NASCAR goes green in May with four Cup Series races in 11 days
NASCAR will return to action at Darlington Raceway on May 17, kicking off a packed two-week schedule announced Thursday.
The races themselves will look familiar, but the schedules and routines around those races will not, crafted with the intent of keeping competitors safe from the coronavirus.
The 400-mile Cup Series event on May 17 will be the first of seven events in 11 days involving all three NASCAR national series. The revised schedule has a pair of Wednesday races, fulfilling fans' longtime plea for midweek events.
Three of those races -- two Cup Series races and an Xfinity Series event -- will be held at Darlington, NASCAR's oldest superspeedway.
"Darlington is one of the most iconic and historic tracks in the sport and will be a tremendous backdrop when NASCAR returns to racing,'' track president Kerry Tharp said of the South Carolina venue.
The other four races -- two Cup Series events, an Xfinity Series event and a Gander Trucks race -- will be held at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. That includes the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24, marking 60 consecutive years that the longest race on the NASCAR schedule will be held on Memorial Day weekend.
None of the May events will include race fans.
"That is still a work in progress," Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said during a media teleconference Thursday.
The Darlington events will be run without qualifying or practice. The Cup Series races at Charlotte hope to include qualifying, but NASCAR officials say that could change depending on what they learn at Darlington.
NASCAR joins the UFC, which returns May 9, as the first major sports organizations to announce specific return-to-play plans since the coronavirus pandemic shut down U.S. sports in mid-March.
NASCAR has worked with the state and local governments of its racetrack locations to determine what it believes is the best plan of attack to return to racing. Earlier this week, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper discussed those conversations, saying his state health officials had sent back some notes but ultimately approved NASCAR's plans.
Among the procedures that will be in place, as explained Thursday by O'Donnell and John Bobo, NASCAR's vice president of racing operations:
Only licensed NASCAR team members will be allowed into the racetrack. They will be required to wear cloth face masks. Anyone who does not will be removed from the facility.
Teams' work areas in the garage will be spread out to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Spotters, normally working shoulder-to-shoulder atop the press box/tower, will be spread out to comply with social distancing guidelines.
Competitor motor homes will be allowed in the racetrack infield, but instead of occupying one enclosed area, they will be spread out throughout the infield.
Teams will be limited to 16 total members, including the driver.
All events will include live pit stops. O'Donnell said that live pit stops were a high priority during the formulation of the return plans, in order to make the race experience look and feel as normal as possible.
Over-the-wall pit crew members will use face screens or neck socks in addition to their normal gear of firesuits, helmets and gloves.
NASCAR has asked race teams to closely monitor the health of their employees before, during and following each event.
There will be random temperature checks of everyone working in the garage area. Anyone determined to be symptomatic will be checked via an outside care center. If they are determined to be a potential virus threat, they will be required to leave and be replaced with another crew member. This includes drivers.
NASCAR is asking everyone inside a race facility to keep a contact tracing log, manually at first and then by implementing digital inputs. If a worker shows symptoms, that person and those he was in contact with will need to self-isolate.
Media coverage outside of the TV and radio broadcast partners is still being determined.
Crew members and drivers will not receive virus tests, Bobo said, because COVID-19 tests still aren't widely available to the public and the sanctioning body is "reluctant to take tests away from communities in need."
NASCAR has a tentative schedule plan for June and beyond, made up primarily of classic Southeastern racetracks that are within easy driving distance of most teams' headquarters in the Charlotte area.
"This has been a proactive effort to put our motorsports industry back to work and boost the morale of sports fans around the world, while at the same time keeping the health and safety of all who will be on site the top priority," said Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports.
"Sports fans around the world need this, a return to some sense of normalcy with live sports on TV, and NASCAR is uniquely positioned to deliver it from a competition standpoint."
O'Donnell repeated what NASCAR has said since it was forced to leave Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 13, that the goal remains to run a full complement of 36 Cup Series events. But O'Donnell and Bobo both explained that anything past the May 17 return race at Darlington, be it the schedule or health-altered procedures, was subject to change.
When asked about the fluidity of it all, O'Donnell said the current schedule that he has mapped out covers the season through the late November finale at Phoenix Raceway, but also admitted that it was the 65th different schedule that had been drawn up as the coronavirus pandemic conditions have changed.
"We feel like we have the right cadence with where states are and where health officials may be," O'Donnell said. "Certainly we have backups to backups to backups, but I would say we started with about seven pencils and a lot of erasers, and it's moved to pen now. [We're] saying to our broadcast partners and tracks that this is what we believe we can collectively do.
"But until we start racing and see how things take place and until we see how this virus affects things down the road, we can't say for sure. But I do feel confident as an industry, we have a schedule that we can pull off and that we can pull off for the fans."
NASCAR suspended its season March 16 with only four of its 36 scheduled races completed.
Almost all teams began returning to their race shops this week with either a reduced initial workforce or in split shifts. Now that NASCAR has told the teams where it will be racing in the coming month, they can start preparing cars suitable for the two tracks.
Although Florida and Texas have invited NASCAR to compete in those states without spectators, the sanctioning body is holding off on scheduling events at tracks that require air travel and hotel accommodations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.