How NASCAR and IndyCar are continuing on during a pandemic while other sports are affected

Major League Baseball is going to have a hard time finishing their season with outbreaks starting to occur within their sport. While they just got started last Thursday night, we’ve seen several games affected now with the Miami Marlins’ outbreak within their organization. It went from a couple of players infected by the virus up to now as many as 17.

In wake of that, all their games have been postponed this week, including this weekend. That has affected other teams indirectly as they played the Philadelphia Phillies last weekend. The Phillies have been testing everyday but haven’t played either and won’t this weekend. So, that has rolled down to affecting the New York Yankees who were supposed to play the Phillies on a four game set Monday-Thursday. All four games were postponed.

The Marlins were slated to do the same against the Baltimore Orioles. Those games were off.

Now, the St. Louis Cardinals have announced some cases which now has postponed their game on Friday with the Milwaukee Brewers. They played the Minnesota Twins this past week. Does that mean the Twins postpones their games this weekend against the Cleveland Indians? Philadelphia isn’t playing the Toronto Blue Jays this weekend and the Marlins aren’t playing the Washington Nationals. Do we have two more series’ postponed now?

See how this spirals out of control?

MLB isn’t playing in a bubble like the NBA and NHL are. So far, it’s working for both the NBA down in Orlando and NHL in their bubbles. They have a strict regimen to be able to play and while it sounds harsh to be basically quarantined between a basketball court or hockey rink and a hotel room, it’s working.

Baseball? Well they may have to do that in order to finish their season.

What about the NFL? They’re not going to use a bubble either. We saw how quickly this is spreading in baseball, does it do the same for the NFL, especially when players from opposing teams have far more contact with one another than they do in baseball?

We know college athletics are going to have a hard time getting started, so how far do we get into the Fall before sports are off again?

One sport that is working well right now is racing. Formula One just got their first case for a driver with Sergio Perez. He will miss both races in England and is luckily showing no symptoms at all. But, he left their bubble to go back to Mexico to see his injured mother and says he came in contract with really no one other than her and is struggling to come to grasps how he got the virus.

Still, F1 is doing well with making sure that when they’re racing, they’re testing everyone and keeping them in a bubble for that race weekend. If you test negative and you stay only inside of your bubble that entire weekend with all negative people, you’re safe.

The NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR don’t have a bubble and aren’t testing like other leagues, but they’ve done a great job of maintaining a season now and controlling outbreaks. So far, it appears no positive cases have come from Indy Car through their first six races that started on June 6 at the Texas Motor Speedway.

NASCAR, well they’ve had a couple of isolated cases in a few teams’ shops and only saw one driver test positive, but they’ve really controlled against outbreaks despite no bubbles and no regular testing occurring. ncs_hms_buschgustafson_061420

While some may call it dangerous that NASCAR and IndyCar aren’t testing, you have to look at the guidelines when they first got started. Testing was still difficult to come by in May and June. It wasn’t widely available to the general public like it is now. So, NASCAR came up with a stout plan to distance team members from other personnel and ensure outbreaks are few and far between, if any at all.

Johnson, like Perez, doesn’t know how he got infected. He was taking care of himself and his wife tested positive to he felt even though he didn’t have any symptoms to do so himself. The test came back positive and his 663 race start streak came to an end on July 5 for the Brickyard 400 weekend. Luckily, his tests early the following week came back negative and he was cleared to return to racing just a week later.

Stewart-Haas Racing had a couple of shop members and Team Penske just one test positive. That’s it.

So, how is NASCAR pulling this off when other sports aren’t? For starters, I get some may say ‘well they’re not testing.’ Their mindset may be that there could be several asymptomatic people within the sport and without testing them, no one would know. But, those people in the sport are also adhering to guidelines and not really being around anyone anyways.

There are no autograph sessions. No fan involvement whatsoever. Most tracks aren’t having fans allowed in all together.

The drivers have said that they’re not going out to eat or hanging with friends really either. They are all okay with living in their own bubble away from the track as well as at the track if that means they can race their cars. If this means not seeing friends and family during the season, then so be it. They’re just trying to take the proper steps, because they want to race and in order to race right now, you have to self isolate and make sacrifices.

You don’t put yourself in those situations,” Ryan Preece said on Thursdsay. “That’s really it, because I want to race.”

Preece, said the hard part is giving up one of his hobbies and that’s modified racing. He typically races well over 60 times any given year but this year, he’s focusing on his day job and his day job only.

“I think it’s hard right now with the way things are to do it and not know if you’re going to be forced into quarantine or whatever it may be,” Preece continued. “I’m used to racing 60 to 80 times a year, but at the same time my focus is on the Cup series.”

