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NHRA plans to return to racing with fans in the stands, access to pits

NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series

Antron Brown, Matco Tools, top fuel

Mark Rebilas

While NASCAR prepares to play host to races without fans during the COVID-19 pandemic, the president of the National Hot Rod Association vows to resume drag racing in early June with fans in the stands and pits.

“Our goal is to go back racing with fans,” NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports, promising new social distancing measures for crowds that would be phased in slowly. “We are the most fan-friendly (sport). I think that’s what separates our sport from everybody else, the accessibility and interaction that our sport has. I just don’t see it (racing) happening without fans.

“If there was a model that worked for us and do it without fans, we would, of course, explore it, but right now we’re putting 100 percent of our efforts behind racing with fans, as soon as we can.”

NHRA is scheduled to return June 5-7 in Gainesville, Florida, with one of the largest races of the season, the Gatornationals.

The race originally was scheduled March 12-16 before the national event schedule was put on hold because of the pandemic.

Glen Cromwell NHRA hed shot

The NHRA is the largest sanctioning body in drag racing and oversees several racing series, most notably the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, which is primarily for professional teams and national events. It also includes the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, which oversees primarily sportsman and amateur racing.

The rescheduled Gainesville event will be followed by 16 more races – with several events potentially shortened from four or three days to just two – to make for a 19-race overall season. That would be five short of the usual 24-race schedule that has been in place for several years.

The first two races of the 2020 season -- Pomona, California and Phoenix, Arizona -- were completed before the hiatus. Including Gainesville, the series is slated to run four consecutive weekends: June 12-14 (Houston), June 19-21 (Bristol, Tennessee) and June 25-28 (Norwalk, Ohio).

After a week off, the NHRA schedule is slated to resume with four consecutive weekends: July 9-12 (Joliet, Illinois), followed by the annual “Western Swing” of July 17-19 (Denver), July 24-26 (Sonoma, California) and July 31-August 2 (Seattle).

Nine other events are planned afterward through mid-November. The annual six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs have been eliminated for this year.

If NHRA is unable to run both Gainesville and Houston because of pandemic restrictions, those events would be rescheduled in the fall.

“We’re trying to get back to racing ASAP,” Cromwell said. “Our race teams are chomping at the bit to get out there. I talk to them on a daily basis.

“We’re working with state and local officials as well as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) to make sure that when we do come back, we want to come back in a very responsible and safe way.

“We want to make sure our fans, race teams, sponsors, racetracks, employees, everybody is safe before we get back.”

If restrictions prevent NHRA from racing in some states, the sanctioning body already has a number of contingency and backup plans ready to be implemented, Cromwell said.

“Our goal is to put a schedule together that we believe is the most responsible and safe schedule we can,” he said. “If we go to a certain state that does not allow us to race with fans, we’ll have to make a decision at that time on how to address that.”

Cromwell said if the pandemic continues to keep states essentially closed, then the schedule could be reduced.

“Whether it’s 19 or 17 or 16 (races that eventually are run), we’re looking at everything,” he said. “As you get later into the year, the weekends get tighter. We think it’s important to make sure whatever we do, we keep the integrity of the championship in place, which we think we need quite a few events to make that happen.”

NHRA is expected to offer an update on its 2020 plan on May 4, and it won’t include racing without fans, Cromwell said.

Part of that is simple revenue dynamics that are unlike NASCAR, which is able to sustain itself off a multibillion-dollar TV rights package. NHRA doesn’t have that type of revenue stream, and the operational costs of revenue-driven events without paying fans would be too financially prohibitive.

That creates a conundrum of sorts, given that NHRA is arguably the most liberal major professional sport when it comes to allowing fans unfettered access that includes crowds of fans that cluster around race teams in the pits

Some of the most popular teams (such as John Force’s) draw crowds sometimes of 100 or more fans at a time shoulder to shoulder, eager to get a look or a driver autograph.

Racing with fans could come with risks.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, told the New York Times in a story Wednesday story that he remains concerned about holding pro sports during the pandemic.

“If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season,’” Fauci told the Times, adding, “I would love to be able to have all sports back,” Dr. Fauci said. “But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we’re not ready for that yet.”

With social distancing one of the most significant ways to combat the virus, NHRA is looking at various ways to give fans access in a more controlled manner, particularly in the pits.

“If we’re going to do events with fans, we have to give our fans the ability to touch our sport the way they have,” Cromwell said. “To limit them, to close the pits, that is part of the value and excitement of what makes us different.

“That’s what’s appealing of coming to a Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event: meet the stars, see the crew guys work on the cars. To really take that away, I think, would be a disservice to the fans. It’s important we get them in those locations in a safe manner and take all the health protection we can put out there to make sure they’re safe.

“It’s going to be a phased-in program, a slow process. … We want to make sure fans feel comfortable around other people.”

The Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, essentially a minor league of sorts for amateur and sportsman racers, could be an important litmus test for the premier Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and its national events.

The first LODRS events – in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Las Vegas and Numidia, Pennsylvania – are scheduled on the same weekend as the planned Gatornationals, and will help NHRA devise a safety and participation baseline if they are successful without significant health repercussions.

“(LODRS events) usually have 300 to 500 cars, and fans can be 2,000 to 5,000 per day,” Cromwell said. “It would allow us the ability to make sure we’re comfortable (to run national events).

“We’re spending a tremendous amount of time on an NHRA health protection plan that is designed to make sure we are responsible for the race teams, tracks, employees, all the stakeholders, everything from wearing a mask to sanitizing solutions, just making sure everything is very clean and people feel comfortable. That will be a big part of it, making sure everyone feels comfortable coming back to the race track, which we will make sure that happens.”

Some tracks – particularly small, local facilities – already are planning on opening in the next few weeks, Cromwell said.

On April 15, Bill Bader Jr., owner of Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, announced he was opening the facility immediately for amateur and sportsman racers in the northern Ohio area, only to walk back those comments last weekend.

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