Fan-free NASCAR Racing Leads to Mixed Feelings

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
fan free nascar racing leads to mixed feelings

I’m a relatively casual racing fan.

Daytona and Indy are appointment viewing for me each year, but the rest of the racing season, I sort of tune in and out as I please.

I used to follow NASCAR more closely, but over the years I’ve drifted away. I suspect that’s because the drivers I grew up watching got old and now either pilot a lounge chair in their living rooms on Sundays, or have a cushy broadcast gig.

Still, when I saw NASCAR was going to be back last Sunday with a race that counted, albeit with no fans and all sorts of restrictions in place on the crews to avoid the spread of COVID-19, I knew I was gonna watch. Real live sports! For the first time since early March! No more marble races or old dodgeball matches from recent years. Those are actual things I’ve watched on ESPN during shelter-in-place.

That said, I wasn’t sure I should be excited. One of the arguments against bringing ANY sport, including racing, back too soon, even sans fans, centers around the number of people needed to stage an event. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes folks involved, and even one infected asymptomatic or presymptomatic person could spread the disease. Testing can’t always account for that.

To its credit, NASCAR took plenty of precautions, including staging the race close to Charlotte, North Carolina, which serves as a base for many teams.

Fox’s broadcast crew did likewise (Fox’s sports division seems to have more sense than certain talking heads on the news side, but I digress). On-site crew was minimized, and those who were working in the off-site studios maintained distance from one another. The announcers weren’t even at the track, and on-site reporter Regan Smith was masked and maintaining proper distance from interview subjects.

Everyone else wore a mask when possible. Of course, anyone who has ever strapped into a race suit knows that some headsocks cover the mouth and nose anyway. The only time I saw someone not wearing a mask was at race’s end – winner Kevin Harvick stripped off his helmet and HANS device, taking his headsock with it, before speaking to Smith.

Speaking of the race’s end, that was the only time it felt weird to not have fans. I thought it would be stranger to see empty grandstands than it was, but it felt just like I was watching a lower-level series that rarely draws many fans. Or perhaps a better comparison is that it felt like watching a practice session. It’s not like the roaring engines don’t normally drown out most crowd noise during races with fans, anyway.

As for the racing itself, it seemed mostly par for the NASCAR course, although I stopped watching closely after the first few laps because I wanted to get some cleaning done around the house. I left it on in the background. Told you I was a relatively casual fan.

I still think NASCAR probably should’ve waited till June to return, just to be on the safe side, especially given the number of people involved in putting on a race, and the impossibility of social distancing during a pit stop. On the other hand, pit crews were already masked and helmeted pre-pandemic, so maybe the risk of virus spread is pretty low.

It’s not just about safety. It’s also about optics. Should entertainment businesses, and sports is essentially entertainment, be active when lots of people are dying? Or is it a necessary distraction from the grim news for those of us at home? Testing plays a part, too. Why should a pro-sports league have access to tests when the general public is struggling to get access to testing? That’s not necessarily a NASCAR-specific question, but it applies to all sports.

We’re still not ready for stick-and-ball sports, save possibly golf, in my opinion. Even without fans. That’s for the same reasons – too many people involved in putting on the event. Not to mention the close contact among athletes required in most sports. I can’t imagine linemen in football breathing on each other until we have some sort of treatment, or at least much better testing.

But perhaps racing is low-risk enough. The cynic in me still thinks NASCAR’s return may have been a money grab (in terms of broadcast revenue, of course) – the sport has the spotlight more or less to itself, for now. Not to mention that I’m, as a viewer, complicit. If I really didn’t want to support a sport I thought was opening too soon, I’d have watched something else.

On the other hand, if the sport (and motorsports at large) can run at low risk for participants, maybe it’s fine for NASCAR to try to earn money instead of losing it via shutdown? And maybe, for those of us still under stay-at-home orders, it’s a boon to our mental health to have something somewhat resembling normalcy on our TVs?

