By Cole Cusumano
Eight weeks have passed since race fans were treated to an exhilarating preview of NASCAR’s Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway. Following the action in the desert, the wide-world of sports and reality as we knew it came to a screeching halt due to COVID-19, which has been plaguing 2020 for the better part of three months.
After becoming the final domino to fall in the closure of professional sports, NASCAR will become the first sanctioning body to resume operations, without spectators in attendance. While being one of the only forms of live entertainment will present its own rewards, it’s important to consider both the positive and negative outcomes that can coincide with the return of competition.
The NASCAR Cup Series will resume action beginning with Darlington Raceway, before returning home to Charlotte Motor Speedway the following week. The two intermediate tracks will host the three national series, beginning with the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday, May 17th. Here is where things start to get interesting.
Following the scheduled event in South Carolina on May 17th, the NASCAR Xfinity Series will pick things up on Tuesday, May 19th. The very next day, the sport’s premier series will compete in a 500k race at the 1.3-mile track — the first of two events in this format in May.
NASCAR then returns home to North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 24th. This starts a four-day marathon for the three top-tier series. The Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series will compete on the 25th and 26th, respectively. Then the Cup Series wraps things up on the 27th in another 500km event.
There’s quite a bit to unpack here, but let’s start with the overall product. From a race fan’s perspective, it doesn’t get better than this. Four races in an 11-day span for the Cup Series, and a full week’s worth of racing in that time for all three series? Count us in! However, expanded upon this, it’s important to know how these events will be managed by NASCAR.
As mentioned previously, all seven races will be run without spectators in attendance. NASCAR worked with the CDC to come to a conclusion about how to resume operations in an efficient and timely manner. Having said that, no fans in attendance for the month of May (and the foreseeable future) is undoubtedly a no brainer for the safety of those involved with the sport and the surrounding communities of the race tracks.
Looking at the schedule ahead, Darlington and Charlotte are two of the most beloved venues on the circuit. Taking away that fan experience and buzzing atmosphere at these tracks is going to be eerily abnormal — specifically, for the Coca-Cola 600. Hailed as one of the sport’s crowned-jewels and located in “the heart of NASCAR,” it may come as a shock to many that this event in particular wasn’t moved to a later date. But if you really think about it, this was a smart move to keep this race as is.
In being the only professional sport to be televised live, NASCAR was already set to see a fairly drastic increase in viewership. When you throw in one of the most physically demanding tracks and a crowned-jewel event into the mix, the potential to attract short-term viewers and turn them into weekly fans is infinite.
Sure it will be odd not seeing thousands of fans in the grandstands cheering as someone wins one of the most historic races of the season, but it’s a small price to pay if the sport can bring in more fans for the long haul. It’s also very much a win that the event in North Carolina managed to keep it’s Memorial Day weekend tradition alive. After all, Coca-Cola 600 is bigger than NASCAR itself; it’s all about honoring those who bravely served in the United States Armed Forces.
As for the event at Darlington, do not fear race fans! NASCAR reiterated that the events taking place on the week of May 17th will not alter the Southern 500, which is still slated to be the first Playoff race of the 2020 season.my
The only true downside to not having spectators in attendance is the economic impact, and this extends beyond North Carolina. In adding the two events at Darlington and the 500km race at Charlotte, this means that three additional tracks will lose their race weekend for the 2020 season. While it’s not yet been revealed which venues will suffer this untimely fate, it will without a doubt be a loss in revenue for these tracks and counties.
Shifting gear from the fan perspective to a competitor’s eyes, this newly devised schedule will present a plethora of challenges for the drivers and teams.
Beginning with the schedule itself, it’s going to be business as usual for the Xfinity Series and Truck Series. For the Cup Series, it’s going to be quite an adjustment. These athletes are going to go from being at home for eight weeks with family and iRacing, to being thrusted into four races in an 11 day span. The physical and mental toll these athletes take is enough as it is racing on a weekly basis. To condense this down to four points events in just over a week is insanity.
To make things even more complicated, these races will all be one-day events. Meaning, there will be no practice or qualifying sessions for any of these races (with the exception of qualifying for the Coca-Cola 600) — what you unload with is what you got. NASCAR did state that they intend to have a competition caution near the start of the races, so teams can adjust their cars as needed. It has not yet revealed how they intend to set the starting grid for the two events at Darlington, but it could be a safe bet to assume it will go in accordance to the current standings.
While some of the more established teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske can unload a reasonably race-ready car, some of the more underfunded teams should suffer dramatically come race day. That in itself doesn’t seem fair to certain drivers and crews trying to bring success to smaller race teams. Who knows? Maybe no track time and friendly competition in the simulators will bring it down to an even-keeled playing field? Sure, there’s bound to be those drivers who will be up front not matter what, but this is a unique situation
At the very least, fans should be treated to some incredible racing. Being that the entire field hasn’t touched a racing surface since March, things could get messy. Not to mention, NASCAR drivers are severely competitive by nature. They are going to be more antsy than ever to get back in their cars, and the intensity level should be at an all time high.
Speaking of intensity and great racing, how about that pair of mid-week 500km races? We’re used to seeing this type of racing at the one-mile track of Phoenix Raceway on a bi-annual basis. Applying this format to the 1.3-mile track of Darlington and the 1.5-mile venue of Charlotte should produce competition like we haven’t seen for a long time. Expect non-stop, side-by-side racing in a shortened fight to the finish.
Finally (and most importantly), it all boils down to is it safe for NASCAR personnel and teams to make these events possible? Working in accordance with the CDC and state officials, the sport has developed numerous methods that they’ve deemed appropriate to resume action.
Beginning with who will be allowed at the track, teams will be limited to 16 crew members at each event. Upon arrival to the facilities, each individual will receive a health screening before entering. Once inside they will be required to take one as well, in addition to leaving the venue — these will not be COVID-19 tests, as officials feel these should only be used for people who truly need it.
Strict social distancing protocols will be mandated by the sport and the tracks, as well. It has been mentioned there will be one-way entrances and exits to certain areas, and team haulers will be spaced at specific intervals. One thing that will remain in tact is live pit stops. Lastly, to make this possible, everyone at the track will be required to wear protective equipment throughout the duration of the events.
These procedures being implemented are not set in stone. NASCAR will have to add and alter these guidelines as directly by the CDC and local government recommendations to ensure the safety of the track and sports personnel.
All in all, the plans to get racing back in the lives of race fans everywhere is pretty rock solid. While there will be no spectators in attendance, NASCAR should see a vast increase in viewership, in addition to many new followers in being the only professional sport televised during COVID-19. The racing itself should be nothing short of spectacular. Between competing at two of the most cherished venues across the sport, the league-wide lack of seat time, and the pair of 500km events, we should be getting the best product possible.
The only definitive way that NASCAR’s return will be a true success is if everyone involved with the sport is able to walk away from these events unharmed. With the rules set forth and the ever-changing climate of this pandemic, the sanctioning body would have never even considered resuming action if they weren’t confident in their abilities to keep everyone safe.
In just under two weeks, NASCAR will return to Darlington Raceway for the first race in over two months. Hopefully the continuation of sports will provide the world with some much needed entertainment in a time where people could use a sense of sanity and normality back in their lives.
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