NASCAR prepares to resume racing May 17

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Sporting events all over the world have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that includes NASCAR, which hasn’t held a race since March 8. That might be changing in the next few weeks, however, as NASCAR is apparently intending to resume racing on May 17.

According to multiple team sources, NASCAR has floated a variety of plans on restarting racing, and earlier this week the series distributed a schedule to teams that is likely to be announced officially later this week. This schedule points to a May 17 start—without fans—at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, where the NASCAR Cup Series will hold a 400-mile race.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Darlington Raceway is a strategic choice of location. Restrictions related to the pandemic aren’t as stringent in South Carolina as in some neighboring states, and some government officials in the region are reportedly in support of NASCAR’s plans. According to SCnow.com, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper is permitting teams to begin preparations for racing on May 1, provided social distancing measures are followed. On top of that, NASCAR’s approach hinges on minimizing travel; most of the first few events on the calendar—including Darlington—are within driving distance of Mooresville, North Carolina, which is the area where many of the team shops are located.

Based on the information from our sources, NASCAR is planning to host races at Darlington, Charlotte, Martinsville, Bristol, Atlanta, and Miami with the schedule tentatively set as follows:

May 17th – Darlington – 400 mile race

May 20th – Darlington – 310 mile race

May 24th – Charlotte – 310 mile race

May 27th – Charlotte – 600 mile race

May 30th – Martinsville

June 3rd – Bristol

June 7th – Atlanta

June 14th – Miami

Keen observers will notice a few details in the schedule above. First, there are midweek dates, and NASCAR plans to run some races on Wednesdays. Another detail—the first four races have a set distance, which suggests detailed plans in place for these four events. The second half of the schedule is likely still in the planning stages, working within the demands state rules as well as travel demands. The Martinsville date of May 30 is still in question; one of our sources states that NASCAR has yet to receive support from the Virginia government for the event.

[UPDATE: According to a report from Autoweek, NASCAR is expected to make its schedule announcement later today, and in addition to the dates indicated above there will be an Xfinity race at Darlington on May 19, as well as an ARCA race at Charlotte on May 23.]

Darlington is just over a two-hour drive from the Mooresville area, which makes it a prime choice for the first event. Since it is within driving distance, teams should be able to drive directly to the track. Such an arrangement allows for a one-day event instead of a two- or three-day affair, as usual, which will mean that practices and qualifying will be reduced or even eliminated.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Holding back-to-back races at the first two tracks should also allow teams to load up multiple cars and leave them at each track after the first event, minimizing time in the shop. The teams already have intermediate cars ready and loaded up (they were prepared for the races at Atlanta and Homestead) which should minimize initial prep for Darlington. In general, however, the truck drivers are likely to be the busiest over the course of this proposed schedule; they’re responsible for hauling the equipment to each track, unpacking it, and then packing everything up the same day before heading back to the shop in order to switch cars out for the next race.

The exact plan for sessions at the tracks is still up in the air, but the likely approach is to hold a single practice/qualifying session and then impound the cars after technical inspection so that teams don’t spend time working on them prior to the race.

According to one of our sources, the plan for Darlington is to host it as a Cup-only event and to split the teams between the Cup and Xfinity garages on site. Splitting the teams in this manner would allow for enhanced social distancing procedures, with an empty garage stall between each car and minimized contact between teams.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Additional social distancing and testing precautions are expected, but it is not clear how NASCAR plans to conduct testing. Team limits are also expected to be put in place, with some estimates stating that each team will be limited to 10 personnel. Such measures might be further enhanced if pit stops or other procedures are adjusted to make it less necessary for certain crew members to be present. NASCAR has 36 charter teams, so even with 10 people per team, that’s already 360 people without including any of the NASCAR officials, track and safety personnel, and many others, which make the total number of people on site rapidly climb.

Governor Cooper of North Carolina stated that they “believe, unless health conditions go down, that we can have the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend in Charlotte,” which is promising for the event’s running, provided conditions do not degrade in that state. All of that, however, comes with the caveat of county-level approval. There are many local “Stay-at-Home” orders, and Charlotte Motor Speedway lies in Cabarrus County, which is currently under a “stay-at-home” order that is set to expire on April 29.

Teams will likely need 8 to 10 days in order to prepare for the first race, so all teams would need to return to their shops by around May 9. We’re already seeing some counties loosening up their restrictions, as Mecklenburg county has allowed Joe Gibbs Racing to return to its shop.

NASCAR’s focus on returning to Cup Series racing would allow it to get races back on television as quickly as possible, satisfying their contracts as well as ensuring the business interests of their teams, many of which are waiting on payments from sponsors until they can go back to racing. Not much has been publicly stated about the Xfinity Series or the Truck Series, but according to our sources, NASCAR is considering staging the first races for those series in the days following the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May.

All of these plans are very contingent on the overall situation in North Carolina and South Carolina. The landscape could suddenly change if things turn for the worse, or if NASCAR is unable to come up with a testing solution that satisfies local health officials near each track. We’ll be following along, and we freely admit that it would be comforting to see these cars turning laps again, even without a live crowd to enjoy the spectacle.

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