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NASCAR Will Go Back to Real Racing on May 17

It will be the world's first professional race since motorsports hit pause in March.

NASCAR announced its plan to formally resume racing in May on Thursday, revealing a seven-event slate between its Cup, Xfinity and Truck series that kicks off with a 400-mile Cup contest without fans in attendance at South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway on May 17. It will be the world’s first professional race following a global pause on motorsports due to the global health crisis.

That race, which many of the sports’ teams began preparing for in earnest following their classifications as essential businesses under North Carolina’s stay-at-home order late last week, will be followed by an ambitious schedule that sees the next six races run at Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the span of just 11 days to close out the month:

  • May 17: 400-mile Cup race at Darlington | 3:30pm ET on Fox
  • May 19: 200-mile Xfinity race at Darlington | 8:00pm ET on FS1
  • May 20: 310-mile Cup race at Darlington | 7:30pm ET on FS1
  • May 24: Coca-Cola 600 Cup race at Charlotte | 6:00pm ET on Fox
  • May 25: 300-mile Xfinity race at Charlotte | 7:30pm ET on FS1
  • May 26: 200-mile Trucks race at Charlotte | 8:00pm ET on FS1
  • May 27: 310-mile Cup race at Charlotte | 8:00pm on FS1

NASCAR originally shut down the 2020 season on March 13 with only four of the 36 scheduled races completed. This compressed schedule is part of the sanctioning body’s effort to fulfill its promise (and contractual obligations) to squeeze in every one of those 36 contests despite losing two months and facing an unclear health picture beyond the summer. Still, NASCAR stopped short of announcing any formal plans beyond the end of May.

The absence of live fans won’t be the only difference in how the races are held. The biggest change is that only the Coca-Cola 600 will have a traditional qualifying round—the rest are show up and race. NASCAR has yet to announce how they’ll determine the field for those.

Only those essential to the operation of the car—16 people per team—will be allowed to work the event, which will see teams make use of formerly-public areas of the facilities to set up at safe distances from each other. Crews will be required to wear face masks, and those who work the races are encouraged to not visit a team’s home shop once the schedule is underway. NASCAR won’t be doing coronavirus testing, but they will institute random temperature and symptom checks.

One thing that isn’t changing is the live pit stop format, where it’s impossible for the crew to maintain a six-foot separation. NASCAR decided live pit stops are an essential part of the NASCAR tradition, reports The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck, and opted to keep them going given the other precautions being taken.

“NASCAR and its teams are eager and excited to return to racing, and have great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “NASCAR will return in an environment that will ensure the safety of our competitors, officials and all those in the local community.”

Left unsaid is that NASCAR will also return in an environment devoid of any other sports, putting it in a position to pick up fans who might never give it a chance otherwise. NASCAR is taking a big gamble here given the blowback that would result from one of these races seeding a new outbreak—but it’s calculated that the potential payoff is worth it.