Editor’s note: This is Part I of a five-part series detailing how NASCAR successfully ran its 2020 season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Engines never fired, prompting an unwelcome silence that lasted 65 days.
NASCAR had already parked and unloaded trailers at Atlanta Motor Speedway in preparation for its March race weekend. The NASCAR Cup Series haulers filed in Thursday night, and the NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series arrived Friday morning. Even FOX Sports’ broadcast equipment was laid out and ready to go.
By 11:36 a.m. ET on March 13 – still that Friday, before garages opened – everyone from officials, teams, fans and media had been told to pack up and head home.
There would be no racing that weekend.
Nor the next at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That was NASCAR’s first major decision made in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which was beginning to impact sports nationwide at this time.
“Every 10 minutes, a new announcement came from some league or some team that it had been postponed or it had been delayed,” said Tom Bryant, NASCAR’s managing director of racing operations who was part of a larger team that designed the protocols to return to racing.
“It pretty quickly became obvious that it was inevitable we were going to have to pause for some period of time. So, it wasn’t shocking.
“I didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation yet. I don’t think I did until a few days later.”
Three, to be exact.
On March 16 – the Monday after – NASCAR postponed all race weekends through May 3. That included seven of the Cup Series’ 26 regular-season events. NASCAR held its first meeting the next day to discuss a return-to-racing plan with complete understanding the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t going to end anytime soon.
Steve O’Donnell (executive vice president, chief racing development officer), Scott Miller (senior vice president, competition), Ben Kennedy (vice president, racing operations) and Ben Baker (managing director, domestic broadcasting) formed an internal group tasked with figuring out the schedule, competition and broadcast aspects and coordinating with necessary outside parties, such as tracks, teams and broadcast partner FOX Sports. Bryant and John Bobo (vice president, racing operations) then headed a separate 29-person NASCAR team in charge of COVID-19 protocols and procedures.
“Egos were set aside,” Bryant said. “You had all these disparate organizations whose sole interest was returning to our livelihoods, and everyone was willing to do their part to get us there.”
A month later, on April 17, NASCAR extended its pause through May 9. The Cup Series was supposed to return at Martinsville Speedway that weekend, but Virginia’s stay-at-home order prevented that from happening.
Eight regular-season races were postponed at this point.
That same day, though, NASCAR also shared the formation of a seven-race, seven-week exhibition esports series called the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. Current and former drivers competed against one another from the safety of their own homes on simulators, all while being broadcast live on FOX networks for entertainment purposes. The intent of the makeshift league was to fill the on-track void, even if done so virtually.
“The first piece was really understanding how long we thought we’d be down,” O’Donnell said. “Extending the cancellation or postponement, I would say, gave us enough time to put together a schedule. One of the fundamental things we really tried to do was not announce a schedule that we would then have to postpone or continuously revamp.”
NASCAR met that goal. It wasn’t until April 30 – 48 days after the Atlanta postponement – that NASCAR revealed a revised May schedule. The Cup Series was set to make its return at Darlington Raceway on May 17, the first of seven national series events in an 11-day span.
The Real Heroes 400 – named in honor of frontline workers battling the virus – was unlike anything anyone in NASCAR had ever experienced. For starters, it was a one-day event. Get in. Race. Get out. That would have been considered crazy under previous scheduling – two practice sessions, one qualifying run and the main event was the norm.
“I honestly would have said, if we had an opportunity to try this, ‘Heck, no,’ ” Stewart-Haas Racing Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli said. “We’ve done our three-day races forever. That’s what works. That’s what our sport is about. But honestly, I can’t see where the racing is any different. Honestly, it’s worked out really, really well.”
The oddities didn’t stop there.
We have shown that we can go into a community and hold a race in a safe manner.
Fans, who normally swarm the infield with semi-regular access to drivers in the garage, were not allowed initially. Only essential personnel were permitted inside the track, severely limiting numbers from NASCAR, FOX and teams. Everyone had to pass a health screening before entry. Once in, masks and social distancing were required. Exit times were staggered.
Those were just the basic precautions, too. It was important to be as safe as possible, as NASCAR was the first sport to return to action after the lengthy hold.
“I think there was a little bit of apprehension initially when we got back to Darlington,” Bryant said. “Folks were worried about things. But as we’ve gone on, they’ve become accustomed.
“Look, everyone understands the way we’re operating right now is not ideal. It’s not ideal for drivers. It’s not ideal for fans. It’s not ideal for NASCAR and our partners or for teams and their sponsors. It’s not ideal, but it’s the way we have to operate right now to minimize the risk of exposure.”
And it’s working. NASCAR hasn’t postponed any events since its return to racing.
Fans were welcomed back in limited numbers in June. Homestead-Miami Speedway invited up to 1,000 local service members as honorary guests for its June 7 event. Talladega Superspeedway admitted up to 5,000 spectators with tickets the next weekend. Since then, attendance has been a track-by-track decision based on local and state restrictions.
“We have shown that we can go into a community and hold a race in a safe manner,” Bobo said. “Even from the beginning, we’ve had mechanisms for the teams and everybody else to provide us instant input based on what they think about the protocols. It remains a work in progress, but we keep updating it – as we should, based on the changes in the environment and then the things we organizationally learn.”
NASCAR has had two full-time Cup Series drivers test positive for COVID-19 – Jimmie Johnson in July and Austin Dillon in August. Both were required to sit out the next race and needed two negative tests at least 24 hours apart, plus written clearance by a personal physician in order to return to competition. Both were cleared in time to race the next week.
Since then, NASCAR’s protocol has been adapted to new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two negative tests 24 hours apart will still clear a driver. But now there’s also a 10-day rule after which the driver goes into a medical review for further evaluation and possible clearance.
“We’ve said from the beginning, hey, the virus gets a vote,” Bryant said. “We have this great plan, but the virus always gets a vote. We’ve had to react to different ebbs and flows from COVID-19.”
So far, NASCAR has kept pace.
Not only did the Cup Series make up all eight of its postponed races, it did so within the original regular-season time frame – thanks to unprecedented mid-week races and multiple weekend doubleheaders. After the checkered flag fell at Dover International Speedway on Aug. 22, the schedule was officially back on track.
“It’s tough,” O’Donnell said. “It’s one of those things that you could be quick to say, ‘Hey, look at us.’ But you also know that we’ve been in those positions, too. At any moment, we could be in a position where we’ve got to postpone a race.”
NASCAR as a whole is so close to the finish line. The Cup Series’ 10-race playoffs began Sept. 6 at Darlington, exactly where the sport made its comeback. Only six events remain, starting Sunday with the postseason’s halfway mark at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The 2020 season, along with all its trials and triumphs, will come to an end Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway with the Cup Series’ championship race.
“At the end of this – once we’re done in Phoenix – I think there will be a couple days where I go, ‘Wow, that was something,’ and spend a day or two reflecting,” Bryant said. “But not very long, because we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to do things in 2021.”
PART 2: Schedule