Safety meets the surreal as NASCAR makes unique return at Darlington

Zack Albert

Kevin Harvick found himself pacing on his porch just before sunup Sunday, pondering when to leave for the race track. The usual chronology that drivers use for their race-day routines had been pruned down to the essentials.

Alex Bowman, meanwhile, sat on-site without a public relations rep to help guide him through his pre-race obligations at Darlington Raceway. The situation that reminded him of his earlier tenures with lesser-funded teams, when he virtually served as his own PR handler. With at-track personnel limited, personal directions were replaced by a tree of calendar reminders and notifications that helped him track where to go and when.

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Joey Logano — like other drivers, flying solo this weekend without family or personal assistants — discovered after his arrival that he’d packed two left shoes for the trip. Two left feet aren’t great for dancing or driving, it turns out. Fortunately, he found a spare pair stowed in the team hauler.

Steve O’Donnell acknowledged the surreal nature of a most unusual race-day Sunday, but NASCAR’s top competition official carried hopes that the well-orchestrated plan for the sport to resume safely would unfold without a hitch. He then found himself in the scoring tower 45 minutes earlier than normal, the anticipation too great after a nearly 10-week layoff.

For all the curves thrown at the typical weekend course of events, racing resumed with its familiar roar in an unfamiliar atmosphere in The Real Heroes 400, stock-car racing’s first race since the coronavirus outbreak placed the racing schedule on hold. The disease’s impact on the sports world and everyday life were palpable, creating images that illustrated how diligently the sanctioning body, the track and state and local officials had cooperated to make things work.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Engine noise rattled off the South Carolina track’s empty grandstands, with only well-spaced spotters in the seats where fans would normally be. Camping and parking areas sat largely unused. Limited numbers of crew members, broadcasters and officials all passed through health screening stations, then maintained their distance for their necessary preparations. The national anthem from country artist Darius Rucker was pre-recorded and piped in remotely. No practice and no qualifying in an effort to limit exposure for the personnel there — just the green flag to the race.

In a further sign of the times, Harvick celebrated in a social-distanced Victory Lane with a facemask — marking both a personal milestone with his 50th Cup Series win and a unique point in NASCAR’s history with a race that didn’t exist before the season began. High-fives and hugs all around from his crew were replaced by isolation and a passing elbow-bump after pictures were taken. Instead of waving to cheering fans after his No. 4 Ford’s burnouts on the frontstretch, he emerged from his in-car bubble to virtual cricket sounds from unoccupied seats.

“In the end, in the big picture of things,” Harvick said, “being able to do what we did today, and that‘s race, is what everybody wants to do.”

The oddities of a sparsely populated Darlington were far-reaching. The venerable old oval in the sandhills has drawn crowds since 1950, enjoying a recent revival with its move back to its traditional Labor Day spot on the calendar and the advent of the annual throwback weekend to embrace the sport’s history.

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Sunday’s chapter in Darlington’s ledger will stand out not just for its unusual nature, but for what it meant to have the NASCAR industry try to regain its stride and to have sports back to provide a real-world diversion during a time of crisis.

“It was odd with the limited number of people here,” said O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “When you look up in the stands, you certainly missed the fans, that vibe, the energy. Even the music that was playing in the garage area doesn’t do it justice. I think the participants were able to create their own positive vibe knowing this was a big day for the sport, knowing it was a day we could showcase the sport to a live television audience and hopefully give some people a little bit of joy to watch them race.”

No one said it would be easy. Rodney Childers, Harvick’s crew chief at Stewart-Haas Racing, drove to the track Sunday with thoughts not only about how the day might go for his race team, but the logistics of even getting inside. Man, this could be a complete mess, he recalled thinking.

“I get to the race track and everything is just absolutely seamless,” Childers said post-race. “Pulling in, the way it was operated outside the race track coming in, the amount of detail that was in all that, I was kind of blown away by it.”

If the sport has a reliable ball carrier in the R&D realm, it’s the enduring focus on safety — an ever-moving target in a pastime that has inherent dangers. The safeguards shifted Sunday to include public health in an effort to return to work with restrictions in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. As with other aspects of each event, O’Donnell said officials would discuss Sunday’s return and strive to make improvements, collaborating with the tracks and local governments to fine-tune health guidelines.

As with most things, the unusual will become more usual. Six-feet distancing and stay-at-home protocols weren’t a thought during Daytona Speedweeks, and races without fans weren’t on the sport’s collective radar before the season started.

For now, the atmosphere may be surreal. But Sunday showed how the sport could adapt to make a safe, healthy return.

“People were smart, had good distance between each other, respect for what we had to do to perform,” said third-place finisher Kurt Busch. “Just the electric atmosphere, again, of something so new and something so uncharted that once we dropped the green flag, you got to zone in and focus on Darlington.

“Really a special time today around 3:30 p.m. to get belted in and do something we’ve never done as a sport.”

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