The world is seeking its 'new normal' during this coronavirus pandemic. In top-level motor racing, that first step comes Sunday when the NASCAR Cup returns after a two-month break - its first track action since Phoenix on 8th March.
The first race back will be held on Sunday 17th May at Darlington Raceway starting at 8.30pm BST. That and three following events will be run behind closed doors, with all participants and officials subject to strict social distancing measures combined with personal protective equipment and regular health screening.
Each of the planned events will have TV coverage, but there will be no practice or qualifying. Besides that, race formats will be as normal albeit with safety precautions taken.
"NASCAR and its teams are eager and excited to return to racing, and have great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's executive vice president. "NASCAR will return in an environment that will ensure the safety of our competitors, officials and all those in the local community.
"We thank local, state and federal officials and medical experts, as well as everyone in the industry, for the unprecedented support in our return to racing, and we look forward to joining our passionate fans in watching cars return to the track."
How has NASCAR been allowed to return?
NASCAR's racing return has essentially hinged on North Carolina's Governor, Roy Cooper. His declaration that NASCAR teams were considered 'essential business' has been key to the sport's return - as the majority of its competitors are based in his state. This will be extended to the race tracks "unless the health conditions go down", according to Gov. Cooper.
Some of the counties within North Carolina did carry stricter lockdowns than others, but it is understood that all have now come into alignment to benefit NASCAR's restart, which has allowed for preparations of cars and race tracks alike.
NASCAR has collaborated with public health officials, medical experts and state and federal officials, and implemented a comprehensive health and safety plan. In accordance to state and local government recommendations, almost every aspect of how the event is conducted will be significantly modified, including the following provisos:
• One-day shows
• Mandated use of personal protective equipment throughout the event
• Health screenings for all individuals prior to entering the facility, while inside the facility and exiting the facility
• Social distancing protocols throughout the event
• Strict limits on the number of individuals who are granted access into each facility
NASCAR has pledged to continue to work with state and local authorities, based on trends and local restrictions. Teams will be limited to 16 members, including the driver.
When and where is NASCAR racing?
Two Cup races will take place at Darlington, South Carolina, within the space of four days, as NASCAR endeavours to regain lost racing (and TV) time for the sport. Sunday's race is a 400-miler, followed by a shorter Wednesday evening event of 500km. There will also be a 200-mile Xfinity Series race on Tuesday night.
From there, the Cup circus will reassemble at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 as planned on May 24. As at Darlington, a 500km race will be held there the following Wednesday. This time, Xfinity will race on Monday night, with a 300-mile event, followed by the return of the Gander Truck Series on Tuesday evening.
How to watch NASCAR on TV this weekend and beyond
DATE TRACK SERIES DISTANCE TV START (ET)
Sun, May 17 Darlington Cup 400 mi FOX 3:30 PM
Tues, May 19 Darlington Xfinity 200 mi FS1 8:00 PM
Wed, May 20 Darlington Cup 500 km FS1 7:30 PM
Sun, May 24 Charlotte Cup 600 mi FOX 6:00 PM
Mon, May 25 Charlotte Xfinity 300 mi FS1 7:30 PM
Tues, May 26 Charlotte Gander Trucks 200 mi FS1 8:00 PM
Wed, May 27 Charlotte Cup 500 km FS1 8:00 PM
Update: NASCAR races revealed through June
NASCAR has further outlined its plans for racing until June 21. This ambitious plan includes multiple states, and will depend on no further pandemic spikes in those areas that might cause local health restrictions.
O'Donnell added: "We are eager to expand our schedule while continuing to work closely with the local governments in each of the areas we will visit. We thank the many government officials for their guidance, as we share the same goal in our return - the safety for our competitors and the communities in which we race."
DATE TRACK SERIES DISTANCE NET START (ET)
Sat, May 30 Bristol Xfinity 160 mi FS1 3:30 PM
Sun, May 31 Bristol Cup 266 mi FS1 3:30 PM
Sat, June 6 Atlanta Gander Trucks 200 mi FS1 1:00 PM
Sat, June 6 Atlanta Xfinity 251 mi FOX 4:30 PM
Sun, June 7 Atlanta Cup 500 mi FOX 3:00 PM
Wed, June 10 Martinsville Cup 263 mi FS1 7:00 PM
Sat, June 13 Miami Gander Trucks 201 mi FS1 12:30 PM
Sat, June 13 Miami Xfinity 250 mi FOX 3:30 PM
Sun, June 14 Miami Xfinity 250 mi FS1 12:00 PM
Sun, June 14 Miami Cup 400 mi FOX 3:30 PM
Sat, June 20 Talladega ARCA 202 mi FS1 2:00 PM
Sat, June 20 Talladega Xfinity 300 mi FS1 5:30 PM
Sun, June 21 Talladega Cup 500 mi FOX 3:00 PM
What will happen if a NASCAR driver tests positive for Covid-19?
NASCAR vice president of racing operations John Bobo addressed this question in a recent teleconference: "In that instance is look at every person that driver interacted with directly. Those folks would probably have to self isolate. Then we would obviously make sure that the driver is going to get the care he needs.
"We will be following up with each participant. We've asked each organization to do that as well for 14 days for symptoms of anybody that's attended the event. I have to say all of our plans have been reviewed by the local health officials in South Carolina as well as in North Carolina."
When will NASCAR fans be allowed back in the grandstands?
NASCAR's executive vice president Steve O'Donnell addressed this question in a recent teleconference: "I think that's still a work in progress. Our priority right now is to try and get back racing in a safe way. I think certainly the NASCAR fan is passionate, and we want to conduct events with fans any chance we can get.
"But until we believe that it's a safe environment, and we can work with the local and state communities to make that happen, we're going to wait until we get that OK."
Is NASCAR the first U.S. series to race since the lockdown?
NASCAR is not the first motorsports league to end the pandemic racing hiatus. The World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series raced last Friday night, holding an invitational event at its famed Knoxville track.
All 48 drivers, their crew members, track workers, officials and media had their temperature checked at the venue, and were provided with face masks and hand sanitiser. Teams were limited to five people, including the driver. Haulers were spaced out to help with social distancing between teams. Of course, the grandstands were completely empty, with extra security on the gate to ensure no fans were able to attend.
It meant that a track that can hold almost 25,000 people in total was capped at under 400. It was broadcast on a specialist channel, with star turns like Donny Schatz, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson - the latter making his first appearance since being fired from his NASCAR Cup ride for using a racial slur during an esports event.
Event winner David Gravel, who grabbed the lead coming to the white flag, had a conference call with credentialled media who were present, following a subdued Victory Lane celebration. Larson finished 10th.
"Definitely a different vibe," said Gravel, who won $10,000 in the 30-lap main event. "But I'm happy we're racing, happy it's a point race and happy it's real money."
Knoxville track champion Brian Brown echoed those views: "I think this is the first step for sport to get back racing fulltime. Hopefully, this will allow us to have maybe 50 per cent capacity here in a couple of weeks' time."
World of Outlaws is already planning future events in the coming weeks with limited fans. Is this the new normal we're all searching for?