It’s going to be anything but a normal race day at Darlington on Sunday.
Sure, NASCAR hopes that the racing you see on the historic 1.366-mile track picks up like the series never had to take a two-month hiatus. But the procedures that the sanctioning body is implementing for its Cup Series race teams to say safe amidst the coronavirus pandemic will make it blatantly obvious that things are vastly different.
Here’s how NASCAR is attempting to safely race Sunday at Darlington and six more times over the next 10 days as it tries to run each of its scheduled races across all three top series before the end of the 2020 season. None of the races throughout May — and likely into the foreseeable future — will be held with fans in attendance.
Limited travel personnel and fever checks for everyone at the track
NASCAR is limiting Cup Series teams to just 16 traveling team members including the driver and pit crews. Across 40 teams, that’s 640 people at the track on Sunday if every team brings 16 people. And that’s not counting NASCAR officials and employees, track employees and security and production crew from Fox. Other personnel not considered essential is not allowed at the race.
Every NASCAR team member traveling to the track must fill out a health questionnaire and will have their temperature taken upon entry at the track on Sunday. If he or she has an elevated fever, an additional evaluation will ensue and he or she could be prevented from participating.
While the UFC obtained coronavirus tests for everyone in attendance at UFC 249 on Saturday — and a fighter tested positive — NASCAR has said it will not be directly testing all team members for coronavirus until tests are more widely available to the general public. The UFC obtained approximately 1,200 tests. NASCAR would need roughly five times that amount (or even more) if it were to administer tests to team members across all three series ahead of each of the next seven races on the schedule.
What if someone tests positive?
If someone shows coronavirus symptoms at or before an event and ends up testing positive for coronavirus, he or she will be able to be replaced on a team roster and asked to isolate for 14 days.
“We hope we don't have to do this, but we will allow a replacement person for a team member or for a driver,” NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell said on April 30. “The parameters will be set up in place with the screening prior to the race, especially for Darlington. A worst‑case scenario, a three‑hour window if we had to replace someone, we'd have that time. As you get beyond that, you look at the what ifs. We're going to learn as we go.”
If a driver does test positive for coronavirus and is forced to miss races, it’s highly likely that NASCAR would grant that driver a waiver to remain eligible for the playoffs. Ryan Newman, who was injured in a last-lap crash in February’s Daytona 500, was granted a playoff waiver after missing three races. Newman is set to return to Cup competition on Sunday for the first time since his crash.
While measures are being taken to spread out teams from each other — and more on that below — teams are also being asked to limit interaction among their own members as much as feasibly possible. Why? Smaller work circles mean smaller numbers of people would have to isolate and go into quarantine if someone at the track tested positive for coronavirus.
Spotters, for example, will be stationed across the empty grandstands apart from each other and asked not to go into the garage area. NASCAR vice president John Bobo even said in April that the sanctioning body has recommended that team members who travel to races don’t go back to the shops in Charlotte. Pit crews are even asked to not mingle with mechanics if at all possible.
Team members can be fined up to $50,000 and removed from the track if NASCAR deems someone isn’t complying with its rules.
“With social distancing, we're going to have one‑way walkways for people, our rules strictly enforced,” NASCAR vice president John Bobo said in April. “If people aren't complying with our rules for masks and social distancing, they will be removed from the premises.
“If we have someone in the broadcast lot, they have no business in the garage, they don't need to come into the garage, and vice versa. We need to keep people out of work areas they might not normally get into.”
Masks for everyone
All team members are required to wear masks at all times when not wearing a helmet that covers their faces. That means that all crew members will be masked at all times unless wearing a helmet for pit stops. Drivers are required to wear masks before and after wearing their helmets. If a driver is involved in a crash and gets out of his car, he’s asked to keep his helmet on until he can put a mask on provided by a safety worker after the crash.
Pit stops will proceed as normal, though team members are asked not to touch each other in celebration after a great pit stop or even a race win.
There will be minimal loitering on pit road before races. Drivers will be asked to come to their cars just before the race begins and the winning driver will not celebrate with his team in victory lane, though he will take celebratory photos.
A driver will be able to have his motorcoach on-site so he has a place to self-isolate throughout the day. Motorcoaches will not be parked as closely together as they usually are.
One-day shows with no practice or qualifying
NASCAR is resuming its season at Darlington because the state was willing to hold a race and because the track is within driving distance of Charlotte, where most teams are located. While team haulers will park overnight ahead of the race, no one is allowed to stay in the infield overnight in a hauler or motorhome. Most team personnel will drive in and out on race day and entry and exit times for teams will be staggered to keep teams apart from each other and to help with the screening processes.
Sunday’s race will be held without practice or qualifying, meaning the first lap of the race will be the first time drivers and teams will be on track since the final lap of the March 8 race at Phoenix Raceway.
“It was important for us to be able to showcase a race as close to what normally takes place as possible,” O’Donnell said about pit stops. “But it was also important for us to minimize what activity took place leading up to the event. That's why we don't have practice or qualifying prior to that event.”
In a typical situation, NASCAR would set the starting lineup by points as outlined in the rulebook. Tuesday afternoon, NASCAR said it would conduct a modified random draw for the starting order for Sunday’s race. There will be a random draw among the top 12 teams for the top 12 starting spots. Then another random draw from teams Nos. 13-24 in the standings for those spots and Nos. 25-36 in the standings before filling out the field via the cars that don’t have charters.
Teams will be spread out throughout the infield
You’re not going to see a crowded scene like this in a NASCAR garage anytime soon.
Without fans at the track and infields sitting empty, NASCAR is utilizing as much space as it can. Teams and haulers will be spread apart throughout all available garage space and are instructed to stay apart from each other whenever possible.
Since there is no practice and qualifying on Sunday, teams won’t be working on their cars nearly as much as they would on a race weekend. But NASCAR will still station teams throughout the garage areas an infield parking lots at Darlington when possible to give teams ample room to social distance from each other.
In addition to the one-way walkways that Bobo mentioned to limit people walking past each other, teams will even have their own portable toilets to use to minimize contact.
Fox will call the race remotely
Fox’s announcing duo of Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon will call the race from a studio in Charlotte and not travel to the track. Just one pit reporter, Regan Smith, will be on site.
Fox has utilized TV crews calling races remotely before; many truck races have been called from a studio in Charlotte. And Joy and Gordon have been calling the iRacing races broadcast during NASCAR’s hiatus from a studio over the last few weeks. But it’ll still be far different to not see the two drivers at the track during a race.
Teams from different series won’t cross paths
The Xfinity Series races at Darlington on Tuesday, May 19 with another Cup Series race on Wednesday. Those races are followed by four races in four days from May 24-27. Unlike during normal race weekends with multiple series racing at the same track in consecutive days, teams will not cross paths with each other at the tracks.
The Cup Series teams will be all gone from Darlington Sunday night and any and all areas will be cleaned before the Xfinity Series teams arrive. The same thing will happen after Tuesday night’s race ahead of the Cup Series’ return on Wednesday and for each race at Charlotte.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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