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NASCAR Reopening With No Fans But A Lot To Gain

Larry McTighe
U.S. Air Force photo

NASCAR is returning with the first of three days of racing in Darlington, South Carolina on May 17. Four other races this month will be held in Charlotte. The governors of both states gave green lights to the events as they began to reopen the states from stay-at-home orders.

No fans will be allowed and numerous safety precautions will be in place due to COVID 19. Doug Rice, president of Performance Racing Network, says the pandemic has had a major effect on the industry.

Doug Rice: There will be a total of seven races that had been postponed, starting at Atlanta Motor Speedway. They thought they were going to be able to run a race without any fans and went through a lot of prep and that went right up literally almost until the last minute and they finally decided it wasn't practical.

Gwendolyn Glenn: What is different in Darlington to make that race possible -- that couldn't happen in Atlanta?

Rice: Part of the situation is how COVID has impacted the Palmetto State, their state government, their willingness to open up the race track. That race, plus their subsequent races for the near future, will be raced without fans with a minimum of NASCAR personnel in attendance. The teams will be curtailed. NASCAR's actually put out a 30-page book that details how you get into the race track and how you can leave and how you will conduct yourself once you there.

Doug Rice, president and general manager of Performance Racing Network.
Credit Performance Racing Network
Doug Rice, president and general manager of Performance Racing Network.

Glenn: Were those things not in place in Atlanta?

Rice: Not to the level that they're going to be here. And one of the big reasons that they're running these races in the Southeast is for the convenience of the teams. It costs a lot less to drive to, say, Darlington and race and then drive back home the same day than it does to fly to Chicagoland or Kansas.

Glenn: And that's because a lot of them are in the Charlotte area or close by, correct?

Rice: Almost all of them are based within 30 miles of Charlotte.

Glenn: And the Charlotte race here at the Motor Speedway. That's going to be Memorial Day weekend?

Rice: Yes, there will be a race on May 24th. And that will be the traditional Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's longest race. That'll be conducted without fans. So Charlotte will host two of the top series' races. The NASCAR Cup series, they will host an Xfinity race. And then the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will also race at Charlotte. So Charlotte's gonna be a very, very busy place with four races in five days.

Glenn: OK, so we know there won't be any fans at these races. What are some of the other changes in terms of the pit crews, in terms of social distancing of the drivers and of other people involved in the race?

Rice: I'll give you one really good example. Normally, the drivers who all have fairly nice motor homes that they and their families live in are confined to what they call a driver-owner lot. With the fact that there won't be fans camping in the infield at Darlington or Charlotte, those motor homes will be parked all over the entire infield, away from each other. Crew members have all been notified about proper social distancing. Fewer in the infield working area. At one of these race tracks, you are required to have a face mask at all times.

Glenn: And what about the pit crews? Because when those cars come in for pit stops, will those be the same? And how will social distancing work out there?

Rice: The pit crew guys don't have to actually touch each other. We're one of the few sports that doesn't require physical contact. And the crew members already are kind of enclosed because they all have full-face helmets with face shields on them. They'll still be adding a face mask to that. And all crew members will be screened before they come into the infield.

Glenn: In terms of the masks, will they be allowed to put ads on the mask?

Rice: You know, NASCAR loves to put a logo on anything that doesn’t move or does move. I would not be surprised if something sits still long enough ... put a logo on it.

Glenn: And you normally have a lot of events leading up to the race. You have concerts. You have family events. And the fans are also a big part of the sport. How do you think that is going to affect just the whole mood and the atmosphere of this?

Rice: All of a sudden you're removing that element and everybody's going to be keenly aware of that. And yes, it's going to take some of the pageantry out of it. The huge patriotic pre-race show they did before the Coca-Cola 600 -- that won't come back until next year. But I think once they drop the green flag and these competitors start racing, they'll put that out of their minds. Folks will be delighted to have some sort of sport that they can watch. It's going to be a tremendous opportunity for NASCAR to probably gain new fans.

Glenn: And I'm sure getting more fans is very important at a time when NASCAR was losing fans and losing the number of people who were watching the races?

Rice: That's always in the back of every sport's mind is, how can we increase our audience? And I don't think that's why NASCAR is doing this at this time. I think they just feel like this is the right time to re-energize an industry that is hugely important to the state of North Carolina. And for two months it has sat idle.

Glenn: Do you have any idea the financial loss the sport has suffered during this pandemic?

Rice: It's been monstrous. You look at the ticket revenue alone, add that on to the concessions and the T-shirts and the merchandise that has just stopped. The one thing that should come back from this will be the TV rights' money. And that's why they're running two races in Darlington and two in Charlotte, because if they do that, that money that has been negotiated with Fox Television Network and NBC comes back into the revenue stream. 

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