(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

2-Headed Monster: Should NASCAR Shut Down if One Person Gets COVID-19?

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.

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.

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

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About Amy Henderson

Amy Henderson
Amy is a 15-year veteran writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. Amy pens The Big 6 (Mondays) Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and Holding A Pretty Wheel (monthly - Fridays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits extend everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports.

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16 comments

  1. Avatar

    Surprised nobody mentions the financial liability to the group/organization/business that opens its doors, demands workers return or organizes the bringing together of hundreds/thousands of people in the middle of a well-known pandemic at its peak. We’re acting like no lawyer would ever sue over an unnecessary/negligent death.

  2. Avatar

    Returning to racing this soon is a big mistake probably. Putting a few thousand people into close quarters even if wearing masks isn’t going to end well.

    • Avatar

      A few thousand? Where did you get that number? How about groups less than 20? Words and facts have meaning and are kind of important.

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        A group of 2 can infect you and kill you.

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          Yes I suppose they could, but couldn’t I die from the regular flu? I guess in order to make it in this world I need bubble wrap and leave house only on emergencies I could live longer that way….Maybe but is that living?

  3. Avatar

    this is not going to work….

  4. Avatar

    Easy way around that. Tell workers it’s up to them. If they return they get paid if they don’t they can stay in unemployment and go their merry way. No one is putting a gun to anyone’s head to make them come back to work. If you don’t feel safe you can continue to stay at home. If you are willing to risk getting sick to earn money then you can work. Interesting concept… freedom to make your own choice.

    • Avatar

      Bill, sadly arguing logical solutions to these people here is like peeing in the wind. All you get are wet shoes….

  5. Avatar

    Life is not without risk. By the standard of “one” infection, you wouldn’t open ANYTHING, not a store, not a Town, not a State. So if that is the standard , its a unreasonable and unintelligent one. However you have to start somewhere. We should resign ourselves to think that a probable outcome is someone will get sick, it was announced that one of POTUS’ valets tested positive this week, the White House is probably one of the most thoroughly screened places in the world. To think a Sport has created a disease impenetrable bubble is pure fantasy. I would credit the management of the Sport with grabbing the bull by the horns and coming up with a reasonable plan to get back in the game. They are taking thorough precautions (more than my grocery store is) . I credit them for not hiding under their beds . Good Luck!

  6. Avatar

    I know without even reading this article that it’s going to be retarded so I will just say that back in the 80s when Tim Richmond had AIDS there was just as much misinformation and fear as there is about this silly little cold. And NASCAR didn’t shut down for months. They did the sensible thing for the information that was available at the time, albeit in a dishonest way and isolated the known sick person. There is never going to be a time when we can be sure that nobody is going to catch this disease and/or die. That doesn’t mean hide in your house under your blankie for the rest of your life.

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      “…silly little cold”?
      Man I have been arguing the “start the country up” side of the issue for the last three weeks and even I think that’s a ridiculous statement. Get real.

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        Even you, huh? Because you are some sort of authority that decides what is and isn’t ridiculous. Take your own advice and get real yourself.

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          With the number of people that have died I think it’s safe to say it’s more than some silly cold. I don’t think you have to be any sort of authority to make that distinction, just common sense which you obviously lack.

  7. Avatar
    Bernadine E Barrett

    The only reason for the stay at home orders was to slow the spread of this virus. It was never to stop the spread. And now that hospitals have the capacity to take care of those who do get sick, it’s time to begin reopening for business. Is it risky, yes. Is it worth it, depends on who you talk to. Continuing to shelter at home is looking for guaranteed safety when it only gives the illusion of safety. It’s time to try making this country work. And race drivers and their crew need to get back to work too.

  8. Avatar

    Really that’s the question of the day? Can someone tell me the last day that somebody did not die from the flu? No, no one can it was well over 100 years ago, that’s why.
    I will not let fear guide my future, today is all about fighting for our future not hiding in our homes for another 10 years. I mean you can, I choose life and look to the Lord Jesus Christ to provide all things. I will never quiver in fear I will go out seeking a better future!

    • Avatar

      Chad, you’re a simple-minded fool. People die from the normal flu all the time. Please, get a clue. Go ahead and pray to your jesus if you think that will save you. Most people know it won’t help.