Is it safe for racing to resume?
It’s a fair and topical question for anyone to ask after NASCAR’s Thursday announcement that it plans to restart its 2020 season on May 17. The sanctioning body is planning to run four Cup Series races and seven races overall in 11 days at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in its attempt to run the same number of races it was planning on when the season began.
It’s also the question that leads NASCAR’s FAQ page regarding its plans for a racing resumption. And the answer is indirect at best.
“NASCAR is working closely with health experts and government officials to ensure best practices and has a plan in place to minimize any risks associated with the virus,” the answer states.
If NASCAR knew it was one hundred percent safe to resume racing in less than three weeks, that answer would look a lot different. But it doesn’t. Few, if any people do. That’s what happens when you’re dealing with a highly-contagious virus that can be spread by asymptomatic people and there aren’t nearly enough tests to go around.
Things change pretty quickly. We’ve all experienced that over the last two months.
But that lack of certainty regarding the safety of its participants and team members isn’t stopping NASCAR from trying. If NASCAR resumes racing on May 17, it’ll be the second American sports organization to resume activities following the UFC’s scheduled fight card on May 9.
“We have a lot of confidence in our plan,” NASCAR vice president John Bobo said. “We know we have to work together as an industry to keep our own folks safe, to keep each community safe. 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 everybody in our industry has that is going to help us execute on this.”
As of now, that plan includes a lot of masks and a lot of social distancing. There won’t be any fans in attendance at any of the seven races. Teams will be spread out throughout the garages and infield lots. Everyone will be wearing masks and will get their temperatures checked. And team members who go to the races at Darlington and Charlotte are asked not to go back to their team shops during the week.
“When you do look at other sports, we do look at we're an outdoor sport, we do have drivers with helmets, we are in racecars,” NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “There are some unique things about our sport that we did feel like provided us the opportunity to get back if we could, to John's point, where we knew we were going to be safe. That was first and foremost during our decisions.
“If we didn't feel like we had the support of the local community, health officials, the state, you wouldn't see us racing until November. That was a key for us to make sure that was in place.”
It’s hard not to believe that another key to a relatively quick planned return was the NASCAR industry’s tenuous financial footing. Teams across NASCAR’s top three series were struggling to match sponsor revenue with costs before the pandemic brought racing to a halt in mid-March. Without races to run and sponsor revenue to generate, multiple teams started cutting pay for employees or, in some cases, putting them on furlough. NASCAR even cut the salaries of its own employees.
A NASCAR that resumed in November — or even in July — could have looked a lot different than the NASCAR that last raced on March 8 if numerous teams were forced to fold or downsize.
A mid-May restart gives NASCAR the opportunity to run each of the races that it had on its Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series schedules at the beginning of the year and fulfill its TV contract, its primary source of revenue. Sure, things will have to be moved around — O’Donnell said that three races would be subject to a “realign” — but running a shorter race at a different track is better financially for everyone involved than not running the race at all.
That moving around may be far from complete. There’s a reason why NASCAR announced just 11 days worth of racing on Thursday and not a schedule that went any further. We simply don’t know what will happen as states and cities across the country start to ease stay-at-home orders in the coming weeks and months, let alone what could happen if coronavirus spreads throughout the garage despite NASCAR’s best efforts in May.
NASCAR is both trying to get back to racing soon while also waiting and seeing what happens. It’s a delicate balance. If it goes off without a major hitch, NASCAR gets every race completed and a potential attention boost as people tune in while they’re sitting at home in May.
If people at the track get sick and/or we’re not on the downside of the nationwide curve like we think we are, well, NASCAR could be back to where it was in mid-March.
“Purely on the schedule we feel like we have a schedule mapped out for all three series that gets us through [the season finales at] Phoenix,” O’Donnell said. “We feel like it's pretty well baked. We feel like we've had the right cadence with where states are, where health officials may be. Certainly we have backups to backups to backups.
“I would say we started about seven pencils and a lot of erasers and have moved to pen now in terms of saying to our broadcast partners and tracks that this is what we believe we can collectively do. The industry is there, as well.
“But until we are racing and until we see how things take place, until we see how this virus affects things down the road, we can't say for sure.”
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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