NASCAR navigates racing during COVID-19 pandemic

Kevin Harvick waits for the start of the Toyota 500 NASCAR Cup Series auto race Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Darlington, S.C. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

KNOXVILLE, TN (WATE)- Races at Darlington Raceway wrapped up Thursday as NASCAR continues to trudge forward during this unprecedented time. NASCAR returned to race track for the first time in a little over two months on Sunday March 17th, for the Real Heroes 400 cup series race at Darlington.

NASCAR officials knew there would be many eyes on the sport as they became one of the first major sports, aside from UFC, to return to live action. Other sports leagues looking on, observing how they can resume their season during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While NASCAR already has drivers socially distanced in the nature of the sport, the only contact being had on the race is if drivers happen to clip one another, an advantage to making a quicker return.

However, NASCAR has set in place numerous procedures to keep their athletes and teams safe.

Fans will have to watch races from the comfort of their homes as for right now, there will be no fans permitted in the grandstands.

“It was odd with just the limited amount of people here,” said Steve O’Donnell NASCAR’s EVP, Chief Racing Development Officer, “When you look up in the stands you certainly miss the fans and that vibe and the energy. Even the music that was playing in the garage area doesn’t do it justice.”

Other precautions include:

  • Required face masks; anyone who does not wear one will be removed and fined
  • Team rosters limited to 16 people including the driver
  • Work in garages socially distanced
  • Temperature check and health screenings before entering track
  • Teams monitor health of employees before, during and after race
  • Contact tracing logging
  • Maintaining social distancing

So far, everything seems to be going well. Denny Hamlin who took home the win at the Toyota 500 cup series race, the first Wednesday race since 1984, says everyone is doing a great job so far.

“I think the protocols that have been put in place have worked well, I see everyone complying with them, which is great,” said Hamlin.

Members of Denny Hamlin’s crew celebrate after Hamlin won the rain-shortened NASCAR Cup Series auto race Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Darlington, S.C. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

It was not just NASCAR fans tuning in this week, other sports league officials have been in contact with NASCAR about the procedures put in place and how everyone is handling them so far.

O’Donnell says some of us have talked to the NBA and from a racing standpoint IndyCar and World of Outlaws.

Kevin Harvick, who knotted his 50th NASCAR Cup Victory on Sunday in the Real Heroes 400 cup series said his company was on a PGA call talking about how the sports world was watching NASCAR to see what they needed to do to get their players back safely. The win didn’t just mark a milestone for Harvick on Sunday, after having a few days to let it sink in, he said the impact NASCAR had on returning on Sunday transcended the race track.

“The impact that Sunday had on the country–I got text messages from Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy talking about how great it was for America and Joe Girardi on how great it was for sports, and how it gave them home for baseball. The impact was bigger than 50 wins,” Harvick noted.

Kevin Harvick celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, May 17, 2020, in Darlington, S.C. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

That hope to get other sports back in action felt in NASCAR.

“Anything we learn we want to share with other leagues,” O’Donnell says, “We certainly wanted to get out and showcase our sport early, but it’s in our best interest for all sports to be out there.”

Looking ahead to the Coca-Cola 600 cup series at Charlotte Motor Speedway, there should be fairly similar protocols in place. On one of the Zoom conferences held by NASCAR, O’Donnell mentioned a crew from Charlotte Motor Speedway, along with city health officials, visited and observed at Darlington to see how they were keeping drivers and team’s safe. O’Donnell noted that the feedback they received was positive.

As of right now, NASCAR has races scheduled until June 21st as a part of it’s revised 2020 schedule including a stop in Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway on May 31st.

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