The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we’ve seen in this lifetime. It has brought most businesses and the entire sports world to a complete halt. Eventually some sport was going to have to take the risk and be the first one to come back. While things will be very different when NASCAR returns on May 17, they will be the first sport to take the plunge and all eyes will be on NASCAR.
According to a few reports, there will be safety precautions throughout the NASCAR garage including rule that all team members will have to wear masks while they are at the track. Still, the threat of the virus is very real and while safety will be NASCAR’s upmost priority, some thing that coming back puts the health of their people at risk and puts the sport in risk of bad publicity.
That has led us to this question: Should NASCAR shut down if one person gets COVID-19? Amy Henderson and Mark Kristl will debate on what NASCAR should do if in fact it happens.
They’ll Have to Throw the Red Flag – Immediately
From teams to fans, everyone will be glad to get back a sense of normalcy as NASCAR prepares to go back to the track next weekend. There’s a plan in place to keep drivers, team members, officials and medical personnel as safe as possible as the reality of COVID-19 is still very much a threat.
NASCAR has said it will check the body temperatures of each person at the track (a fever is one of the first and most common signs of the disease) and require face coverings, which helps slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Teams will be in and out for races with no practice sessions or qualifying, and tracks will utilize more garage areas to spread them out.
So what if someone tests positive?
That would certainly put NASCAR in a difficult position. The official word is that anyone testing positive for SARS-CoV2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) will be told to self-isolate for at least two weeks, and a driver testing positive would be automatically granted a playoff waiver.
That’s not enough.
If someone – anyone – within an organization returns a positive test, sending that person home won’t cut it. The sport will need to stop and stop immediately the moment that happens.
That sounds like a lot, but it’s necessary.
Why? Let’s take a look at how the virus is spread. The main vector is in the tiny droplets of moisture present every time a human exhales. When another human inhales an infected droplet, the virus can enter the body, where it can replicate itself and cause a lot of damage to some individuals in the process. A secondary method of transferring the virus is if the droplets containing the virus settle on a surface, and another person touches that surface and then his or her face, allowing the virus to be taken into the nose, mouth or eyes, where it can get into the body most easily.
On average, an infected person infects 2.5 other people, but that number can be higher if he or she is in close contact with a lot of other people … like in a garage with 16 people per team with at least 36 teams, plus NASCAR officials and other essential personnel. And complicating matters is that people are often most contagious before they even know they’re infected … if they ever know, because this virus, deadly to some, causes no symptoms or signs in others.
Here are a couple of not-far-fetched racing scenarios.
Jeff, a mechanic, comes to work at a four-car organization, again feeling fine. Teams have not even been to the track. He has what he thinks are mild allergies. Masks are not required at the shop, and so he doesn’t wear one. He has lunch with three other mechanics. Then he goes to a meeting with the driver and crew chief, and delivers some parts to a satellite teams where he hands them off to his buddy—they share a laugh and he goes back to work. He starts feeling worse a few days before the team heads to Darlington and tests positive on Thursday.
NASCAR is suddenly backed into a corner. The fairest and safest action would be to cancel the event. Theoretically, the sanctioning body could tell that organization and its satellite team that they cannot compete – and enforce that until all team members test negative. NASCAR can grant a playoff waiver, but keeping five cars out of the race isn’t going to make the television networks, fans or sponsors happy either. It’s truly a no-win. But it’s also the better case scenario.
Let’s say Sam is an engineer for one car in an organization that has two cars plus a satellite team or two. He was infected at the grocery store last week, but has no fever and feels fine. He passes at-track screening and heads off to work. In keeping with the average, we’ll say Sam passed the virus on to his wife; she hasn’t shown symptoms yet either. Sam flips up his mask for a few moments to get a break from the heat it creates as he works on his laptop. Nobody is nearby, but the team’s crew chief comes along a few minutes later and sits down at the same laptop. Then he scratches his nose. Game on. That crew chief passes the virus to the other team’s crew chief, a satellite organization’s car chief and the team owner. The owner is at higher risk due to his age – and the virus hits him hard. He ends up on a ventilator.
The only way NASCAR can hope to keep the virus confined in a garage outbreak is to keep everyone out of the garage. The damage has been done, but by stopping racing immediately until a better testing system than temperature checks can be implemented, it can at least be mitigated somewhat and maybe kept contained. Returning the next week knowing people have been exposed would be negligent at best.
