotte to try and get back on track and not lose any more time.
“Our intent remains to run the same number of events that we announced at the beginning of the season, and that’s for all three national series,” he said. “Our goal was also as we put this together to keep as many races as possible intact towards the middle of the back half of the season. That’s why you’re seeing some of the events take place as early as we can and as close in proximity to each race as we can.”
Calling the situation ‘fluid,’ O’Donnell added that the plan for the foreseeable future is to keep the races to within a driving distance to Charlotte and reassess at a later date to see if things have normalized enough to be able to start traveling further for races.
“I would say outside of the first four Cup events, I’ll just speak to Cup right now, the goal for us is the next I’d say three events we would like to be drivable as well. Once you get beyond that we do have states that have said, Hey, we’re good to go racing.
“But our goal was to get at least seven or so events under our belt, drivable, learn as we go, not have to put people on planes if we could avoid that.
“Once we get beyond those, I think you’ll see us move in. I keep using the word ‘fluid’, but it is. Once you get beyond those seven events we feel like we’ll be ready to continue to look at races where we may be able to travel.”
He went on to say that some tracks will lose races this season and although those decisions have been made on the exact tracks that will be affected, the sanctioning body was not ready to release that information as of yet.
As far as for when fans may be allowed back for any future races, O’Donnell said bringing fans back into the mix at some late date is still a “work in progress.”
“Our priority right now is to try and get back racing in a safe way,” he said. “I think certainly the NASCAR fan is passionate, and we want to conduct events with fans any chance we can get. But until we believe that it’s a safe environment, and we can work with the local and state communities to make that happen, we’re going to wait until we get that okay.”