North Carolina Deems NASCAR Teams 'Essential Businesses' That Can Return to Work
...right as the governor extends "stay at home" orders for everyone else.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper designated NASCAR teams as "essential businesses" today, reports NBC Sports, paving the way for shops to return to work as a picture begins to emerge about how NASCAR's postponed season might get under way in mid-May.
NASCAR teams, most of which are based in North Carolina, will still be subject to local restrictions, which can overrule Gov. Cooper's order, and the garages must also maintain six-foot social distancing rules for employees. Restarting team operations now is crucial to potentially holding North Carolina's biggest race of the year on time, the Coke 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, traditionally run on Memorial Day weekend.
That would be May 24—but there are indications the season will pick back up as early as May 16 with the All-Star Race. That too was supposed to run at Charlotte, but NBC Sports reports that NASCAR is considering moving it to Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, backed up by South Carolina tourism officials and unnamed sources who spoke with SCNow.
Neither the All-Star Race nor the Coke 600 are expected to be held with spectators in attendance, though Charlotte Motor Speedway is still selling tickets to both on its website at the time of publication. Gov. Cooper said the state's leading public health officials were reviewing NASCAR's plan to safeguard the health of the hundreds of team and track workers who would still need to congregate to run either race.
Teams have a lot of prep work to get everything ready to run again, so the fact that they've been approved to work weeks ahead of the next race on May 16 isn't surprising. However, that NASCAR is now able to make concrete moves to restart its season shows off the support (and long leash) it enjoys from local officials; at the same press conference where Gov. Cooper cleared teams to return to work, he extended the state's stay-at-home order for everybody else to May 8.
“I will not risk the health of our people or our hospitals, and easing those restrictions [for non-essential personnel] now will do that," Gov. Cooper said.
Clearly, COVID-19 is still a concern, but so is getting that sweet, sweet Charlotte race in at the end of the month! Let's get this out of the way right now: NASCAR teams are absolutely not as essential as doctors' offices, auto shops that work on daily transportation or retailers selling necessary household items. We love auto racing, but we've managed without in-person motorsports so far as we all figure out a safe way to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, there are obviously larger financial calculations at play here, not the least of which is NASCAR's importance to North Carolina's economy.
As for the possibility of a South Carolina race in mid-May, the plan came from NASCAR's desire to start out using tracks within driving distance of most race teams' headquarters so that they can avoid staying in hotels and thus minimize contact with those outside the sport.
“I think it’s really critical to have (races) within driving distance,” NASCAR team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “It’s all about being smart and being cautious and being aware of everyone around you.”
NASCAR still plans to fit its entire 36-race schedule in this year, with postponed races from the Spring happening later in 2020. A formal announcement regarding a return to real racing is forthcoming after plans are finalized.
Both this as well as the potential move for the All Star Race come after several state governments, including North and South Carolina and Tennessee, announced plans to ease their virus-related restrictions by the end of May. However, the jury is out as to whether this is a good idea. Per North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services statistics cited by NBC Sports, the state had 7,608 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday. Of those infected, 486 are hospitalized and 253 have died. Cases and hospitalizations continue to tick upward, and the state is one of many in the United States lacking adequate testing and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.
NASCAR originally planned to reopen its season with a May 8-9 weekend at Martinsville Speedway, but that race was also postponed after Virginia extended its ban on gatherings over 10 people to June 10, per Autosport.
Even with a relaxed cap on the total number of people in a specific place, it's unclear how teams would run a race at all under six-foot distancing guidelines. Teams in pit lane are typically crammed in tight. Earlier this year, when most health guidelines focused on limiting the sizes of large groups, NASCAR considered running its Atlanta and Homestead races without fans instead of canceling them outright. The races were then scrapped as social distancing rules tightened.
NASCAR would not comment to The Drive on the specifics surrounding the changes in North Carolina or the announcement of a spring Darlington race. A NASCAR representative referred to a statement made on April 17 that noted the possibility of a May return as the series' latest position on the matter:
NASCAR is postponing the scheduled events on May 8-9 at Martinsville Speedway. Our intention remains to run all 36 races, with a potential return to racing without fans in attendance in May at a date and location to be determined. The health and safety of our competitors, employees, fans, and the communities in which we run continues to be our top priority. We will continue to consult with health experts and local, state and federal officials as we assess future scheduling options.
The Drive will continue to monitor the situation and keep you updated as soon as we know when and how the NASCAR season will resume.
Update 4/25: Added NASCAR's response above.