By the time either Jeff or Sam is even tested, the virus has already been spread. If NASCAR acts quickly and keeps teams away from the track, there’s a possibility of keeping it contained and reducing risk for some, if not most within the garage. Once nobody in the sport has shown symptoms or tested positive for a period of time, we can try again. Allowing one case to become many without taking action would not only be a public relations disaster, but it raises the chances of tragedy in the community with every passing day. Many team owners are in high-risk age groups. People on teams may have family members at high risk – a few drivers do, and they’re not alone in that. Teams want to attend races, not funerals. – Amy Henderson
NASCAR has to try
NASCAR should race despite the risks and uncertainties associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. NASCAR made its bed in May with its decision to have races at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Beyond May, questions remain about the schedule for the rest of this season. NASCAR is close to answering those.
With the addition of 2 races at Darlington and 1 at Charlotte, NASCAR has "some idea, but trying to figure out what that looks like" in terms of what tracks will be taken off.
— Dustin Albino (el-bee-no) (@DustinAlbino) May 5, 2020
Because NASCAR has its series schedules nearly set, it has somewhat boxed itself in. NASCAR appears steadfast in its decision to resume racing. Arguably, it is too late to change now. Through its deals with TV partners, NASCAR cannot afford to back out. Backing out could cost NASCAR money which would likely have a long-lasting effect on the revenue in the sport.
There is too much at stake beyond TV revenue. The negative publicity the sport would receive if it altered the revised schedule would damage the sport’s reputation. Outlets that rarely cover NASCAR would quickly criticize the sport akin to how much publicity the sport received following the Kyle Larson incident.
For those invested in NASCAR, they should press on and race. Team owners are dependent on the money to pay employees, keep sponsors happy, and committed to the teams, and families are dependent on the return of racing.
With states reopening, NASCAR must hold races at some point. NASCAR employees are already suffering.
.@NASCAR today is going through a second wave of employee layoffs, as the sanctioning body continues to streamline its structure due to both the ISC merger and coronavirus pandemic.
➖ NASCAR eliminated 69 jobs during the first round in April, and the tally may be higher today. pic.twitter.com/mJHg1Lg38R
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) May 6, 2020
A further lack of racing would only cost more jobs. If those employees and their families are not physically affected by the coronavirus, they certainly are affected financially.
The return of racing will inject some much-needed money into the economy. With income, team members can pay bills, buy items, etc. Those purchases will aid the financial institutions, grocery stores, etc. whose employees can work more and earn more money. It snowballs from there, helping the local economy while rippling into the larger economy.
I understand this pandemic is serious. We need to abide by social distancing and take other precautions. However, one positive case of COVID-19 by someone in the garage will not affect everyone.
Think about healthcare workers. They go to work, don the appropriate PPE, act appropriately (washing hands, cleaning spaces more frequently, etc.) and encounter coronavirus patients. But how many of those healthcare workers have returned home without displaying any symptoms or passing the virus onto others?
The same could be applied to the NASCAR garage. If someone from one team tests positive does not guarantee others from the same team or the rest of the garage will become infected.
NASCAR needs to start somewhere sometime. It was a hard choice, but NASCAR wisely opted not to have fans in the stands for those races. NASCAR also rightly announced any driver who tests positive will be granted a playoff waiver. Although the waiver system can be a hotly-debated topic, NASCAR made the right call in an unprecedented situation.
Additionally, some of NASCAR’s decisions for the races themselves should minimize the risks of the virus spreading if one person does indeed contract it.
Both Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway are within a day’s driving distance of most NASCAR teams’ race shops. Those were the logical two choices. Team members will travel to the track, race and return home all in one day. That should alleviate concerns about the cleanliness of hotels, the need to purchase food for the race weekend, etc. It also limits the number of interactions everyone at the race track has with the public. Again, it will not stop the spread of coronavirus, but it should contain it.
Team haulers also will be spread out more during these one-day shows. This too reduces the risk of the spread as well. These steps, hopefully, combined with teams using hand sanitizer, more hand washing, etc., could lead to a successful race weekend without COVID-19 running rampant.
Yes, wearing masks, taking temperatures, etc., will not prevent a person from spreading the virus. Nonetheless, it is a start. However, outside of testing everyone, which is expensive and difficult to accomplish given the challenges surrounding testing in the country, this is the best option. It may not stop someone from becoming infected with coronavirus, but it could curtail the spread.
Having stated that, I sincerely hope nobody tests positive nor does the virus rapidly affect numerous people at the race track.
Lastly, the return of NASCAR is significant for its fans and media outlets alike. Fans can tune in to races. Those races will serve as a distraction away from the tough realities of life. Fans can talk to others about something other than these difficult times. On social media, fans can share their thoughts about the races as compared to reading about all this pandemic encompasses.
For NASCAR’s TV partners, these races will boost ratings at a time when most TV shows have ended their respective seasons partially due to the outbreak. Moreover, will these races be featured on other outlets such as ESPN? It has not had much to cover with no live sports. If ESPN, for example, mentions these races, its viewers may tune in to watch the races simply for an escape from everything else. – Mark Kristl
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.