NASCAR Teams Navigate Changes As Racing Returns To Charlotte
NASCAR is one of the first U.S. sports to return to competition amid the coronavirus pandemic, and it comes with big changes. No fans are allowed, and, at least for now, all the races are at or near the sport's hub in Charlotte. Officials hope excitement around the return to live racing will bring new fans.
The first race back was last Sunday in Darlington, South Carolina, where veteran driver Kevin Harvick won his 50th NASCAR Cup race. Darlington is about a two-hour ride from Charlotte, where most NASCAR teams have their headquarters.
But the stands were empty and even Victory Lane was eerily quiet.
“The weirdest part of the day for me was getting out of the car and not hearing anybody cheering,” Harvick said at a post-race virtual press conference. “That was really awkward because I feed off of that stuff, enjoy those types of moments, and for me, I didn't really know what to say after the race because it's such a unique situation that we're in.”
Fans may not have been at the track, but more than 6 million viewers watched on TV -- one of the biggest audiences in years for a NASCAR race.
“I think it went as smoothly as it possibly could have, you know, certainly looked a lot different, you know, even on TV,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice president of racing development.
TV Announcers Were Elsewhere
Even Fox Sports limited its crew at the racetrack. The TV network had just one reporter in the pits using a boom to extend his microphone. They used drone cameras heavily. Former champion Jeff Gordon and announcer Mike Joy weren't even at the track; they called the race from a studio in Charlotte.
Kennedy said NASCAR has worked closely with local leaders and public health officials.
“We had essential personnel only, so … (we) really wanted to minimize the amount of people that were on the ground. And then anyone that was there, we tried to make sure we had all the right procedures in place, too,” Kennedy said.
That included health questionnaires for everyone at the track, temperature checks and masks.
Revised Schedule Keeps Races 'Near Home'
NASCAR says it wants to run a full season, so it's cramming races into a tighter schedule. Some tracks like Darlington are getting extra races, which are being moved from the Midwest and California.
For now, NASCAR is staying in the Southeast. Two more top-level races are scheduled in Charlotte in the coming days, including Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 -- the longest race of the season. Then it's on to Tennessee and Virginia.
“(We're) trying to keep as many races as close to home as possible,” Kennedy said. “So, the schedules that we've announced so far with Darlington, Charlotte, and even to Bristol and Martinsville (are) all within driving distance of the majority of our teams based out of Charlotte, North Carolina.”
N.C. Governor Lets Teams Work
Charlotte is the center of stock car racing. NASCAR's first race in 1949 was at what's now Charlotte Motor Speedway. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is here. Most team offices and garages are in the suburbs around Charlotte.
So it was no surprise in late April when North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper let teams go back to work.
“From the information that I have now, already under our state executive order, they can begin working in their garages as an essential business (as) defined under our executive order,” Cooper said at the time.
Cooper's pronouncement put people like Alan Gustafson back on the job about three weeks ago. He's the crew chief for driver Chase Elliott, a sort of chief operating officer who manages the team and strategy. Gustafson said while he enjoyed a bit of down time, now it's back to business - and things are different at the Hendrick Motorsports race shop in Concord.
“We're doing our best to split shifts and kind of segregate working groups. … You know, getting used to the PPE and getting used to communicating in ways that we haven't communicated before in the past,” Gustafson said.
Sometimes that means video meetings between people in different parts of the shop or at their home offices.
“I'm just really excited to learn from that and see what we can do to get better and evolve, and I think the whole process in general is going to make our team and our company stronger. You know, it's kind of exhilarating,” he said.
Racing ‘Cold Turkey’
Another big change last weekend: no pre-race practice or qualifying runs. The start order was chosen in a series of random drawings, which some fans didn't like. The whole idea is to keep contact to a minimum. Gustafson said that's sending drivers out to the track "cold turkey," and he sees that as a challenge.
“We have to do basically everything through our simulation modeling and experience and notes and intuition,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson and others in NASCAR see the COVID-19 interruption as an opportunity for a sport that has been losing fans and sponsors over the past decade. He thinks the break, the changes and the restart of racing could lead to an "as good, if not better place than where we were."
More Fans On the Way?
During the two-month break, NASCAR staged a series of virtual races where drivers on racing simulators competed on video game-style ovals modeled on real-world tracks. There was some controversy: Driver Kyle Larson was fired after he used a racial slur in a radio conversation with a teammate. But overall, it was big hit. Some weeks, more than 1 million people tuned in on national TV. Some of them had never watched a race before.
Kennedy likes the sound of that.
“I think you really saw that carry over to Darlington this weekend and being one of the first sports back... Hopefully we can we can keep some of the momentum going into the Coke 600 this weekend at Charlotte,” Kennedy said.
Sunday's race starts at 6 p.m. Charlote Motor Speedway also hosts a second NASCAR Cup race on Wednesday, May 27 — a 500 kilometer challenge.
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