Amidst the ongoing debate within the NASCAR community on returning to racing, which is raging from social media to the North Carolina statehouse, earlier this week I had a good chat with fellow Frontstretcher Mark Kristl as we worked to edit one of his upcoming columns.
Mark, like I, has immediate family members working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. So it’s not surprising that despite being separated in age by more than a decade and coming from very different parts of the country, our perspective on what could potentially be the biggest decision in NASCAR history was very similar. That there is no right or wrong answer in debating when to return to racing, but a tacit acknowledgment that in our current situation, the weight of every decision has taken an extreme level of significance. Every decision has the potential to deliver a historic victory, or to go horribly wrong, even to kill.
It’s evident that NASCAR is aware of the gravity of its upcoming decision, which seems to have the Coca-Cola 600 at Memorial Day weekend targeted as their marquee return to the racetrack, even with hopes to hold the first Cup race on May 17. Even though lobbying efforts this past week resulted in North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper giving the all-clear for employees in NASCAR race shops to return to work, no firm date for an actual green flag has been set. David Caldwell published a take in Forbes that was even titled to contradict this notion (“Why NASCAR Won’t Restart 2020 Season Anytime Soon“), citing an industry official who called any attempt to restart racing by Memorial Day “a stretch.”
Another fellow Frontstretcher in Michael Finley, who to date may be the most vocal critic I’ve seen of NASCAR’s plans to re-open, posed a number of very relevant items that such a return to racing would require reckoning with in his latest 4 Burning Questions feature this past Friday, accurately citing concerns with limitations in testing competitors (let’s not forget NASCAR dodged a major bullet in its last attempt to race at Atlanta in March, with an employee that was in the garage prior to that weekend’s cancellation testing positive for COVID), taxing local resources and the potential PR disaster that the worst case could result in. Granted, NASCAR’s plans to move forward without fans is a huge mitigating factor, but sporting events have already proven a lethal means for viral transmission. And that was before the world locked down in response. Besides, as Caldwell also cited, even with a limitation to essential personnel, it will take thousands of people to put on a Cup Series race.
Having said all of that, heading into week seven since the abrupt closure of Atlanta Motor Speedway started racing’s pandemic shutdown, NASCAR’s hand may well have been forced thanks to events far away in Jefferson, S.D., where Saturday night saw a field of 64 sprint cars and dirt modifieds, including NASCAR veterans Ken Schrader and Kenny Wallace, run the first competitive oval-track race in the United States since March. Jeff Gluck’s Tweet last night summed up just how significant the former horse track in a field on the prairie was in the grand scheme of racing.
Brock Zearfoss wins the first race in America (maybe the world?) since the shutdown began. https://t.co/uqcfBOOKTT
— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) April 26, 2020
Anyone that’s been to a dirt-track race knows that, though it makes the show run long, catching an early-program rain shower lends itself to a stellar racing surface. That’s what happened at Park Jefferson International Speedway Saturday night, with a lightning-fast racing surface putting on a stellar sprint car feature that saw passing for the lead up front that would hold its own with anything a pack at Talladega can do. Oval-track fans hungry for racing would have likely paid the Speed Shift TV charges last night to watch Power Wheels take to an oval; that the racing was damn good was only a bonus.
And just as Brock Zearfoss’s win took on an unusual significance on Saturday night, so did the broadcast of the features run at Park Jefferson. That a track in the middle of nowhere, South Dakota drew entries from literally Pennsylvania to Oregon (one entrant hauled his car 28 hours to compete) to run for a few grand speaks to the appetite among race teams to get back on the track. Having both classes of cars full of entries and a well-prepared surface made the show worth watching. I sincerely hope that said good show means that Speed Shift TV’s pay-per-view broadcast proved viable on a balance sheet because if it did, they’ve certainly shown a viable means to broadcast short-track races. Despite working with a crew of only three per the commentary booth, Speed Shift’s coverage missed absolutely nothing on-track over the course of eight heats, two B-mains and two features.
Lastly, for as aggressive a decision as it was by promoters at Park Jefferson to host a race amid the pandemic, the track also made what was definitely the right call to back off a plan to host limited fans in the grandstands; the Speed Shift TV camera in the grandstands captured the crew members that sat in the stands to watch their cars compete, and also captured them behaving just like race fans would… converging on the concourses en masse as each heat and feature closed. It didn’t matter that Park Jefferson had a plan to stage fans across their stands to maintain distancing… unless they were going to require them to sit still and leave in a scheduled sequence, there is no way the planned crowd of 700 would have maintained distancing over the course of a show that lasted five hours.
That’s not to say the show went off perfectly, and again, the key word here is distancing. Despite the commentary booth repeatedly alluding to both distancing in the garage area and required use of face masks, both practices visibly went out the window once competition heated up. Despite the track being 4/10 of a mile with a wide-open grass infield, the sprint cars were all but herded together when brought off the track following time trials. Drivers involved in incidents that had to exit their cars on-track had no face masks or PPE with them while doing so, even though being in a wreck meant they were immediately interacting with both medical personnel and wrecker drivers in extremely close proximity (and it certainly appeared from the broadcast that not all the wrecker personnel handling racecars were wearing gloves).
