CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A NASCAR race is far more than 500 miles of left turns. It's a turbo-charged Mardi Gras of booze-soaked infield campsites, concerts, fireworks and patriotic displays.
Entertainers give the command to start engines. Political candidates show up. Some of the world's top CEOs sit in on the pre-race driver meeting, then stroll down pit lane to mingle.
Fans can get the same kind of oh-so-close access at tracks. There is no other sport that offers the same pipeline to its stars or the action – teams can and do give spots on their pit stand to honorary guests ranging from friends, family or corporate partners – and it’s a critical cog in how NASCAR does business and what draws people to the races.
This was all before the pandemic, of course.
NASCAR cut every bit of its pageantry from race weekends when it resumed competition in May. The party has been put on pause and it will be most noticeable over the next 10 weeks of the NASCAR playoffs, the most important stretch of the season.
“It’s quiet. You roll in on race morning and there’s nobody around," said reigning series champion Kyle Busch. “It just seems like every track we’ve gone to has pretty much been a ghost town.”
NASCAR completed four events — including the sold-out Daytona 500, where President Donald Trump gave the command, Air Force One buzzed by the track and the Air Force Thunderbirds performed — before the pandemic. NASCAR was idle for 10 weeks before it got back on track, one of the first major sports to return to competition.
The first races were at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, in front of empty grandstands and under a protocol that allows only essential personnel into the infield. Owners can't even visit their race cars and NASCAR's top leadership doesn't enter the infield.
NASCAR returns to Darlington on Sunday for the playoff opener, the infield still locked down but up to 8,000 spectators will be allowed to attend. Darlington joins Bristol in Tennessee, Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, Texas Motor Speedway and the championship finale at Phoenix as venues allowing limited spectators during the next 10 weeks.
Las Vegas, Charlotte, Kansas and Martinsville, Virginia are awaiting state approval; next week's race in Richmond, Virginia, will be without fans.
Top-seeded Kevin Harvick won at Darlington in the series' return to racing and promptly noted the silence in his celebration. He's won seven times since racing resumed and is unequivocal that the emptiness has an effect. Drivers feed off the fan reaction, some even use it as a motivator, and the emptiness has been a drag.
But he is also pragmatic and recognizes the enormous undertaking NASCAR made to get back on schedule with Sunday's playoffs beginning on time.
“In today’s world our events are pretty good compared to what you see in other sports,” Harvick said. "Our events are starting to have fans migrate back into the grandstands and different portions of the racetrack from a camping perspective. We’re in a very, very fortunate spot to be able to go back to the racetrack and work. What we’ve been used to at home and the things we can and can’t go do, being able to go to a sporting event safely is pretty extraordinary at this point.”
The protocols have forced NASCAR to proceed with just the bare bones of a race weekend. There is no qualifying or practice and races are now one-day events in which the driver shows up at his car and goes racing. Rosters have been reduced so teams are sending fewer people on the road and expenses have been cut in every aspect.
And rescheduling all those postponed events meant doubleheaders, a shared weekend with IndyCar, midweek races and a debut at Daytona's road course.
“I think it’s important to recognize there are some gains and losses for us as an industry,” said Brad Keselowski. "If we start with the losses, it’s hard to have those intimate relationships with sponsors that are so key to a race team’s success and survival with the current business model and climate. We want to be able to host them. We want them to be able to host their customers.
“I think there are probably some gains for the sport in all of this. We’re operating much more efficiently. It’s reducing costs to the car owners and teams. It’s reducing a lot of waste.”
The pandemic forced NASCAR to experiment with ideas that might not have been tried before 2021, when a major schedule overhaul was expected.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps this week said next year's schedule may be released in portions, with contingency plans in place for some venues. Midweek races may not make an immediate return because of underwhelming television ratings, and the one-day show model may continue in some regard.
Daytona last month hosted two Cup Series races with limited spectators and it's not clear what will be permitted for the Daytona 500, NASCAR's Super Bowl, scheduled for next Feb. 14.
“Right now our plan is that the Daytona 500 would run when it’s originally scheduled. I don’t see that changing,” said Phelps. “But, you know, I guess never say never.”
Phelps said the current protocols are not expected to change and infield access will remain closed: “Do I see access into the infield or into the footprint changing before we have a vaccine? I don’t. We don’t need owners, you don’t need myself or Jim (France) or anyone else frankly in that footprint.”
That's a tough sell for team owners who leverage the infield access as perks to potential sponsors. Bob Leavine, who has sold his one-car team, has stated there were no NASCAR refunds for the “hot passes” purchased to use for guests who now aren't allowed to attend.
Busch, owner of a Truck Series team and personally involved in selling sponsorship, said top partner Safelite Autoglass has lost out on the deal through lack of track access.
“No question, there’s definitely been partners that have come to the table and asked for some concessions on this season in not being able to promote as well and also to be able to bring guests and consumers to the track,” Busch said.
NASCAR takes pride in getting the show rolling again during the pandemic. These playoffs look nothing like a true NASCAR weekend and no one knows when the show will truly be the same.