A while back, I penned a piece describing my mixed feelings about NASCAR running without fans during the pandemic.
Now, a few weeks on, I have a bit more clarity.
I was worried that even with NASCAR’s safety protocols in place, the coronavirus might spread among crew. I was also worried about contact between the safety crews and a driver after a crash that could lead to virus spread (this worry didn’t make the final edit).
Still, I didn’t think it would be as weird to be fan-less than it would be for other sports. NASCAR fan noise is usually drowned out by the roar of the engines, and some tracks draw sparse crowds anyway.
On that count, I was right – the broadcast experience hasn’t been too strange, whether a race is completely sans fans or a small amount of fans are allowed in with social distancing in mind (as has happened once or twice this season).
In fact, I’m enjoying the relative sense of normalcy the racing has brought. Yes, the absence of fans is noticeable, but the cars are just as fast and loud as before, the racing just as compelling. And so far, as far as I know, the safety protocols have helped keep the virus at bay. NASCAR appears to have experienced one COVID case involving a NASCAR employee in March, while a few non-traveling employees of Stewart-Hass tested positive more recently.
Thus far, no one involved in travel to tracks or who has otherwise attended a race in person has tested positive, at least as far as can be ascertained from public reports.
Racing is a unique sport – the drivers are socially distanced while in their cars, and at some tracks, fans will be able to socially distance if they’re allowed in, due to the large size of tracks and the properties they occupy.
You couldn’t pay me to go to a bar right now, but I’d consider paying for IndyCar at Road America, assuming I could stay outdoors and away from strangers. The distance part is possible at RA, but the best viewing spots do get crowded, so I’m on the fence about attending. Still, the fact I’d even consider it speaks to racing’s uniqueness.
On the other hand, I’ve heard reports that the Indy 500 will still have a sizeable crowd, and that concerns me. Hopefully, the organizers can keep people safely apart.
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, thinking of fans at the races. For now, I’ve been happy to see some sort of live sports back, and NASCAR and other forms of racing might just be safer, in terms of virus spread, than other sports. I thought golf would be, too, but the PGA has suffered a spate of recent positive tests.
I still miss the fans, and I still can’t wait for the day that full crowds can be safely admitted to the grandstands. But whether it’s because I’m desperate for sports, or because NASCAR has been safe (and lucky) so far, or because I’m simply rediscovering the race fan in me, I’m feeling better about racing returning to the track during a pandemic. Better than I feel about other sports.
I also wrote this: “It’s not just about safety. It’s also about optics. Should entertainment businesses, and sports is essentially entertainment, be active when lots of people are dying? Or is it a necessary distraction from the grim news for those of us at home? Testing plays a part, too. Why should a pro-sports league have access to tests when the general public is struggling to get access to testing? That’s not necessarily a NASCAR-specific question, but it applies to all sports.”
I’m still not sure how I feel about sports taking place while the pandemic rages on, especially here in the U.S., where the numbers are still bad. But I’m leaning towards the distraction element as being a good thing. NASCAR being on TV won’t save lives or heal the sick, but it gives a mental health boost to those of us stuck at home, whether we’re home to avoid catching the virus or because we’re fighting a case of it.
If NASCAR garners better-than-usual TV ratings because of it, so be it. It may seem weird for a corporation to take advantage of a pandemic to possibly profit, but it’s doubtful NASCAR brass would prefer it that way. NASCAR simply got lucky that its sport lends itself to social distancing, and therefore it can give us those of us with now nonexistent social lives some semblance of entertainment – and a small reminder of normalcy.
The world is still, metaphorically speaking, on fire. If watching cars go in circles at high speeds for three hours takes our minds off of that, well, that’s probably more of a good thing than bad.
NASCAR, like all sports, is better with fans in attendance. But for now, I’ll take it as is.
As Darrell Waltrip said: “Boogity, boogity, boogity.”
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