Editor’s note: This is Part IV of a five-part series detailing how NASCAR successfully ran its 2020 season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
As the driver’s-side window rolls down, an at-track official reminds the team member inside the vehicle to wear his mask during pre-entry screening. The team member declined at first, but reluctantly put one on. As soon as he passed the checkpoint, however, the man made a show of taking the mask off and tossing it onto the passenger’s seat.
The team member – whose name was not disclosed, nor was the series or track – was forced to leave the premises within about 15 minutes.
“When we reached out to the series leadership and they reached out to the team, there was lightning-quick action to remove the problem,” said Tom Bryant, NASCAR’s managing director of racing operations. “Because, look, you’re endangering everybody. Stop being selfish.”
NASCAR is currently operating under abnormal circumstances, as is the rest of the nation due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There are strict safety protocols and procedures, such as mandated masks and screenings, to help stop the coronavirus’ spread and allow the sport to continue its season. No one is excluded from these rules, and clearly, there are varying repercussions for those who do not follow them.
Bryant and NASCAR Vice President of Racing Operations John Bobo led a 29-member team in charge of creating a handbook dedicated solely to COVID-19 protocols and procedures. It doesn’t have a hard page count because it’s updated as more findings come out about the virus, but it typically ranges around 50 pages. All of the content has been contributed to and reviewed by numerous health experts – epidemiologists, pulmonologists, infectious disease consultants, emergency room physicians and intensive care workers.
“A lot of reading material,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “But the entire industry came together and said we want to race, we want to do this in a safe way and we believe in the protocols that are being put forward.”
The thoroughness of the handbook is why NASCAR received approval from local and state officials to race at select tracks, like Darlington Raceway in South Carolina for starters on May 17, after a two-month pause.
So, here’s how a Cup Series race day looks for a race team under the guidelines of this handbook.
For starters, roster numbers are limited. Essential personnel quantify as six road-crew members, five pit-crew members and two hauler drivers. That’s about half the normal amount, give or take, depending on the team.
Anyone attending an event must take an online health questionnaire NASCAR sends out via text message 24 hours before departure. The five-question form must be filled out and returned within 12 hours of the garage opening. Answers are reviewed by a medical liaison team. If there are any issues, NASCAR’s American Medical Response (AMR) director Dr. Ryan Stanton will schedule a telehealth appointment for the individual for further evaluation and advisement before the person even gets to the track.
“It’s 100 percent cards up,” Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler said. “We’ve really stressed to everybody this isn’t about letting your team down because you’re not coming to work or you’re lazy because you want to stay home. This is about doing the right thing.”
Upon arrival, there’s that masked in-car pre-entry screening. Precautionary questions are asked about symptoms and exposure. Temperatures are checked with a handheld thermometer. Those with any concerns go to a secondary screening, where they have a follow-up with an on-site physician – normally Stanton or another AMR representative. The medical professional then makes the call whether the person can enter the venue, not NASCAR.
Once inside, team members go straight to their respective areas of work – garage stall, pit road, spotter’s stand, etc. NASCAR implemented the safety measure of compartmentalization. Rather than one big bubble, there are many mini-bubbles.
“The driver comes in, they go to their motor coach, and they don’t come out again until they get their race car,” Bobo said. “That way, if the driver is asymptomatic, he’s not infecting someone on his team. If there’s a mechanic on his team that’s asymptomatic, he’s not infecting the driver. … The functional work groups have created an additional level of isolation, so if something does go wrong, you’re not taking out an entire team.”
From green to checkered flag, things are normal apart from the lack of people wandering around.
Drivers still have post-race media obligations, but even those responsibilities have been altered. The race winner celebrates in Victory Lane alone, wearing a mask. Instead of press conferences or mass pit-road interviews, there are Zoom teleconferences, which the top-three finishers can do from their motor home or the media center. If in the media center, masks are worn and surfaces are wiped down in between sessions.
Speaking of sanitization, each entity – NASCAR, track, teams and suppliers – are required to clean their belongings before leaving the facility. That includes haulers, cars and equipment.
“It really hit me after the race at Darlington,” Geisler said. “NASCAR outsourced some at-track sanitization of products in their trailer, like parts and tools. Those people were walking around in like full nuclear fallout gear. I mean, they had sealed facial stuff on with air pumps. They had the yellow suits on with all the seams taped. We’re walking around and we’re kind of looking at each other – none of us wearing anything but a mask – like do they know something we don’t?
“You feel like you’re in a movie at that point, and you’re just a cast member not really sure what’s going on in the script yet.”
Cast members know the script better now. It’s not the preferred normal, but it is the current norm.
Twenty-two regular-season and four postseason Cup Series events have been completed with these ever-evolving protocols and procedures. Only six playoff races remain before the 2020 champion is crowned Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.
“No one at NASCAR is taking a victory lap on this,” Bobo said. “We feel fortunate and grateful that we’ve gotten this far in the season. But we understand the road ahead and we know it’s a privilege.”
PART 5: Fans