In just over two weeks, NASCAR will become one of the first major North American sports to end its prolonged coronavirus shutdown, conducting seven races over a span of 11 days and nights across all three national touring divisions.
It will do so at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway from May 17-27 in accordance with federal health guidelines and with the approval of the governors of South Carolina and North Carolina.
The races will take place behind closed doors — meaning fans will not be allowed in attendance — and are one-day shows made for an international television audience. With the exception of the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, May 24, these races will not feature practice or qualifying sessions.
The Coca-Cola 600 is the only race currently scheduled to feature time trials. Teams will unload, go through technical inspection, race and then return home.
Here is the schedule made official by NASCAR on Thursday that runs through the month of May.
– Sunday, May 17 | Darlington | Cup 400 mi | Fox 3:30 p.m.
– Tuesday, May 19 | Darlington | Xfinity 200 mi | FS1 8 p.m.
– Wednesday, May 20 | Darlington | Cup 310 mi | FS1 7:30 p.m.
– Sunday, May 24 | Charlotte | Cup 600 mi | Fox 6 p.m.
– Monday, May 25 | Charlotte | Xfinity 300 mi | FS1 7:30 p.m.
– Tuesday, May 26 | Charlotte | Trucks 200 mi | FS1 8:00 p.m.
– Wednesday, May 27 | Charlotte | Cup 310 mi | FS1 8:00 p.m.
Before NASCAR was shut down on March 13 due to the coronavirus pandemic, four Cup Series races had already been completed at Daytona, Las Vegas, Fontana and Phoenix. Postponed races include Atlanta, Homestead, Texas, Richmond, Talladega, Dover, Martinsville and the All-Star Race at Charlotte.
NASCAR intends to contest a full 36-race schedule in 2020 but conceded on Thursday that three tracks would ultimately lose races due to the shuffle.
With every organization located in the greater Charlotte area, teams will be able to drive to-and-from shops on the same day of each event — minimizing the risk of COVID-19 exposure.
Upon arrival to the track, increased health measures will have been established. Personal protective equipment will be mandatory, temperature checks will be required for every entry or departure and crew members must adhere to physical distancing.
Further, NASCAR has implemented reduced rosters throughout the sport for every team that competes over the two-week stretch.
NASCAR vice presidents Steve O’Donnell (chief racing development officer) and John Bobo (racing operations) conducted a media teleconference on Thursday to detail the process and strategy that goes into their efforts to successfully conduct a live sporting event during a global pandemic.
The most important quotes and takeaways can be found below.
IS IT REALLY SAFE TO RETURN TO RACING?
O’Donnell and Bobo believe they have checked every precautionary box as it pertains to running races during the coronavirus pandemic.
The races will take place behind closed doors and only for a television audience. The teams will be spread out across every garage space typically reserved for three divisions at one time. The facilities will be marked with one-way pathways, so crew members do not accidently bump into each other.
Crew members must wear cloth masks and complete a contact tracing log of every individual that they come in contact with throughout the day.
Symptomatic individuals will be removed from the premises and provided necessary treatment. NASCAR will not utilize currently available COVID-19 tests because they remain in short supply.
“We have a lot of confidence in our plan,” 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.”
O’Donnell believes NASCAR is inherently one of the least vulnerable sports to coronavirus due to the reduced human interaction — especially without practice and qualifying sessions that require cars to undergo set-up changes.
“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,” 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 till November. It was a key for us to make sure that was in place.”
WHO WILL BE ALLOWED TO ATTEND?
For NASCAR Cup Series races, each car will be permitted a 16-crewmember roster. That includes drivers, owners, crew members and pit crew members.
Spotters will be spread out throughout the empty grandstands and roof since fans will not be in attendance. The over-the-wall crew members must wear fireproof sock masks that go from their nose down below their chins or a face screen from above their eyes to below their chin.
“We’re going to have the luxury without fans there to space out as much as possible, especially if there aren’t other guests sitting in the pit box,” Bobo said. “We are encouraging teams to have people on different rows, to move to different locations, to do whatever it is they can to socially distance.
“I will say this, though. For the pit crews, they’re wearing fireproof shoes, socks, fire suit, gloves, then facial protection. Anyone behind the wall, they’re also wearing PPE every step of the way. We will monitor to make sure that’s done as well.”
NASCAR is still working to determine how much media and photography to allow on the premises, working within those industries to create an unfiltered content pool not regulated by the sanctioning body.
Broadcast team employees, unless vital to the production, will not be allowed into the garage.
“If we have someone in the broadcast lot, they have no business in the garage, they don’t need to come into the garage, and vice versa,” Bobo said. “We need to keep people out of work areas they might not normally get into.”
Roster sizes for the Xfinity and Truck Series have also been reduced but that number wasn’t specified on Thursday.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR NASCAR TO RESUME ASAP?
Teams are at-risk of closing without cars on the racetrack. Even the sanctioning body faced financial peril as the shutdown continued.
That’s because the entire economic structure of the sport is built around television revenue. The tracks get 65 percent of the television money. Teams get 25 percent and the sanctioning body gets 10. That money only gets paid within a week of a race taking place each week.
Furthermore, the rest of the team’s operational budget comes from sponsorship packages. Teams were not receiving revenue whatsoever during the shutdown, with nearly every organization reducing its workforce or issuing furloughs over the past seven weeks.
