How NASCAR led the world to arrive at the ‘new normal’

OPINION: Although NASCAR defied common convention and returned to racing in the middle of a global pandemic, the initial signs are that the race went - largely - without any issues, and the series must retain its scrupulous approach to safety

How NASCAR led the world to arrive at the ‘new normal’

A lot could have gone wrong as NASCAR held the first top-tier motorsports event since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic. But it didn't.

Thankfully, the return of the Cup Series at Darlington on Sunday went off without a hitch - and delivered a great race with some fantastic battles and storylines, none of which were COVID-19 related beyond the obvious.

NASCAR often gets looked down upon by the international motorsport elite, given its behind-the-times vehicle technology and left-turn-dominated schedule, but that's a snobby attitude based on ignorance of its subtleties.

Aside from that, one strongpoint is its leadership team and structure. NASCAR is perhaps the most autocratic league in motorsports, being owned by a family that has steered its course since its inception in 1948.

Despite his 75 years of age meaning he's very much 'at risk' from the virus's consequences, it was no surprise to learn of NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France's presence at the track - albeit not in the infield. A scholar of the sport, he was piped in via the track's public address system ahead of the race, and personally thanked everyone for their attendance and understanding in following the health guidelines.

All present were temperature-screened on arrival, and given a medical form to fill out. It appeared that everyone was below the limit, so no signs of fever, and the process ran smoothly for all 900-plus personnel on site.

And calling the race 'The Real Heroes 400' to honor healthcare workers was simply a nice touch, and it was great to hear race winner Kevin Harvick pay tribute to Dr Josh Hughes, whose name he carried atop his driver's side window.

One major driving force behind a swift return was, of course, the great god of television. FOX was the broadcaster (somewhat ironically, given its news channel's reporting of the virus) and clearly had the bare minimum of staff on site to get through the broadcast. Its commentary team was in Charlotte, but you'd never have guessed beyond a much shorter pre-race and post-race show, plus the event overran anyway due to all the yellows.

During the shutdown period, I've really enjoyed the Esports events that FOX has produced. Because of them, my wife is now a Clint Bowyer fan. Having greatly enjoyed his in-race commentaries, she was actually disappointed she couldn't hear him in the real race on Sunday, so perhaps Clint needs an in-race Twitch stream for an onboard camera, with his radio comms broadcast? She'd love that.

Beyond that, to fill the 10-week gap, the fans' best option was playing the NASCAR Heat video game. I've found that if you turn up the difficulty on that game to its highest, you get a true sense of just how hard the real sport is to master. I'm not sure what setting Ricky Stenhouse was on when he binned it after two corners of the real event, mind you... "Pretty embarrassing for myself," he admitted later.

"Up until probably two or three hours before the race, I was ready for something to go wrong, but nothing bad happened. It feels a little like a Christmas miracle" Brad Keselowski

We get to hear a lot of voices from the Cup garage, and one that I've always respected very highly - ever since Roger Penske introduced me to him in the Daytona 500 drivers' briefing over a decade ago - is Brad Keselowski. The former champion is intelligent and articulate, and speaks his own mind.

As a father of a young family, had he been worried about racing on Sunday, he'd probably have been the first to say 'no' if he didn't feel safe. Instead, he was full of praise about how NASCAR executed this tricky task - this coming from someone who certainly isn't afraid to speak his mind.

"Racing this weekend was not easy to pull off," said Keselowski. "It is easy to say that but the reality is that a lot of things have to come together. I am probably one of the first guys to criticize NASCAR on a lot of things and usually rightfully so, but in this case they deserve a pretty big pat on the back.

"They worked their butts off and brought a lot of different entities together and made it happen. Sometimes I think about the history of the sport and I look back at some of the other sanctioning bodies that have existed over the last 100 years and you wonder why they didn't make it and why NASCAR did. I talk to some of the owners in the sport and they talk about similar moments like this where the sport was in peril and some sanctioning bodies made good decisions and some didn't. The ones that made good decisions lived.

"NASCAR made some really hard, tough decisions that brought together a lot of different stakeholders and found a way to make this race weekend happen in spite of a lot of obstacles. Because of that, I think NASCAR is going to come out OK. The sport will come out OK. This was a really big moment for the sport to be able to pull this off.

"NASCAR and the management team and people in place deserve a lot of credit for that. It kind of blew me away, honestly, that they pulled it off. Up until probably two or three hours before the race, I was ready for something to go wrong. Like, alright, what is it going to be? Is someone going to be sick? Is there going to be somebody boycotting outside the racetrack? Nobody did. Nothing bad happened.

"They pulled this thing off and it feels a little like a Christmas miracle. The people that worked so hard to do it from the France family to Steve Phelps and O'Donnell and a lot more people I can list like [Mike] Helton and so forth, they made this weekend happen when it would have been really, really easy to just say, 'We will wait for the NHL, NFL or NBA to be the guinea pigs.'

"They didn't take that attitude and I have a lot of respect for them making that decision."

Ahead of the race, another NASCAR superstar whose opinion I very much respect - Dale Earnhardt Jr. - spoke of the importance of this moment: "We need to get money moving again in our sport to help these teams survive, to help the sport survive. So, it's critical that we do this [even] without fans."

As a team owner himself, Dale Jr knows that livelihoods depend on NASCAR going racing, and that the businesses can only be shuttered for so long before they never reopen. This goes for motorsport businesses around the world, and while this terrible pandemic continues to wreak awful havoc on our world, getting back to that 'new normal' means taking brave steps like NASCAR did while doing everything within its power to stop the spread.

Now the challenge is to stay vigilant, and to keep those social distancing and personal cleanliness practices as high as possible. The only slip-up that I saw all race was the spotters standing too close together as pitstops approached. No need: get on WhatsApp, boys!

Keep your distance whenever possible (and that goes for you too, dear reader) and we'll all get through this.

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