Another driver that likes to  on a normal year race outside of Cup is Christopher Bell. He’s a dirt racer by nature and is actually going to take a risk next week by racing on dirt in Pennsylvania a couple of days. To do so, he’s taking unusual precautions too.

“Instead of traveling up to the Pennsylvania races on a plane, like I probably would, I’m going to be riding in the rig and isolating from the masses as much as I can anyway,” Bell said via a zoom call with media on Thursday. “I think it’s a matter of just doing your part. Wearing masks when you need to and making sure that you’re staying away from people and just using common sense.”

Bell noted how in order to race this weekend in New Hampshire, the drivers and teams have to just stay at the track and not exit the gates in any way shape or form.

“I did notice that this weekend we’re under a little different guidelines anyway,” Bell continued. “They want us to stay outside of the New Hampshire community you could say. We have to pretty much stay within our own confines. They don’t want us going out to restaurants or anything like that. It’s pretty much fly in and race and fly out anyway. They’re taking extra precautions this week.”

NASCAR, for the most part, has been doing that through this pandemic all along. In order to get this off the ground, they stuck to near base in Charlotte to race. That’s why you saw the only races run in May to get back going again being in Darlington, Charlotte and Bristol. All are driveable tracks. Then, they eliminated the use of practice and qualifying, a decision recently announced that will remain that way for the duration of the season, to make these one day shows.

So, you leave in the morning, show up at the track, race, then head home when it’s done. There’s no community interaction. No need for hotels. No need to go to restaurants. The only time you’re in the towns are at the track and that’s to race.

Bell says that kind of suits him.

“I think this no practice thing definitely fits my background,” Bell said. “I think it’s up and down and if you look at our results, we’ve arguably ran a little bit better since they stopped practice.”

That though is actually tough on teams.

See, with practice and/or qualifying, is the need for a backup car. With the risk of a crash around every turn, you can’t crash before the race starts and have a car sitting idle without being able to be in the race. It would hurt the bottom line of all the teams with a sponsor that has paid to be on that car not getting any action.

So, with needing a backup car means more personnel needed at the race track and more hands preparing an extra car each weekend back at the shop.

While I get their reasoning behind that and frankly love the fact that practice has been outlawed, some of the current drivers would love to see both return in some capacity.

See, the lack of practice is hurting some teams. Kyle Busch is one of them. He’s winless this season and openly says that just a little bit of practice could get them steering in the right direction.

Same for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of Denny Hamlin. He notes that he gets why NASCAR doesn’t want to have practice in fear of a crash and a need of a backup car, but he says that even if someone crashes in practice, they likely would have crashed in the race anyways — so just give them last place points.

Joey Logano brings up a good point for his struggles in performance since the COVID-19 return in the fact that he and his new crew chief Todd Gordon haven’t worked with each other prior to this season. While both have seen these tracks before, they haven’t seen them together. That’s why he started off with three wins, including a Duel, in the first five races together but none in the 14 races since the return. They had practice for those early races before the pandemic but haven’t had a chance to dial in what Logano needs out of the car to be a contender since.

These are some big named drivers that are guessing on setups each week. Clint Bowyer isn’t a fan of it at all.

“Not only are you behind the eight ball, you’re behind the eight ball of cars that are capable of winning races,” Bowyer said of the lack of practice and qualifying now. “I mean, there’s a reason they’re up front. But it’s in a situation right now where you’re protecting those fastest cars on the racetrack. And if I’m a promoter and got my promoter hat on, I wouldn’t think that that would be necessarily the best case scenario to put on a great race for fans, you know, the more you shake those starts up, the better off.”

I for one, think that it makes the field much more competitive this way. NASCAR agrees.

Despite the changes to schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic, plus the lack of practice and qualifying, the NASCAR Cup Series competition is putting up some solid passing stats this season.

Since 2007 through 19 races of a season – the 2020 season ranks first in total green flag passes and second in green flag passes to the lead.

In a year-over-year comparison (2019 vs. 2020) we are up 32.7% in green flag passes and up 24.1% in green flag passes for the lead through 19 races.

The drivers will have to live with showing up to the track and not seeing any team members until they head to pit road just minutes before the race. They don’t see any one during the week either. Everything is all virtual right now. Virtual team meetings and virtual drivers meetings. This is a new norm and the on track stats for better racing and the off track stats for no outbreaks, prove this is working.

That allows the drivers as long as they stay disciplined off the track to be able to race cars on the track.

For team members, NASCAR has separated them into two groups. The shop team and road team. You can’t intermingle. If you travel to work on the cars for the races, you can’t go to the shop. If you work in the shop, you can’t go to the races.

It’s tough, but its been working. It’s detailed and forces cut backs and social distancing, but the key is, it’s working.

