Things were going so well.
The world was returning to a vaguely defined “normal.”
After not attending a NASCAR race as a member of the press in 18 months, after getting vaccinated as soon as it was available to my age demographic, I got to cover the June race weekend at Nashville Superspeedway.
No masks. No social distancing.
Through all of 2020 and the first 16 races of 2021, I had missed out on the strictest COVID-19 restrictions — empty grandstands, temperature checks, no infield entry and confinement to the press box. I’d watched from my living room couch.
For someone who had last covered a race in September 2019 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, covering Nashville was like nothing had changed.
It was as if a once-in-a-century international pandemic that had claimed the lives of roughly 600,000 Americans hadn’t occurred.
Nashville, with the first sold out grandstands since the 2020 Daytona 500, was downright eerie.
If you’re just now tuning into our broadcast, we regret to inform you that the pandemic is not over.
Through a combination of vaccine hesitation — between 14% and 26% of Americans say they have not been vaccinated and will not be vaccinated — fueled by misinformation and the overwhelming surge of the COVID-19 delta variant, the challenges and risks are still very much a reality.
The NASCAR community got its reminder of this last Tuesday (Aug. 9) when the sanctioning body issued a new at-track indoor mask mandate.
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) August 3, 2021
Two days later, GMS Racing announced that one of its Truck Series drivers Chase Purdy would miss the weekend’s race at Watkins Glen International. He had tested positive for the virus and was experiencing mild symptoms. The 21-year-old driver was replaced by AJ Allmendinger.
Purdy, a relatively unknown driver, joined the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon who tested positive for COVID since last summer and missed at least one race. Xfinity Series driver Justin Haley missed the May race weekend at Dover after his brother contracted the virus. Soon after, Haley was vaccinated.
On Thursday (Aug. 12), Rick Ware Racing announced JJ Yeley would replace Max Papis in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Indianapolis after Papis tested positive for COVID.
While other sports leagues and teams, like the NFL and MLB, have reported their vaccination rates, here in the NASCAR world we’re not privy to this information. We have to rely on social media or news reports to see if a driver or anyone else of note in the sport is vaxxed.
Justin Haley just said on @SiriusXMNASCAR he sat out Dover race weekend as a precaution after his brother tested positive for Covid (Haley tested negative).
Haley said he had 4-5 negative tests and that his brother had a rough time with the virus but is recovering.#NASCAR
— Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin) May 27, 2021
Sunday morning (Aug. 8) brought the news that two Joe Gibbs Racing pit crew members were being replaced for the Cup race due to coming in close contact with someone with COVID.
This happened on a weekend where Watkins Glen touted its sixth consecutive grandstand sellout (the track didn’t hold a race in 2020 due to the pandemic).
In the wake of Sunday’s race, long-time NASCAR spotter Brett Griffin, someone who I don’t agree with on nearly anything important, made this observation over a photo of race winner Kyle Larson signing autographs amid a group of roughly 20 maskless fans.
Some of Y’all aren’t gonna like this but if ima playoff driver in any series I’m not doing this a week before the playoffs start and so long as I’m playoff eligible. It’s just not worth it. https://t.co/mqdyXSzwp1
— Brett Griffin (@SpotterBrett) August 8, 2021
NASCAR was the first major sport back in action last spring for one very important reason: Its competitors are isolated from each other during the course of an event.
On top of that, for months drivers were kept out of the garage and stayed in their personal cars or RVs right up until the start of the race. Once they were at the track, they interacted with the fewest people possible.
Of course, NASCAR can only control who does what at the track and teams can limit who goes where and when at their own shops. Anything beyond that is out of their jurisdiction.
But the case of Purdy is significant. He had never finished better than 15th this season, and the only way he would have made the playoffs was with a win Saturday at the Glen.
He never got that chance.
In the Cup Series, Johnson missed what would have been his final start in the Brickyard 400 last year due to his positive test. While Johnson also had a second-place finish in the Coke 600 disqualified due to an inspection failure, it’s quite possible that missed race kept Johnson from making the playoffs in his farewell season.
There are three races left in the regular season. With the danger of COVID getting worse every day, NASCAR should do everything within its means to keep its potential playoff stars out of harm’s way for the next 13 weekends, even if that means considering a return to keeping drivers confined to quarters at the track until it’s time to race.
As of now, NASCAR is barreling toward an Aug. 27-28 date with one of the worst COVID hotspots in the country.
In two weeks, the sport returns to race in Daytona Beach, Florida, a state currently overseen by a governor who would rather pretend there’s not a pandemic going on. The state added 134,506 new Covid cases from July 30 – Aug. 5. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as of Wednesday (Aug. 11), 15,449 were hospitalized for COVID, an increase of 280 over Tuesday.
The Miami Herald said that COVID patients makeup 47.6% of all ICU patients in reporting Florida facilities.
According to the Herald, “Florida has about 6.5% of the U.S. population, but 20.4% of the nation’s COVID-19 current hospitalizations (down from 20.7% on Tuesday) and 17.5% of its COVID patients in ICUs (down from 17.9%).”
With grandstands at full capacity, roughly 100,000 fans could attend the Cup race at Daytona. I’ll be among the media members gathered for the weekend.
I admit a level of concern, despite being vaccinated.
Last year, short of having the courage to actually conduct COVID tests when they became more widely available, NASCAR did everything right in relation to COVID.
While NASCAR’s re-instituted mask mandate is a good move, not going further could add unnecessary fuel to the pandemic, especially in its home state where it’s burning hotter than ever.
NASCAR's plan at moment is to run Daytona as scheduled & would anticipate every effort to do so. Story in Daytona newspaper (not about the race but about virus) reported that Halifax hospital by track has 41% impatient beds available and 45% of ICU beds available. https://t.co/ZdnrQVDOE3
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) August 11, 2021
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