What will NASCAR’s new ‘normal’ look like?

When I rolled up to Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday March 13 it was an eerie sort of ghost town.  The word had already gone out that there would be no fans in attendance that weekend.  I had seen the clerks at my hotel the night before with phones pressed to their ears, fingers typing away, taking cancellations.  I passed a steady stream of RVs and campers heading away from the track as I was coming in.

There were still a few campers scattered around the grounds; fans who I guess hoped for some last-minute change, or who just wanted to be there to listen to the racing just a few yards away, even if they couldn’t see it live.

I didn’t know it when I parked and walked into the media center that the last-minute changes were just beginning.  We in the media already knew that we would be cloistered to a degree. No visits to the garage area or pit road to mingle with crews and drivers; no face to face interviews, no walks across the track to the press box, nor walk back to the media center post-race. Still, at least we would race.

Well, as we know now, we didn’t race. After a morning of mixed, and often confusing messaging, we learned that there would be no racing at Atlanta, or the following week at Homestead.  The postponement at Homestead was especially hard since I had been working with an entitlement sponsor for the Xfinity race at Homestead for several months.  I left Atlanta that day at least hopeful that perhaps the postponement wouldn’t be too long. After all we live in a time when something as simple as a virus can be overcome relatively easy.  That of course turned out to not to be the case.

The troublesome virus soon turned into a full-blown worldwide pandemic and now COVID-19 has quarantined us all and forced the postponement of at least six races and counting.

NASCAR has done an admirable job in the interim.  They’ve promoted the iRacing series and thanks to other major sports who can only throw up their hands and sit on their respective benches, socially distant of course, auto racing has become the only live sports happening at the moment. Even if it’s virtually.

NASCAR has provided the only live sports taking place anywhere in America right now.  Fans have seemingly embraced the virtual racing, except perhaps Bubba Wallace who lost a sponsor and Kyle Larson who lost his job.

Eventually however, the world will return to normal. Although what that new “normal” will be is still a big question mark, not only for the rest of the world, but for NASCAR as well.

There is already talk among the race teams, NASCAR executives, and state officials about opening up the race shops in North Carolina, which have been shuttered since stay at home orders were issued.

NASCAR had targeted the May 9 race in Martinsville Virginia for a return to real racing. But that won’t happen now. Last week NASCAR announced a postponement of that race on the heels of the state of Virginia extending its stay at home order until at least May 8.

The next target, logically, would be the races at Charlotte. Given NASCAR’s commitment to running all the races, including the seven that have already been postponed, the talk is that the first race will actually be run at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida.  The Florida governor has already signed off to allow that and Sunday morning the mayor of Miami-Dade County signed off as well, without fans of course.  Should (and it’s still a “should” at this point) the state and local officials in Charlotte and North Carolina allow team’s shops to open, Homestead could happen.

But that is a big “if” at this point. Given the residents who have started to turn out in larger numbers to protest the lock down orders, an exception allowing one industry to open while others remain shuttered, could cause an uproar.  Thus, when we will go back racing is still very much in doubt.

When we do go back racing, it will most likely be without fans filling the seats.  And that could be part of our “new normal” for quite some time.

Until a vaccine, or outright cure, is developed, the terms “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” will be part of everyday life.  And if there is a surge in infection rates as some experts are predicting, anything that has been unlocked will probably quickly be locked down tight again.

That’s just one of the problems NASCAR faces: Starting a revamped schedule only to see lockdowns happen yet again.

Until this virus is eliminated, many people won’t want to venture into a crowd. Even if races are opened up, the empty seats, already plentiful could be nothing more than a testament to what once was.  It’s no secret that NASCAR and the tracks were already struggling to fill those seats. Why would fans who watch races on TV want to venture into a crowd at a track if there’s still a chance of infection? Something that would be reinforced with images of empty grandstands and stadiums on TV.

With “fan less” races, tracks would no longer have the income generated by tickets. And the current TV money can only go so far.  This could lead to track operators turning to pay per view, once chuckled at and unthinkable.  However, it might be the only way for tracks to make any sort of income.

As to when we might see this “new normal” is a question that still has no clear answer. NASCAR has already committed to a full 36 race schedule which could lead to an eclectic mix of mid-week prime time and doubleheader weekends.  Given the popularity of iRacing, might some of those midweek events be virtual? This could save already cash-strapped teams, especially smaller ones, the expense of having to move an entire crew from one track to another in only a few short days.

The thought of an iRace that pays points and is included in a regular season contested among regular drivers was once unthinkable.  But so was showing virtual races live and in real-time and with real Cup drivers on national TV.  And it would have been even more of a stretch to say those virtual races would pull in respectable viewership numbers. Yet, iRacing has been front and center. And it has drawn enough viewers that those races are breaking viewership for all esports around the world.

If we are not racing by the end of May, at what point is the decision made to shorten the season? Not get in all the races, including the postponed ones, in? If the shutdowns stretch into the summer, or if there is another surge, when would the entire season simply be abandoned entirely, or at the very least even have its ending not happen until January 2021?

NASCAR promised last year that when it released its 2021 schedule, it would be radically different then anything we’ve ever seen.  When the 2020 schedule was announced last year, we got a taste of those changes; among them Speedweeks became Speedweek, and the Brickyard swapped with Daytona.

Thanks to the pandemic, we can now chuckle at those changes. How quaint and minor they seem now.

As for that 2021 schedule, with the Next Gen car delayed, might the 2021 schedule, which was to have already been announced, be delayed as well?  Yes, there are a lot of moving parts to that, and most of these parts should have already been moved, but whatever those 2021 changes are, they might seem trivial compared to what will need to happen when, and if, we get back to racing this season.

Let me be frank: I want normal, I crave it. I want to be able to go to a track again, walk around the garage, talk to crews and drivers.  Walk to the press box then back to a media center after a race. Hell, I want to simply go to a grocery store and a restaurant again. As a disabled veteran and two-time cancer survivor nearing 60 and at a higher risk, however, I simply cannot at least until a cure or vaccine is found.

Thanks to COVID-19, which is bigger than any sport will ever be, my vision, and indeed our vision, of what “normal” is has changed. And it may never be the same “normal” we all once knew.