NASCAR president: Mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy a 'bit of a slippery slope'

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It doesn't seem that NASCAR will be requiring participants to get a COVID-19 vaccine in the immediate future.

NASCAR president Steve Phelps said Sunday that the number of vaccinated drivers and crew members that work for NASCAR teams "continues to rise." But he stopped short of saying the series would require team members to be vaccinated to continue to work in NASCAR. 

Phelps termed a vaccination requirement as a "bit of a slippery slope" when he was asked about the topic in a news conference. 

"I think for us, it's a bit of a slippery slope, right? I won't talk out of both sides of my mouth," Phelps said. "It is important, in my opinion, that people get vaccinated. I'll say that for me personally. We will continue to monitor and change our policy as necessary in order to make sure that people are safe.

"We are certainly monitoring. I won't get into the numbers specifically, but the number of people who are in this garage that have been vaccinated continues to steadily rise. We track that through our process on a weekly basis as people are filling out their health forms or through their phone or online. Those things are important to us, so we'll continue to do that.

"To the degree we think we need to make a change to that policy, that's something that we'll continue to explore."

NASCAR would be well within its rights to require vaccination for a NASCAR license or a hard card for access to the garage. The hard card process already includes provisions one must abide by to obtain and keep it. 

As a private company, NASCAR could easily and legally add a vaccination provision to that list of criteria. For example, any team member with a NASCAR license is required to consent to a NASCAR-mandated drug test as part of the series' substance abuse policy.

And with scientific evidence overwhelmingly pointing to the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines, it's hard to see how requiring all participants to be vaccinated would be in any way a slippery slope. Especially given NASCAR's efforts to have fans and corporate guests back at the track.

NASCAR already reportedly mandating vaccines for infield guests

NASCAR is reportedly opening up garage access to corporate guests and other credential holders on a limited basis for the first time since the pandemic began at Darlington in May. And to be allowed into the garage and other infield areas, those credential holders must show proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccine.

It's a reasonable provision. And one that could extend to the entirety of the garage if NASCAR wanted to take that big step. It's easy to envision the positive publicity NASCAR could generate if it held a mass vaccination event for all participants in the garage ahead of a race. 

That positivity would be twofold. It would allow COVID-19 protocols for teams at the track to be relaxed quicker. A mass vaccination policy could make for a simple rollback of NASCAR's mask policy for drivers and teams and make things more "normal" on a race weekend. 

It would also send a strong message to fans that vaccination is necessary for the United States to end the COVID-19 pandemic as soon as possible. It's no secret that NASCAR's fanbase heavily leans Republican and that white males are its biggest demographic. And surveys have shown that Republican men are the most vaccine-hesitant demographic in the country.

A strong NASCAR push for vaccination wouldn't immediately convince every fan to get a vaccine. But even a few converted fans would be a step towards easing the public health crisis. 

Phelps 'encouraged' all employees to get vaccinated

NASCAR could also simply do more publicly to push fans and teams to get the vaccine. The series is one of the sports series featured in the Willie Nelson COVID-19 PSA that came out in March. But NASCAR's official Twitter account hasn't mentioned the words "COVID-19" or "vaccine" since tweeting out that PSA on March 23. 

Drivers haven't been outspoken about getting their COVID-19 vaccines either. While Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace have said they've been vaccinated, drivers have remained largely publicly silent on the topic. Will that change? Phelps said that he's encouraged NASCAR employees to get vaccinated and said that drivers would "probably" soon be doing more to push fans to get vaccinated.

"I think it's important for our company, I think it's important for our sport, I think it's important for the country overall," Phelps said. "I am fortunate enough to have had both of my shots, have been clear for about four weeks."

"As it relates to the driver core, I think you'll probably see more and more, and we'll ask the drivers frankly to try to promote the vaccination process. I think it's really important."

"They have a voice. That voice carries a lot of weight. To the degree that we can help with folks who are uncertain about whether they want to get the vaccine, I think it would be critical to have those with the loudest voice within the sport talking about their vaccinations."

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