CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thursday’s teleconference between media and NASCAR leadership ended after 40 minutes and probably could have lasted 10 times as long.
There are endless questions about racing’s return May 17 as NASCAR attempts to pull off a feat other professional sports leagues, including the NBA, MLB, MLS and NHL, have not yet come close to crystallizing: Resuming its season amid a global pandemic that has disrupted life far beyond sports.
“We realize up front it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together.”
That plan includes seven single-day events across NASCAR’s three series — Cup, Xfinity and Truck — at two track locations — Darlington Raceway in South Carolina and Charlotte Motor Speedway. NASCAR said that it has consulted with public health officials, medical experts, state and local officials and the sport’s stakeholders to design its updated schedule and safety protocols for live racing.
“We have a lot of confidence in our plan,” VP of racing operations John Bobo said. “We know we have to work together as an industry to keep our own folks safe, to keep each community safe.”
Those safety protocols do not include fans. O’Donnell said Thursday that the timeline for when fans can expect to be able to watch a race in person is “still a work in progress.”
“Our priority right now is to try and get back racing in a safe way,” O’Donnell 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 OK.”
Racing in a “safe way” will look different. Teams of no more than 16 individuals, including drivers, crew members and team owners, will arrive at a quiet raceway in two weeks. Temperatures of those entering the venue will be taken, as they will randomly throughout the day, according to Bobo.
Everyone walking around the tracks will look like either ninjas, surgeons or welders. NASCAR is requiring that personal protective equipment be worn, including cloth face masks in the infield and fireproof sock masks or face shields on pit road and over the wall.
NASCAR is also requiring teams to self-monitor individuals for five days for symptoms before arriving at the track and asking them to keep a log of who each person interacts with at the races.
“So if we have a positive (coronavirus test) postrace, we can figure out who they were in direct exposure with and ask those people to isolate for 14 days,” Bobo said.
If there are any health concerns prior to events, Bobo said the individual will go into a secondary screening process, which will include heart rate and pulse oxygenation tests monitored by medical personnel.
Drivers are being asked to self-isolate in their motorhomes while they are not racing, and spotters will be spaced out by 6 to 10 feet during events, Bobo said. Anyone who appears symptomatic before or during a race “will be processed and removed from the event and given medical attention if needed,” Bobo said. But NASCAR will be judicious with its testing.
“Those (coronavirus) tests remain in short supply,” Bobo said. “Getting results can take two to three days. Really, those tests should be targeted for people most in need.”
“Postrace, we’re going to stagger people’s exits,” Bobo continued. “We’ll be looking at temperature and other factors as they leave. We’re 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.”
While the around-the-track protocols might look different, NASCAR said it wants to keep the on-track action as close to normal as possible. NASCAR announced that there will be live pit stops at all the new events, but there will be no practice or qualifying, except for qualifying before the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24.
“It was important for us to be able to showcase a race as close to what normally takes place as possible,” O’Donnell said. “But it was also important for us to minimize what activity took place leading up to the event.”
Announcements on other factors, such as how many media personnel will be permitted at each race and which races will be replaced by the recently added events, are forthcoming. But O’Donnell said that NASCAR’s 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,” O’Donnell said.
NASCAR has a big task ahead since only four Cup Series points races (of 36 total) were completed before the season was postponed in mid-March. Stakeholders said they welcome the opportunity for the unprecedented viewership with the sports world watching. On Sunday, NASCAR’s iRacing Talladega event for the Pro Invitational Series, the virtual exhibition series running in place of real racing, reached 1.24 million viewers on Fox Sports, according to Nielsen.
“This is the first time sports are coming back and the whole world is gonna be looking at us,” Charlotte Motor Speedway executive vice president Greg Walter said. “And there’s no margin for error to make a mistake.”
If mistakes do happen, Bobo said that processes could change and he expects NASCAR to adapt on the job, but he remained confident that the sport can pull off the events safely.
“We’re certainly going to learn as we go,” Bobo said. “But the process we put in place, I think, gives the industry the confidence that we can be first. We can do this in Darlington.”
The races at Darlington Raceway will be followed by the annual Coca-Cola 600 in NASCAR’s home state.
“I’m proud that Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of the first places to do this,” Walter said. “And the Coke 600 is going to be on its traditional day on Memorial Day weekend.”
Although so much remains uncertain in the world, NASCAR fans can take comfort in knowing there is some consistency: Sports are returning and for the 60th year in a row, the Coca-Cola 600 will run exactly where and when it belongs.