On Thursday, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing announced its return to racing beginning May 17. The move made NASCAR the first major American league to finalize a resumption of competition since coronavirus lockdowns shuttered virtually all sports in March.
That return to action will come with a bang. Under the revised schedule announced Thursday, NASCAR’s premier Cup series will race four times in 11 days—including the traditional Coca-Cola 600, the series’ longest race, held over Memorial Day weekend.
The lower-rung Xfinity series will also race twice, and the NASCAR truck series once. The schedule gives series broadcast partner Fox maximum exposure; Fox and Fox Sports 1 will broadcast a total of seven races in 11 days to a country starved for live-action sporting events.
Stock car racing holds two advantages in its return to competition. For starters, the competitors arguably had the best opportunity to keep their skills sharp during the coronavirus layoff. Virtual races, in which drivers participate via racing simulators, more closely resemble actual competition than the “H-O-R-S-E” tournament held by the National Basketball Association, or video game competitions held by Major League Baseball and the National Football League.
That said, competitors in actual races can’t lose a race when a daughter disconnects their racing monitor, a situation racer Denny Hamlin faced last month. In theory, they could “rage quit” an actual race, as Bubba Wallace did in a virtual competition, but few have done so.
While NASCAR will hold its initial races without fans, doing so arguably will present a less-foreign atmosphere to television viewers than other sports. Other leagues rely heavily on the surrounding environment—fans, cheerleaders, bands, and so on—to create the noise that accompanies major sporting events. When riots in Baltimore back in 2015 prompted that city’s Orioles to host games without fans, the scenes from that game seemed eerie and disconcerting—it didn’t feel like “real” baseball.
By contrast, auto racing relies on the cars to generate the noise that accompanies a race. Stock cars in particular, as opposed to Indy cars or other forms of racing, generate a lot of noise. And NASCAR has suffered an attendance slump in recent years, including last spring at the normally packed Bristol Motor Speedway. Unfortunately, watching lots of empty seats won’t come as much of a surprise to regular NASCAR television viewers.
NASCAR’s return to competition will face challenges. The series will run races without any practices or qualifying, meaning teams will have to use the opening segments of each race to determine their cars’ setup, handling, and adjustments. NASCAR has yet to specify how it will set the starting field for each race, but will likely do so by either the season points standings or a random draw.
The large size of most race teams also presents logistical obstacles. The series announced it will limit teams to 16 attendees at the track, including the driver and owner. But the members of up to 40 Cup series teams, NASCAR officials, the broadcast crew, and safety and other personnel quickly add up. A ballpark estimate suggests the races held without fans could have 800-1,000 people in attendance—some scattered around a 1.5-mile track, but many in the pits and garages.
The series announced a series of measures intended to combat crowds in the pits and promote social distancing. NASCAR will separate teams’ haulers and garages around the track, ensure six feet of spacing between each team’s workspaces, and prohibit teams from congregating.
The revised schedule will also promote social distancing. The events NASCAR announced will all take place at either Charlotte Motor Speedway or Darlington Raceway, a South Carolina track about two hours’ drive from Charlotte. Holding the events within driving distance for the teams (most of them based in and around Charlotte) eliminates the need for lengthy travel and overnight hotel stays.
NASCAR admits its 2020 schedule remains “in flux,” and did not offer updates on the rest of the season following its revised May schedule. The coronavirus pandemic led to the postponement of eight Cup series races scheduled for such far-flung places as Miami, Texas (Fort Worth), and Dover.
While the sanctioning body says it intends to run a “full schedule” for all its major series, the location and dates of that slate of races may change. For instance, in adding two new Cup series races at Darlington in May, NASCAR said the change would not affect the Southern 500, the track’s traditional Labor Day event.
Will More Fans Discover NASCAR?
Restarting its season first among American sports leagues gives NASCAR logistical and health-related challenges to navigate, but also provides an opportunity. Longtime fans will remember the 1979 Daytona 500, arguably the most important race in the sport’s history.
A blizzard in the Northeast led to sensational ratings for the race, televised live from start to finish, a rarity at the time. The dramatic finish, capped by a real-life brawl after the checkered flag (“And there’s a fight!!!”), prompted a new level of interest in stock car racing beyond its traditional roots in the Southeast:
The coronavirus shutdowns have given NASCAR a similar opportunity to attract a new generation of fans—a thought likely not lost on the sport’s sanctioning body. Time will tell whether the sport can capitalize upon it.