On Sunday, May 17 in Darlington, S.C., the NASCAR COVID-19 hibernation is ending. In a country where sports are struggling to reopen in the midst of a national pandemic, stock car racing is about to take center stage. Engines will fire on a 400-mile experiment that could shape how everyone from Major League Baseball to the NFL maps out their return in the coming months.
It's also a gargantuan roll of the dice. At stake is the sport's popularity, financial health, and reputation, and this decision is likely to shape much of their next decade of competition.
"We're incredibly excited to return to racing," NASCAR Vice President Steve O'Donnell said in announcing the sport's comeback bid on May 1, "but also understand the tremendous responsibility that's going to come with that."
NASCAR comes to the table already with a slight advantage: They've maintained at least a sliver of their audience while stick-and-ball sports like MLB, NHL, the NBA, and golf have been largely sidelined since the second week of March. Their decision to pivot to iRacing, pulling off a seven-week exhibition series on virtual tracks, produced the highest ever ratings for esports on national television. A baseball season still uncertain of its 2020 debut would have begged for the nearly one million viewers that tuned into FOX and FS1 each week — along with some of the television revenue paired with it.
But that's just a sliver of the attention stock car racing typically commands on a weekly basis. They pulled out all the stops, from NASCAR Hall of Famer and FOX analyst Jeff Gordon jumping in on video game simulations along with NBC analyst and former Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. They recreated a classic short track, North Wilkesboro Speedway, for a Mother's Day weekend finale that was the first "race" there since 1996. The realism of at-home driver rigs allowed all the sport's top-tier athletes to participate.
But iRacing could only do so much, plateauing in popularity as viewers realized it'll never quite be like the real thing. Drivers could wreck their cars, then hit the reset button at least once to come out of the pits like nothing ever happened. And while the series made stars out of typical underdogs, like Texas Motor Speedway winner Timmy Hill, many of the sport's typical front-runners were shuffled into obscurity during the online format.
In the meantime, NASCAR recognized they had to do something as financial damage started piling up. The sport issued 20 percent pay cuts to all employees, then went through a second round of layoffs related to its recent merger with its racetrack arm, International Speedway Corporation. Speedway Motorsports, Inc., whose tracks hold a third of NASCAR’s 36 race dates, also furloughed hundreds of employees.
Then there are the race teams, whose financial coffers just don't have the built-in insurance for a lost season. The sport's most valuable team, Hendrick Motorsports, took in $172 million in revenue in 2019 according to Forbes, and has an overall value of $315 million. But they're just one of five teams whose total value is $80 million or more. Compare that to, say, the NFL's Green Bay Packers, who have a corporate reserve fund for emergencies valued at $400 million. The same type of extra cash just isn't there.
NASCAR also is unique in that it relies on corporate sponsorship to bring its teams to the track. While the sport has taken steps toward franchising in recent years, with car owners forming the Race Team Alliance (RTA) and buying into a charter system of 36 guaranteed spots on the grid, they're not equal financial partners in the sport like 32 NFL franchises. Their revenues go to zero, sponsorship goes to zero, and as independent contractors, they're out of luck in NASCAR's gig economy system.
For those teams, and the sport as a whole, losing the vast majority of its $740 million yearly television revenue would be devastating. A February 2021 return after eight months off could lead to a massive shutdown within the sport's minor leagues; the earthquake would reach all the way to the top-tier teams in Cup.
So NASCAR chose to reopen, taking their chances on a move that has tremendous upside — and tremendous risk.
"We do have drivers with helmets, we are in racecars," said O'Donnell. "There are unique things about our sport that we did feel like provided us the opportunity to get back if we could, where we knew we were going to be safe.
"If we didn't feel like we had the support of the local community, health officials, the state, you wouldn't see us racing 'til November. That was a key for us to make sure that was in place."
Their first partner is close to home, a state in South Carolina that's a two-hour drive from team shops in Charlotte. The races will start as one-day shows, with no practice or qualifying and completed in a way no crew member will even need a hotel room for the event.
"Our goal," said O'Donnell, "Was to get at least seven or so events under our belt, drivable, learn as we go, not have to put people on planes if we could avoid that."
But don't be fooled; the sport's marketing arm understands opportunity knocks here. That's why Sunday kicks off seven races in an 11-day stretch, all within a stone's throw of those race shops at Charlotte Motor Speedway. That includes four Cup races, the most in that timeframe in nearly 50 years, two NASCAR Xfinity Series (think AAA baseball) events, and one for its Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series (AA baseball).
FOX will televise them all, well aware of the ratings bonanza that could ensue with millions sitting quarantined in their homes during COVID-19. ABC/ESPN just had 15.6 million tune in to watch the NFL draft, the largest audience in history and a 37 percent increase over last year. NASCAR, already buoyed by a strong competitive start to 2020, averaged around five million viewers in its last three races before being sidelined.
These events will be conducted without fans in the stands but NASCAR has kept the same in-race structure: three stages, regular pit stops, and crew chiefs making strategy calls atop the pit box. That means 16 crew members for each team will be allowed in, along with a bare minimum number of FOX broadcasting crew, NASCAR officials, media, and essential personnel.
More people also heighten the obvious risk in a pandemic that's already taken 80,000 American lives. The sport plans temperature checks but no COVID-19 tests to ensure entry into the racetrack. And while the cars themselves ensure social distancing, the nature of pit stops themselves necessitate close contact with the crew changing tires and fueling the car.
"Symptomatic patients will be processed and removed from the event and given medical attention as needed," said NASCAR Vice President of Racing Operations John Bobo. "We'll be doing that outside the infield care center to protect the integrity of the infield care center for emergency operations during the race."
Problem is, the second a COVID-19 positive is found, an emergency already happened. Even in a spaced-out garage, outdoors, the likelihood that other people came in contact with the virus is high. NASCAR is hoping the power of money maximizes social distancing; fines of up to $50,000 can result from failing to follow COVID-19 protocol according to a rewritten rulebook. Plus there's...
"Contact tracing," added Bobo as he railed off a long list of initiatives in combatting the virus. "We are asking teams and participants to keep a log of who they've interacted with throughout the course of a day so if we have a positive post-race, we can figure out who they were in direct exposure with and ask those people to isolate for 14 days."
But can the sport really keep going if a driver tests positive? And what if their sickness progresses to the point of hospitalization or worse? It may be two months after NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive but there's still no effective treatment to mitigate the disease. Could NASCAR just say aw shucks, wish that driver well and move on without a massive backlash that keeps them from competing?
"A worst-case scenario, a three-hour window if we had to replace someone, we'd have that time," O'Donnell claimed for Darlington. "As you get beyond that, you look at the what-ifs. We're going to learn as we go."
Expect the rest of the sports world to be sitting in class. Someone had to be the guinea pig and a NASCAR success story becomes a permission slip for others to try, reaping the rewards of millions of new homebound fans in the process. Their 2020 handling package has seen an uptick of excitement and competition, outmuscling a rain-delayed Daytona 500 and Ryan Newman's near-tragic crash. A strong race with no positive tests put them squarely in the spotlight, erasing recent missteps like Kyle Larson's racial slur and sets them up for a month of having sports nation all to themselves.
But if it backfires? And a number of positive tests derail the season in a matter of weeks? Stock car racing will likely be among the last to fully return and suffer maximum economic damage.
It's not an easy choice. But NASCAR itself feels it's time to try.
"We realize upfront it's a huge responsibility for us as a sport," O'Donnell said. "But I'm also confident in the group we've gathered to put this plan together. Our entire industry has come together to believe in the plan."
Now, will the virus play along?
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)