Even after states reopen, most of us are still going to be home a lot until there’s a treatment or a vaccine. This will be partly out of caution – save for a few morons who think the virus is no big deal, most of us don’t want to risk catching it – and partly because most states will limit capacities in social venues, and in some places, bars/restaurants/theaters/concert venues won’t be re-opened, at least not for in-person use by customers, until well after other businesses are allowed to resume.

I don’t know if I’ll be watching tonight’s race – I’m scheduled to do a Zoom happy hour, and there’s some classic sports programming involving my favorite NBA team I’m interested in – but I do know that part of me is very glad to have racing back.

The other part of me, though, has concerns. For the sake of the people working the races, I hope those concerns are unfounded.

This is how life will be for a while. I’m on record on these pages as being supportive of the shelter-in-place orders, but even those of us who thought they were the right thing to do know that they weren’t meant to last for more than a few months. The world was going to have to re-open sometime, vaccine and/or treatment or not. So, until the new normal looks more like the old one, individuals and big businesses while have to make tough choices using risk/reward metrics.

Let’s hope NASCAR made the right choice.

[Images: Grindstone Media Group/Shutterstock]

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  • ToolGuy ToolGuy on May 20, 2020

    Things I won't be doing: • Prophylactic hydroxychloroquine • Internal ultraviolet light exposure • Compulsive hand-washing when I haven't left the house all day Things I am doing: • Everyone gets occasional temperature checks, including the rare overnight visitor (you show up without a fever and we send you away without a fever) • Minimize risk to others (keep my distance on rare visits to the store, wear a mask when others have stopped wearing masks) • Wash my hands when I've been around other people Things I intend to do more of: • Vitamin D, preferably in the form of natural sunlight • More physical activity, and more outside activity (see above) • Low doses of Vitamin C and maybe echinacea [And if I were diagnosed with COVID-19, I would look seriously at low doses of sodium bicarbonate (general alkalinity) and ammonium chloride (NH4Cl, it's lysosomotropic). Not as a magic bullet or talisman. I'm not a doctor - I would ask my doctor. Ammonium chloride is used in salmiak liquorice in Sweden.]

    • See 1 previous
    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on May 20, 2020

      @Lou_BC I better clarify, " roughly 25% of the populace has been totally asymptomatic" should read "25% of the sampled population". That can be extrapolated to the population at large. Seroprevalence studies indicate that "we" are a long way from herd immunity which requires 65% of the populace to be exposed. The added implication is that the current death rates are tied to only 5% of the population being exposed. Unless we sample everyone on a routine basis, we don't know who is a carrier and who is resistant. Distancing and other precautions are currently the only mitigation measures available.

  • Ryannosaurus Ryannosaurus on May 27, 2020

    My last comment either didn't take, or was removed. Possible it was removed because I was critical of Tim and his blatant use of the word "morons" for people that have a higher risk tolerance than him. Anyways, this is just a test to see if the comment section is working for me.

  • Jim Bonham Thanks.
  • Luke42 I just bought a 3-row Tesla Model Y.If Toyota made a similar vehicle, I would have bought that instead. I'm former Prius owner, and would have bought a Prius-like EV if it were available.Toyota hasn't tried to compete with the Model Y. GM made the Bolt EUV, and Ford made the Mach-E. Tesla beat them all fair and square, but Toyota didn't even try.[Shrug]
  • RHD Toyota is trying to hedge their bets, and have something for everyone. They also may be farther behind in developing electric vehicles than they care to admit. Japanese corporations sometimes come up with cutting-edge products, such as the Sony Walkman. Large corporations (and not just Japanese corporations) tend to be like GM, though - too many voices just don't get heard, to the long-term detriment of the entity.
  • Randy in rocklin The Japanese can be so smart and yet so dumb. I'm America-Japanese and they really can be dumb sometimes like their masking paranoia.
  • Bunkie The Flying Flea has a fascinating story and served, inadvertently, to broaden the understanding of aircraft design. The crash described in the article is only part of the tale.
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