As Darlington Raceway’s president since 2016, Kerry Tharp has led the preparations for four editions of the Southern 500, a crown-jewel race on the NASCAR schedule each year. The month of May usually means longer-term planning for the South Carolina track’s annual Labor Day special. This year, the short-term planning for an unexpected event has arrived much sooner.
Tharp and his staff are hard at work gearing up for three NASCAR national series races in a four-day stretch that wasn’t a blip on the racing schedule when the season started. With its convenient proximity to the industry’s Charlotte-area hub, venerable Darlington is now set to play host to big-league motorsports’ first real-world race since the coronavirus pandemic shut down virtually all sports worldwide.
Tharp said the historic 1.366-mile venue is ready to play its part, a role he says isn’t taken casually.
“We’re excited to have the opportunity to bring live sports back to this country,” Tharp told NASCAR.com. “That’s a great opportunity; certainly it’s a privilege. We feel honored to have the chance to do that, but it’s also a big responsibility, too, because we want to make sure we get it right and make sure that we create the safest environment that we can for the competitors that are going to be here on our property the end of next week and through next week.
“We’re excited, a lot of work to do. We’re working pretty hard at it, and it’s a total team effort with a lot of good people involved.”
NASCAR makes its first steps back Sunday, May 17 at Darlington, where the Cup Series will resume nearly nine weeks after holding its most recent event (March 8 at Phoenix). Two days later, the track will host a Tuesday race for the Xfinity Series, then another Cup Series race Wednesday, May 20. NASCAR officials have not released a fully revised schedule beyond May 27, but said the Southern 500 weekend remains in place for Darlington on Sept. 6.
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These first handful of races — for Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway later this month — after the arrival of COVID-19 to the country will be held without fans as a safety measure meant to prevent large gatherings and to maintain social-distancing guidelines. It represents a striking change from Darlington’s annual throwback weekend, a well-attended highlight on the NASCAR calendar.
“It’s going to be very different; the type of event that we’re putting on compared to what we’re used to, when we usually have 50, 60 thousand people on our property for three or four days, having a big, festival type of atmosphere,” Tharp says. “We’re not going to have that right now, but now’s not the time for that. We’re trying to get back in the best way that we can with live sports and NASCAR, and this is the step that we have to take. So, it is a great deal different than what we’re used to doing, but I feel confident in our team and all the plans that have been put in place that we’ll put on a super event.”
Those plans have been developed through a collaboration of contributors, from the support of South Carolina governor Henry McMaster, to the guidance of NASCAR medical and racing operations teams, to the input from McLeod Health’s regional network of medical staff.
South Carolina declared a state of emergency March 13, the same day that NASCAR postponed a scheduled tripleheader of events that weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway. A stay-at-home order went into effect April 6, but McMaster loosened the state’s restrictions April 19 before lifting the order Monday, leaving social-distancing guidelines in place for some businesses.
Tharp singled out McMaster for his help in working with NASCAR and the track to bring stock-car racing back. But that return will be a measured one, with pre-screening for those planning to come to the track and on-site screening stations for the limited amount of personnel allowed on the property. Face masks will be required, and social distancing will be maintained with one-way walking routes and by spacing out work stalls in the Cup Series garage, the motorcoach lot and other infield areas.
“We’re going to be very strict and stringent on these protocols. Everybody’s got to be compliant with this for this to work,” Tharp says. “We’ve got a pretty good plan in place on how we’re going to get the teams, the workers, the officials, the hauler drivers — everybody who’s going to be inside the garage area — inside safely. … It’s going to look a lot different, but I think we’ve got a good plan in place, and I think it’s going to work.”
Tharp has joined some special celebrations in Victory Lane at Darlington in recent years, and he says the anticipation of returning to competition after a nearly two-month hiatus should be running high. But post-race cheers won’t ring out from the grandstands later this month, and the customary group photos and hugs all around for the winning team will be shelved to avoid personal contact.
Darlington will be the first trial run, so what will a socially distanced Victory Lane look like?
“I think it’s still a work in progress,” Tharp said. “I’m not sure yet what the racing operations team and the broadcast partners have worked out post-race. Certainly, I will tell you this: The team that wins that first race, the trophy’s going to mean a lot to them. The first race back, I think it’s going to be super special. I think the teams are going to be competing very hard for that and it’s going to be a historic moment to say that they won the first race back after the pandemic.
“I think that the teams are hungry to get back racing. It’s been about two months since they’ve been behind the wheel of a race car. I know they’ve done the iRacing and I think everybody’s done a super job with that, but now we’re talking about 3,600-pound machines that are going to be doing upward of 180 miles an hour at Darlington without practice or qualifying, and that’s pretty challenging. It’s also pretty exciting, and I think everybody’s going to look forward to seeing how that plays out.”