Editor’s note: This is Part II of a five-part series detailing how NASCAR successfully ran its 2020 season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Cursors fluttered across the screen with familiar names attached, popping up in one section before jumping to another. Anytime a user clicked to update content, the page reflected the change in live time. Dates could be blue rather than red, times bold instead of italicized.
It was organized chaos, and the chaos portion needed some control.
“We told everyone if you’re not actively editing it to just pick one cell and stick to it,” said Ben Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice president of racing development of the Microsoft Excel document that contained the constantly evolving return-to-racing schedule.
“We picked, for example, the top-left cell and said, ‘Everyone, stick up there. Only the one that’s editing it can mess around.’ ”
This was NASCAR’s virtual war room, the one where select members of the sanctioning body created the sport’s revamped 2020 schedule amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The process started in March, immediately after NASCAR initiated its two-month pause. In-person meetings were forbidden at the time as a safety precaution. Therefore, a shared online document replaced whiteboards and notepads, while video cameras and cell phones aided vocal communication.
The key schedule players from NASCAR were Kennedy, Steve O’Donnell (executive vice president, chief racing development officer), Ben Baker (managing director, domestic broadcasting) and Scott Miller (senior vice president, competition). Their task was to reschedule the eight postponed races and keep the remaining 14 regular-season events – all before playoffs began on Sept. 6.
That required trying new and unfamiliar things: One-day events, mid-week races and doubleheader weekends. Practice and qualifying sessions were eliminated to save teams’ resources and limit at-track time. Tracks within driving distance of Charlotte, North Carolina, where a majority of teams are headquartered, were prioritized.
“Our original format was actually the template that we had built the original 2020 schedule off, a template we’re now building the 2021 (schedule) off,” Kennedy said. “We quickly figured out with midweek racing and a lot of these other events that we just frankly hadn’t planned, we had to pivot to another format. We dusted an old version off and kind of retrofitted it. Spent about eight or nine hours on it with the team, and when we got to that version, we started knocking out the schedule after that.”
I would say that it was as unbaked of a cake as you could put out.
Those four NASCAR executives picked tracks and dates themselves, but each element needed to be approved by outside parties. FOX, which broadcasts the first half of the sport’s season (NBC has the second), chose the best start times based on its on-air availability. Tracks had to receive event approval from local and state officials to meet health protocols. Teams needed to confirm whether they had the proper cars ready – short-track package vs. intermediate or superspeedway.
So, the internal NASCAR group would sketch a draft and share it with partners for feedback.
“I would say that it was as unbaked of a cake as you could put out,” said Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s competition director. “I mean, it really was. We didn’t even know what all the ingredients were yet. … NASCAR did everything they could to present it as complete as they could. But if they waited to present it in a fashion that was baked, the way they normally do for us, we never could have responded in time. It wouldn’t have had our input into it of what we needed to make it work, and it would have taken too long to get us the information to be able to respond. So we had to know ahead of time.”
The NASCAR team communicated internally every day, sometimes twice a day, and then called individual stakeholders at least once a week. It was imperative everybody stayed up to date.
“Things would change,” O’Donnell said. “You notice that we had planned to go to Virginia (Martinsville Speedway on May 9). Unfortunately, we can’t race there. What’s the backup? It was almost backups to backups to backups. A fluid situation.”
NASCAR released its first return-to-racing plan April 30, officially bringing the sport back May 17. It included four Cup Series races – two at Darlington Raceway, then two at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Three of the events were realigned from Chicagoland Speedway, Richmond Raceway and Sonoma Raceway.
That revision alone took about 34 versions before fit to print.
“It was good to put whatever batch it was – that portion of the schedule – out so that we could put a big red box around it,” Kennedy said. “This is locked in. We’re moving on to the next piece.”
And that’s how NASCAR executives did it: in pieces.
On May 14, the sanctioning body revealed five more Cup Series races. The third installment shared on June 4 included seven regular-season events, in addition to the All-Star Open and All-Star Race. July 8 added another six Cup Series races. And then lastly, Aug. 6 brought the entire 10-race playoff slate, which matched the original schedule.
Basically, to recap: Four races were completed before the two-month COVID-19 shutdown and then 22 races took place from May 17 and Sept. 6, which marked the start of the postseason. That’s 26 regular-season events and 10 playoff races – a full season.
“It was a heavy lift, for sure,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said. “Because I think when people think about the schedule, they only think about the Cup Series schedule. But there’s a whole grid that we had to get right, not just for the Cup Series but for the other series we have as well and how those are going to fit together.”
The Cup Series in particular has been analyzed for simplicity’s sake, and because it’s the sport’s top level. All of those releases also included the Xfinity Series and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Overall, there were 84 national series events impacted by the coronavirus, even if dates and locations didn’t change.
NASCAR’s final 2020 schedule was Version 85.
“I’ll have to pull up some of the earlier versions,” Kennedy said. “I’m sure we’d all get a good laugh out of them.”
PART 3: BROADCAST