Forty drivers, all wearing masks, engaged in serious, high-speed social distancing Sunday, blasting around the oval track for NASCAR’s “Real Heroes 400” race – with a huge virtual audience and barely a soul in the grandstands in Darlington, S.C.
This was the first NASCAR race since the pandemic forced lockdowns across the country and ended huge, in-person events.
NASCAR – like all huge sports conglomerates – needs the money and momentum to continue, so the Darlington race had to go well to put some kind of racing season on track, so to speak. NASCAR followed Centers for Disease Control guidelines, requiring masks for everyone at the track, limiting the number of crew members per car and, most importantly, not allowing any spectators, except on TV.
The race was dedicated to health care workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and each car’s door bore the name of a health care worker in place of the driver’s name. Kevin Harvick, who won the race after starting in sixth position, honored Dr. Joshua Hughes, an ER doctor in the Charlotte area, who Harvick said is a friend.
With crews, broadcasters and officials all passing though health screening stations and maintaining distance from each other, it was a race like no other.
As reported on NASCAR.com, “Engine noise rattled off the South Carolina track’s empty grandstands, with only well-spaced spotters in the seats where fans would normally be. ...The national anthem from country artist Darius Rucker was pre-recorded and piped in remotely.”
When Harvick took the checkered flag and stepped out of his sky-blue and white Ford, there was no cheering, no high-fives or hugs from crewmembers – only “virtual cricket sounds from unoccupied seats,” NASCAR reported. Harvick wore his mask while celebrating his victory.
It was a success, in an odd way, bringing a popular sport to a big audience while broadcasting good practices shown by drivers, crew and commentators on how to stay safe from the virus. Other sports will likely follow this example, with empty or sparsely populated stadiums, more protective gear for players or performers, and, when possible, televised broadcasts to boost the audience. It’s sure to be an involved process that moves nowhere as fast as a stock car race. But at least we’re off to a good start.