Worst of all was watching the response on-track to red flag incidents that occurred in both the sprint car and modified features. Just like any short-track feature, said incidents saw everyone within a quarter-mile of the incident immediately rush on the track to aid (or more accurately, participate) in clean-up; at Park Jefferson, that meant squads of people inches apart pushing cars, including a man in a sweatshirt and shorts, but no gloves or face mask, that was all over the track during both episodes. Full disclosure: I was NOT in South Dakota Saturday night, so all these observations were made from limited camera angles 1,000 miles away. But in this world of heightened consequences, perception matters. Because while The Dirt Network’s lamentation is understandable…
Our biggest bummer tonight. Knowing that @FoxNews @cnn @MSNBC all reported that the race @ParkJeffersonSD was happening this week. And none of them will mention that Brock Zearfoss and Ricky Thornton Jr. Each won hard fought races tonight…..
— The Dirt Network (@TheDirtNetwork) April 26, 2020
… the same outlets that lost interest once the green flag dropped Saturday night will get interested again real fast if a crowd of race teams that originated from sea to shining sea results in infections spreading literally across the country. And I wasn’t the only person that noticed said lack of distancing in the infield:
I see lots of people congregating and just makes me pissed off.
— jwflowersii (@jwflowersii) April 26, 2020
I’m not trying to fault Park Jefferson here. FOX’s Bob Pockrass made an astute observation this week when he noted that “as NASCAR tries to determine how it can get back to racing as soon as possible, it will have to make decisions about whether to have practice and/or qualifying, how lineups are set if there is no qualifying… and probably decisions NASCAR hasn’t even thought about yet (emphasis added).”
As I drove home from a backcountry hike Saturday afternoon so I could watch the race, I spent the entire drive home considering how dirt-track racing, with its lack of pit stops and smaller crews, was uniquely positioned as a form of oval-track racing that could return with distancing in mind. What never entered my mind until I started watching the broadcast was just how terribly sprint cars are suited to handle said environment. Requiring push starts every time they stop and arguably the most likely to flip of any racecar routinely contesting America’s ovals, I wouldn’t advocate hosting another sprint car show anywhere anytime soon. But until said sprint cars took to the track last night, such a thought never entered my head (and scouring Twitter and the ‘Net, I didn’t find any such discussion anywhere).
All of these shortcomings, however, can be mitigated. Saturday night’s race at Park Jefferson demonstrated a viable means for short-track racing to resume. Short tracks can obviously have races broadcast with only minimal personnel. Confining features to car classes with vehicles that are capable of restarting on their own will reduce the number of infield personnel needed, as well as personnel having to handle said racecars. Requiring drivers to keep a mask and gloves in their machine to put on in the event of an incident will reduce exposure chances for racers and track personnel alike. Marking off the infield with places to park cars and crew members, just as Park Jefferson was going to do with their grandstands, will render distancing that’s both effective for the race teams, and visible to the viewing audience as being adhered to.
Again, Saturday night’s features have outsized significance. They demonstrated that short-track racing has a way back. And it’s obviously been noticed; Raceway Park in South Dakota is racing Sunday evening, with Southern Oklahoma Speedway planning to race this coming Saturday.
That reality has NASCAR likely stuck between a rock and a hard place, assuming, of course, there’s any doubt they want to return immediately (comments from Texas Motor Speedway’s Eddie Gossage and Team Penske’s Competition Director Travis Geisler suggest otherwise). Unlike other professional sports in the U.S., where franchising and anti-trust protections have them all but insulated from competition from other sanctioning bodies, NASCAR racing does have competition, competition that routinely sees their own top-tier racers taking to the short tracks (even minus Kyle Larson given his troubles, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch and Stewart Friesen routinely run events not sanctioned by NASCAR). The longer NASCAR isn’t racing, the more likely it’s going to become that their big names are going to look elsewhere to race.
What’s more, NASCAR is also jammed by the limitations of their form of motorsport. Even with the continuing trend of racetracks closing across the country, there are far more bullrings (with far more geographic coverage) in America than tracks capable of hosting big-league NASCAR. NASCAR races will require far more people to officiate, far more people to contest, far more people to televise. NASCAR races will require utilization of far more health and law enforcement resources, whether fans are present or not. Because grandstands closed or not, fans will show up. As Greg Engle noted in his reflections piece on March’s Atlanta closure that despite the grandstands being shut down, “there were still a few campers scattered around the grounds; fans who I guess hoped for some last-minute change, or who just wanted to be there to listen to the racing just a few yards away, even if they couldn’t see it live.”
Most notable though, NASCAR is unlike other professional sports in the sense that it relies on independent contractors to contest its competitions. Though 36 Cup teams own charters, race teams are independent businesses. And those businesses are not making money while not racing. Which gets back to the original thesis of this column, that there are no right or wrong answers, only decisions with outsized consequences.
Hosting a race with thousands of participants poses a potential risk to both public health and the health of the industry; the community of NASCAR races is finite, and an outbreak could cripple not just a race team, but a literal racing series in a worst-case scenario. The flip side of not racing, however, could prove just as destructive. As the AP’s Jenna Fryer noted this week, “NASCAR… is not built to withstand a shutdown of any sort. Team owners are on their own to figure out how to pay the bills. If someone wants to race, they find whatever sponsorship they can and try to spread it over the longest season in sports at nearly 11 months.” Starvation kills just as definitively as sickness.
Under pressure in more ways than one, NASCAR’s gambling its future with either decision it makes about restarting. With that in mind, perhaps it’s worth rewinding back to a gamble the sport’s TV partners took in 1979. That year, of course, saw the first flag-to-flag live coverage of the Daytona 500. That gamble took both NASCAR and its broadcasts, to levels not comprehended.
Fortune favored the bold four decades ago. Be it the participants that took to Park Jefferson on Saturday or what will hopefully be the 60th consecutive Memorial Day running of the Coca-Cola 600, hope and pray that history repeats itself.