It seems like yesterday, or 10 years ago, but it was the third weekend in March. We had four good races to start the NASCAR Cup Series season and were headed to Atlanta Motor Speedway where we knew it would be another good show. Then Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, the NBA shut down and the world as we knew it changed forever.
Two months later and, whether you agree with it or not, we are going back racing.
Returning to racing looks a lot different than many of us imagined when this shutdown first happened. Most thought we’d be down for a bit and then pick up wherever the schedule said we should be and have business as usual.
But Sunday will be anything but usual. The stands will be empty. The number of people working on each race team will be reduced. The media covering the race will be sequestered in the press box in turn 3. The TV announcers will be in a studio in Charlotte, N.C. There will be three still photographers shooting pictures for everyone. The pits will be covered by one reporter. Victory lane will be for the driver only. The winning team, or any team for that matter, is discouraged from anything celebratory, like high-fives, handshakes or chest bumps. Post race interviews will take place over Zoom.
To say the landscape has changed would be a major understatement, but it is necessary for the sport to return. The beautiful thing is the sport is returning. In Europe they will be starting up soccer again, also in empty stadiums. In the U.S., NASCAR is the first major team sport to be putting on a competitive event. The UFC held an MMA event last weekend. Wrestling has been going nearly uninterrupted, but baseball, basketball and hockey all remain shuttered with plans developing slowly. NASCAR has taken a major step — some would say gamble — and is going to hold competition.
Like almost every other thing in life during the social media era we currently inhabit, there is a major divide among the people who believe we should be going back and the people who think it is too soon. Fortunately for you, this is a racing column, and we are not going to hash out all of the pros and cons of the virus, social distancing, sheltering in place and toilet paper shortages. All we are concerned with is that the event is going to take place, and racing is returning to the American landscape, nine weeks after the disappointment that was the Atlanta race weekend.
It is pure speculation now, but this weekend could be another watershed moment for the sport, similar to the 1979 Daytona 500. That year the East Coast was snowed in with little to watch on television. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison got excited on the back straight at Daytona International Speedway on the final lap and crashed. Richard Petty went on to win the race. Donnie’s brother Bobby Allison stopped to check on his sibling, and Yarborough began repeatedly running his face into Bobby’s fist. That race and specifically that fight changed the NASCAR landscape forever and brought the sport to the masses.
Eight weeks ago the same thing happened with iRacing. With the sports world shutdown, NASCAR and iRacing held the Pro Invitational Series first race at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway. Nearly 1 million people watched drivers play a video game. The subsequent eight weeks have been a huge boon for iRacing and sim racing in general. There is no telling where sim racing will go after this shot in the arm, but if it is played properly by the people calling the shots, it will be a part of the sports landscape forever.
Now back to this weekend at Darlington. With a country, and the world for that matter, starved for live sports action, NASCAR will offer one of the few opportunities to see real competition from Darlington. The television ratings for this event could very easily rival the Daytona 500, which is historically the highest rated race of the season. If that is the case, there could be tens, if not hundreds of thousands of new fans watching the sport for the first time. Hopefully the race will not disappoint.
After Sunday we then have a first in decades, a Wednesday night Cup race, back at Darlington for the second race in four days. There have been calls to shorten the season for several years. One way to do that is to move some races to weeknights. This is purely an unintended consequence of the pandemic, but we are going to have a very real trial balloon to see how mid-week shows could work when they run these events the next two Wednesday nights. NASCAR has also been talking about making major changes to the schedule and getting back to more short tracks. A perfect opportunity is running local tracks on Wednesday night between big shows. If fans want to see more mid-week races, they better turn the knob to watch the events coming up.
This is a crazy time in which we live. No one anticipated the economy would be destroyed over a virus. None of us had heard of social distancing or shelter-in-place before this pandemic struck. It is hard to say if we will ever have a normal again and, if we do, how close it will be to the normal that we once knew.
One thing is for sure: this weekend there will be cars turning laps in anger, and we have been waiting two months to see it.