How NASCAR Stared Down the COVID-19 Pandemic
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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NASCAR suspended operations on March 13, 2020, with 32 races remaining on its schedule. At the start of the shutdown, it was the virtual races that entertained at least some fans. A creative schedule, races held without fans in the stands, allowed NASCAR to complete a full 94-race schedule for its top three national touring series in this most unusual year.
In 2020, COVID-19 changed everything.
The 2020 NASCAR season started like any other. The Daytona 500 was completed in front of a sold-out crowd. Three races followed suit at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway and Phoenix Raceway.
Everything — and that included NASCAR — changed in March as COVID-19 cases soared around the world. Government agencies, businesses and sports announced varying levels of closure, and NASCAR suspended operations on March 13 of that year with 32 races still to run. With mask mandates, test kits and social distancing suddenly becoming part of everyday conversation, sports leagues and fans were asking the same question.
“What happens next? »
The show continued during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but with some protocol changes.
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In the most uncertain and difficult of circumstances, NASCAR stepped up and laid out a plan and did its best to navigate safely through a global pandemic. It was the first professional sports series to resume operations and hold events after the lockdown began.
At the start of the shutdown, it was the virtual races that entertained at least some fans. NASCAR and popular computer racing simulation program iRacing have teamed up to create the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. FOX broadcast these races online, as if they were real. The made-for-TV virtual race proved to be a temporary success for NASCAR and gave sports-starved fans at least something to watch.
NASCAR and iRacing hosted seven of these virtual races featuring Cup drivers.
There were speed bumps, that’s for sure. The virtual race was not a huge success for Cup driver Kyle Larson, who was caught using a racial slur during one of the virtual races. The slip was captured online on April 12 and quickly spread across social media.
Kyle Larson, left, and team owner Chip Gasassi parted ways during the 2020 pandemic over Larson’s misstep in a video game.
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Chip Ganassi Racing responded by suspending Larson the following morning, while issuing the following statement:
“We are extremely disappointed with what Kyle said last night at an iRacing event. The words he chose to use are offensive and unacceptable. Effective immediately, we are suspending Kyle without pay while we work on this situation with all appropriate parties.”
NASCAR also suspended Larson and ordered the driver to undergo sensitivity training and issued its own statement:
“NASCAR has made diversity and inclusion a priority and will not tolerate the type of language used by Kyle Larson during Sunday’s iRacing event. Our member conduct guidelines are clear in this regard, and we will enforce these guidelines to maintain an inclusive environment for our entire industry and fanbase.”
Larson did his best to control the damage.
“I just want to say I’m sorry,” Larson said. “You know, last night I said the word that should never, ever be said. There’s no excuse for it. I wasn’t raised that way. It’s just a horrible thing. to say.
“I am truly sorry for my family, my friends, my partners, the NASCAR community and especially the African American community. I understand that the damage is probably irreparable. I acknowledge that. I just want to let you know how much I am sorry I am.
“I hope everyone is staying safe in these crazy times.”
The apology was not enough for sponsors McDonald’s, Credit One Bank and Chevrolet, who announced they would drop their support for Larson’s run. The sponsor’s withdrawal was too much for team owner Chip Ganassi, who fired Larson about 48 hours after the incident.
As for NASCAR, the series was up and running again on May 17, when the series returned to action at Darlington Raceway. Except this time things seemed a little different. Drivers and crew members were to receive daily COVID tests and remain in the restricted-access “bubble.” NASCAR had to hold Cup Series races without having a single fan in the stands. Under COVID guidelines at the time, fans were not allowed to attend live sporting events, either outdoors or indoors.
There were also positive tests. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson became the first Cup Series driver to miss a race after testing positive the week of the Brickyard 400. It was the first race Johnson has missed in his career.
NASCAR raced without fans in the stands at Darlington during the 2020 pandemic.
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Over the next few weeks, NASCAR held midweek races to make up for lost time. Series officials were determined to complete the full 36-race season, and they did just that.
When Chase Elliott crossed the finish line at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 8, NASCAR had completed all 94 races in its top three national touring series in that calendar year. NASCAR was the only major sports organization in the United States to complete its entire schedule in 2020.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps said lessons have been learned.
“I would say this is the toughest year we’ve faced as a sport,” Phelps said in his annual State of the Sport 2020 address. “I think we’ve shown this year as a sport we’ve done a job as good or better than any sport, frankly, coming back early and often. What we have done during this global pandemic is nothing short of remarkable.
“I believe we are stronger as a sport today than when we were before COVID.”
Adam Wellbrock Editor A car lover from birth in the heart of racing country, Adam Wellbrock loves all kinds of motorsports.