In short: The tracks and sanctioning body turn a profit even if a single fan is unable to walk through a turnstile. Without television money, Cup teams were at-risk of shutting down if NASCAR was unable to contest anything resembling a full schedule.
WHY CHARLOTTE AND DARLINGTON?
South Carolina and North Carolina have immediately approved races. Beyond that, both venues are a short track from the Charlotte area where virtually every team is based.
Charlotte is within an hour of every race shop at Darlington is around a two-hour drive. That means teams will be able to wake up in their own beds and return home to their own beds within a span of a single day.
O’Donnell says the next several races will likely feature a similar radius with Bristol, Atlanta and Martinsville each fitting that criteria, assuming local government signs off on empty venue events.
“I would say outside of the first four Cup events, the goal for us is the next I’d say three events we would like to be drivable as well,” O’Donnell said. “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.”
WHERE COULD NASCAR GO NEXT?
An email sent to Cup teams and obtained by Autoweek earlier in the week listed races in June at Bristol, Martinsville and Homestead-Miami.
– Sunday, May 17 | Darlington 400
– Wednesday, May 20 | Darlington 310
– Sunday, May 24 | Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte
– Wednesday, May 27 | Charlotte 310
– Sunday, May 31 | Martinsville
– Wednesday, June 3 | Bristol
– Sunday, June 7 | Atlanta
– Sunday, June 14 | Miami
The possibility of Daytona or Homestead would require teams needing a hotel room, which isn’t ideal under the current circumstances. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has publicly advocated his strong desire to reopen his state economy with NASCAR races.
O’Donnell confirmed on Thursday that the two Florida track were under consideration to a certain extent.
“Daytona and also Miami were discussed and are still discussed,” O’Donnell said. “I think the challenge there, very honestly, was the governor has been very supportive of NASCAR and NASCAR being here. Certainly drivable, but a decent drive.
“You’d probably have an overnight. We were really trying to avoid for those first races out of the box to get in and out and have people home that night.
The second Daytona race is currently scheduled as the regular season finale on August 29, something O’Donnell hopes remains in place.
“Miami sooner than later as well,” O’Donnell said. “We know that’s an area we can race in a smart way, but we wanted to try to make sure we could get the races as close to the shops as possible.”
WHAT ABOUT THE PLAYOFFS?
As it stands now, NASCAR expects to run the 10 playoff races as they were always originally scheduled.
– Sunday, Sept. 6 | Darlington
– Saturday, Sept. 12 | Richmond
– Saturday, Sept. 19 | Bristol
– Sunday, Sept. 27 | Las Vegas
– Sunday, Oct. 4 | Talladega
– Sunday, Oct. 11 | Charlotte ROVAL
– Sunday, Oct. 18 | Kansas
– Sunday, Oct. 25 | Texas
– Sunday, Nov. 1 | Martinsville
– Sunday, Nov. 8 | Phoenix
The current schedule is the 65th NASCAR has put together over the past seven weeks as conditions have changed throughout the country. Previous versions had the season even extending into December, something O’Donnell no longer believes will be necessary.
“I would say on versions probably 40 through 55 we extended through December,” O’Donnell said. “Then things have changed. It’s backed up. As of today, we expect the playoff calendar to stay intact on the Cup side where we had it ending at the beginning of the year.
“Again, that could change if some things happen, but that is our intent right now.”
WILL TRACKS LOSE DATES THIS YEAR?
At least three tracks on the original 2020 Cup Series schedule will not host a race this year.
NASCAR has already determined which tracks will be eliminated from the 2020 schedule, but O’Donnell was not yet ready to make the details public.
“What I would say is those decisions have been made,” O’Donnell said. “We’re not ready to announce those. That’s not to hide the ball. That is to make sure that we can have proper communication not only with those tracks and the personnel, which I’m sure you can appreciate, but we have a lot of fans in those areas.
“For the couple tracks where we need to move an event, we want to do that in the right way. We will certainly disclose that to the media, the race teams and the fans will know ahead of time before we get to Darlington. We just want to take a little time here before we’re able to announce that.”
As a result, tracks like Darlington will end up with at least three races this season and Charlotte Motor Speedway’s oval get at least one additional race.
To get to 36 races, some track will also host doubleheaders this year.
O’Donnell says NASCAR has several contingency plans and schedules, depending on what obstacles it faces due to the limitations in certain states.
“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. I do feel confident as an industry we have a schedule that we feel like we can pull off and we can pull off in a good way for the fans.”
WILL THERE BE A VICTORY LANE ?
O’Donnell expects there to be some kind of driver celebration at the start-finish line, but it is also looking to adopt certain practices from the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series that has taken the place of live racing over the past several weeks.
“A bit in the weeds, but we have thought about it,” O’Donnell said. “The drivers have asked us about this, too. Our goal is to certainly have a celebration on or around the start-finish line. In an ideal world, we would like to have a victory lane.
“Not sure of all the logistics of how we pull that off. We certainly want to try and have a trophy, at least that celebration with the driver.
“You may see some things that Jill Gregory and her team are working on. What are some virtual things we can incorporate that we saw in iRacing that can be part of this? Especially for some of the team members that may not be able to be part of it but are an integral part of that team’s success.”
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