Storylines: New procedures for drivers, teams in return to racing
No spectators. Drivers isolated from their teams. And a near-empty Victory Lane.
NASCAR’s return Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX) will be unlike anything the sport has experienced.
Health screenings before, during and after the race. Fewer crew members per team. Fines up to $50,000 for not following NASCAR’s strict COVID-19 guidelines.
What NASCAR does Sunday and in the coming days will be watched by other sports seeking to return during this pandemic.
“We realize up front it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, about the season resuming. “But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together.”
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Here’s a look at what will take place before, during and after Sunday’s race:
# No fans are permitted. Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Joey Logano, told NBC Sports: “How weird is it going to be to show up to Darlington and no one is going to be there. No fans. No campers. No motorhomes. ... It’s going to be an interesting experience for sure.”
# Drivers, crews, officials and other essential personnel will have designated times Sunday to report to screening areas at Darlington Raceway. Drivers are required to arrive at least four hours before the race. That way, if a driver fails their health screening and is not be allowed to enter the track, it would provide time for a backup driver to arrive from the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, be screened and then race.
# Once through screening, drivers will report to their motorhomes in the infield and remain there. There is no drivers meeting two hours before the race. (The drivers meeting will be held electronically at 5 p.m. ET Saturday). Drivers are to report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. ET, shortly before the command to fire engines. Family and friends are not allowed in the track. Drivers will simply go to their cars and strap in. Christopher Bell told NBC Sports: “That’s going to be very different. I’m just trying to process what I’m going to need going to the racecar. Typically, our interior specialist has everything at the car for us. I’ve taken that for granted over the last couple of years.” Among the items Bell will need to bring with him will be heel guards to protect his feet from the heat inside the car, which will be exacerbated by temperatures that could reach 90 degrees Sunday.
# Spotters will not be located on the spotter’s stand. They will be spread along the top rows of the stands along the frontstretch while maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet between each other.
# Teams will be limited to 16 people, including the driver and five pit crew members. Top teams often have more than 20 people at the track. Typically, teams have 10 road crew members, which includes the crew chief and spotter. Now, they’ll have six. Many teams will keep their engineers at home so they can have enough mechanics on site.
# NASCAR will space the haulers a minimum of 6 feet apart to limit contact between teams. NASCAR also says that teams should minimize contact between road crews and pit crews. That way, if a team member later tests positive, it impacts only their particular group and not the entire garage.
# Movement in the garage will be confined to marked, directional paths to better maintain social distancing.
# With only essential personnel at the track, the number of NASCAR officials also will be limited. Teams will communicate with series officials through a chat. It’s a process that has been in place but will be relied on more to keep with social distancing guidelines.
# After the race, the winner will still do their traditional burnout or celebration at the start/finish line. Erik Jones, who won last year’s Southern 500 at Darlington, told NBC Sports that it would be odd to win a race with no fans: “To be a winner and take the checkered flag, and there’s nobody cheering. That would be something I don’t think any of us have experienced. It would be weird.”
# NASCAR has instructed competitors not to engage in traditional celebratory action with others such as handshakes, fist-bumps, high-fives and hugging.
# There will be a Victory Lane but it will be only for the driver. NASCAR will direct crew members when they can enter Victory Lane and push the car to technical inspection.
# Teams must undergo post-event screening. Teams will exit the track in a staggered fashion to keep with social distancing guidelines.