INDIANAPOLIS — Unprecedented. As this is written on Friday, March 13, a significant portion of America has come to a standstill as the world grapples with how to contain the COVID-19, the new coronavirus that represents the most significant pandemic of our lifetime.
Every major racing organization has canceled or postponed events for the next few weeks. Some of the largest sporting institutions in the world — the NBA, the NCAA and the NHL — have suspended operations until further notice. (All racing sanctioning bodies soon followed suit).
The sweeping reaction to the health crisis has occurred almost faster than we can comprehend. In a week that none of us will forget, the awareness of and reaction to the crisis has shaken the nation to our core. And, by extension, it has sent a sobering reality check throughout motorsports as we realize how utterly vulnerable we are to forces over which we have no control.
This is not without controversy, of course. Public consciousness seems to have shifted from lackadaisical indifference to genuine concern — even fear — as we witness the growing and lethal impact of the virus in Europe, particularly Italy.
Unfortunately, history provides us with a chilling model to imagine where this could go. It was a century ago that the world experienced what is today referred to as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Over a two-year period an estimated 500 million people contracted the disease and historians have estimated the number of deaths at between 17 and 50 million. More than 500,000 died in the U.S. alone. (Check out John M. Berry’s superb book, “The Great Influenza.”)
During the peak period of that pandemic — October and November 1918 — health facilities in the U.S. were hopelessly overwhelmed. American citizens died while lying on the ground outside hospitals because there was nowhere to put them and not enough staff to treat them.
Much has changed in our world since 1918, obviously. It is highly unlikely we will ever again see anything of that magnitude. Our most notable advantage today is our ability to learn and share information. We now have the ability to understand and react to such a crisis — in the early stages. If public officials could have taken drastic steps in the early stages of the 1918 pandemic to stop the spread of the virus, would they have done so?
That is what is happening now. Leaders are taking dramatic steps to contain a virus that, left unimpeded, could have implications more profound than we can comprehend.
All of us are distraught at the thought of our sport being put on hold. But the steps we take now —painful as they may be — will go a long way toward getting life back to normal much more quickly.
One takeaway of this past week is the astonishing number of people who insist the crisis is nothing but hype or a product of mass media manipulation. Some continue to cling to the dogma that COVID-19 is no more serious than the common flu.
However, scientists — professionals who know what they are talking about — continue to insist that COVID-19 is far more communicable and far more lethal. Believe what you want, but those 1,000-plus souls who have died in Italy — as of March 13 — will be dead for a long time.
The COVID-19 crisis will have a significant financial impact on a great many people in our industry; that is our reality. It is as painful for me to write those words as it is for you to read them. But this too shall pass. At some point — soon, we all hope — this crisis will abate and the world will resume normal daily operations. Life will go on.
Now is the time for everyone to pull together and make plans to lift our sport back to full speed at the earliest possibility. Now is the time to plan on buying tickets at the race track, both large tracks and small tracks. Now is the time to support motorsports vendors and media. Now is the time to rally around our sport and help us all get through this rough patch none of us saw coming.
At the very least, this week provides a wake-up call. This is a reminder that we should never take the things we cherish — freedom, good health and the unmatched thrill of auto racing — for granted. The sun will shine again very soon. When it does, we must go outside and enjoy it.