CONCORD, N.C. — As the calendar turned to May, motorsports began to roar back to life.
But while we were all happy to have our favorite sport back on the track, the question remained: Was it too soon?
Only time and COVID-19 statistics will fully answer that question, but without a doubt the nature of our sport and the relative ease with which it can be presented compared to other sports provided a tremendous opportunity.
It was an opportunity to win over a whole new fanbase during a time when folks are starving for entertainment. But it was also a dangerous opportunity. If COVID-19 outbreaks can eventually be traced back to auto races, it would be a public black-eye that could significantly impact the future of the sport.
But when it appeared — at least publicly — that other major sports leagues were struggling to safely relaunch their sports, the auto racing community (for the most part) was ready with well-thought-out plans that followed social-distancing practices and addressed the concerns of all stakeholders.
Without a doubt, the World of Outlaws and NASCAR led the way among the sanctioning bodies and the U.S. Motorsports Ass’n, SEMA and others worked behind the scenes to help educate track operators about the best way to return to racing.
As racing restarted, most events were run without fans in the stands, social distancing was a key component of convincing government officials that events could be run and masks were mandatory in most pit areas.
The bigger the racing organization the more strictly these policies were enforced with drivers and crews given health checks before entering the garage area at World of Outlaws and NASCAR events.
Television money fueled NASCAR’s return with its late May events at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Though NASCAR and the tracks certainly left some money on the table without having ticket revenue, the lucrative television contracts with FOX and NBC made getting back on the track a necessity for the facilities and the race teams.
And it was a perfect time to shine in front of a larger-than-normal international audience, as NASCAR returned to the track sooner than soccer, golf or any of the other major sports. The result was primetime coverage of seven NASCAR events in the three national touring series between May 17 and May 27.
It was certainly an opportunity to show off NASCAR’s rare form of sports entertainment and to set an example for other sports on how to safely return to the national stage.
Livestreaming video such as DIRTVision (which is owned by the World of Outlaws), Lucas Oil Racing TV and the SPEED SPORT Network and its affiliates, played a significant role in racing’s return as streaming video revenue helped to offset the loss of ticket revenue in many cases.
Still, many tracks and sanctioning bodies are not in a position to operate without fans. Streaming video wouldn’t be enough to support the racing programs and keep the promoters in the black. In the case of the NHRA, which postponed all of its events until August, the logistics of events without fans did not fit their business models.
Matters were also complicated for many of the touring series because rules for public events differed from state to state and in many cases from county to county or town to town.
At press time, it was difficult to say when fans may again be allowed to attend NASCAR events, but they were already returning in limited numbers at smaller tracks as various regions of the country began lifting stay-at-home orders and reopening their communities.
The World of Outlaws was planning some late May events in Missouri with limited fans in attendance as were other racing series such as USAC and POWRi.
Some race tracks, most in rural areas, were operating business as usual, while still others were hosting racing programs that ran without fans or streaming video but featured multiple divisions in hopes the back-gate fees would cover the cost of racing.
Still, at a time when people were publicly cursing at each other in grocery stores and other places of essential business for not wearing masks or practicing social distancing, running around in circles on a race track seemed a bit much to many.
But racers have always found a way to race, and they are finding ways to do what they do even as COVID-19 continues to impact our everyday lives.
So far the amount of ingenuity and forethought shown by the motorsports industry has been impressive.
Let’s stick to our guns, continue to social distance and keep safety forefront in our minds.
But friends, it is time to go racing again.