“It’s really been hard on the shop guys,” said Rodney Childers, Kevin Harvick’s crew chief. “Keeping the shop guys and road guys separated, it’s a lot harder than what it sounds.  It takes everybody to get these things ready to race, get them ready to load on the truck. Before Talladega I didn’t go to the shop a single day.  This week I was only there for probably three hours one day.

“We’ve tried to do everything that we can do to keep people as safe as possible.  My engineer Dax has completely stayed away from the shop.  He hasn’t been to the shop in a month.  You have to look at that.  You have to look at people like Kevin and myself and Dax, all those people.

“Anybody on the race team can’t be replaced, but if it’s a mechanic in the shop, at least there’s another mechanic in the shop that can help out.  We don’t have an extra Kevin Harvick sitting in the closet.  Sometimes I wish we had two of him, but we don’t.  We don’t have another one of me, we don’t have another Dax.

“It’s been tough.  Everybody has been doing a great job with it, just trying to do our best.”

All of that worked. So, NASCAR started broadening their horizons as the days went on. They went from closest tracks to the headquarters (Darlington, Charlotte, Bristol) to a little bit further in Atlanta and Martinsville, to overnight stays in Homestead and Talladega. Those phases all worked. So, in came the next phase (Pocono, Indy, Kentucky, Bristol, Texas, Kansas and New Hampshire). This phase is working too. NASCAR has plans in place now to finish the regular season. We’re awaiting the playoff plans which should be revealed next week. img_1750

IndyCar has followed the same path. NASCAR started it, IndyCar followed it. They’ve eliminated races from far away states. 12 of the 14 races on the schedule now will take place in the Midwest. They’ll go to where fans can be to help the bottom line, but will follow guidelines of each state government on how plans to keep drivers and fans safe will allow them to race without clusters or outbreaks after.

“The more experience we have, the better we get,” said Mark Miles. “Although I really do think we started strong even in many of these procedures with the paddock back in Texas.

“There’s so many ways to think about it. But first we got to take care of the competitors, the paddock, the crews, the media, the broadcast talent and production guys, everybody that’s a part of making INDYCAR go.

“I think they’re all doing great. I think they have the right attitude. You might have thought it would wane over time, but constantly there’s conversations, discussions about how important it is that we follow these procedures, that we wear masks, which is right here, I’m the only one in the room, otherwise it would be on. We show up week after week before, during Indianapolis, and for the rest of the year with everybody able to get on track. That’s important.

“In terms of the fans and more kind of a grandstand environment, while there is camping, we’ll learn from that, too. But the scale is different, the basics are the same: we want to test everybody when they come in, meaning screen for temperature and any other symptoms; we want to make sure everybody has PPE, masks, hand sanitizer and the like; we want to make sure everybody is standing apart in lines, everything from merch sales to food concessions is done differently so it’s as safe as it can possibly be. On and on and on.

“The things you check off are very, very similar.”

Miles says that they’re also trying to learn a new normal because maybe where were at now is going to be this way for a while. He notes that Indiana was supposed to be in Stage 5 of the reopening plan on July 4. They’re still not there yet and will remain in this phase through likely late August.

“You know what I think is happening is society is trying to define a new normal,” Miles continued. “There is probably a point in time when we thought in Indiana stage five is normal, we’re back completely. Now I think nobody has a clue when stage five happens.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out what a new normal looks like so that we can continue to operate, continue to do that in the most responsible, safest way, and take care of our fans and communities. That’s what we’re all about. I think Michael and the team are doing that in Iowa. You can be sure we’re all over it for Indianapolis.

“We like other sports, have to operate locally even if the series is national and international. What drives how we approach things is in Iowa the governor, Michael, the mayor of Newton, the local officials, they’ve met with them, they’ve talked with them, worked out a protocol that makes sense according to the situation on the ground there, which would be different in Ohio and different in Indianapolis, wherever we race.

“It’s not like it just builds on itself as a whole. It’s really the parts, where we race, the local conditions there that determine the procedures.”

They’re all almost there. The finish line is starting to come in sight. We’ve made it 17 races in NASCAR, an all-star race included, in what will be a 77 day span on Sunday. We had none in 70 days prior. We have six more races after in a 21 day span after that in August. Then, 10 playoff races between Sept. 6 and Nov. 8.

IndyCar, will have five races this month, take September off and close out with three races in October, two of those are a doubleheader.

Even if cases rise again, so long as NASCAR and IndyCar control outbreaks within their communities and drivers and teams remain healthy and continue doing what they’ve been doing, there’s no reason to believe that we can crown champions both both this Fall while other sports still struggle to continue playing.

It’s working and a big deal for them. It’s huge for future TV negotiations because this is the one sport that seems to be immune to an outbreak so long as everyone keeps abiding by the guidelines.




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