Monday, March 23, 2020

COMMENTARY: eNASCAR Series Was Just What The Doctor Ordered

While Week Three of NASCAR’s unprecedented COVID-19 shut down is upon us, NASCAR got back on track (in a manner of speaking) Sunday with the running of the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series Dixie Vodka 150.

The iRacing event, contested on a virtual representation of Homestead Miami Speedway, featured an eclectic lineup of drivers that included seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson, William Byron, Austin Dillon, Bobby Labonte and others. They competed remotely from their rumpus rooms, man caves and garages; honoring the self-distancing requests of government officials while still gathering together in the name of competition.

For the record, Hamlin overhauled Earnhardt with a high-line pass on the final lap to win the race, with Earnhardt surviving some last-lap fender rubbing to finish second, ahead of Timmy Hill, Chase Briscoe and pole-starter Garrett Smithley.

The results didn’t really matter, though. What mattered was what the event did to lift the spirits of NASCAR fans across North America.

Regardless of who won or lost, Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series debut provided a much-needed boost to the collective psyche of NASCAR Nation. In a time in our country’s history when normalcy is in extremely short supply, NASCAR, iRacing and FOX Sports banded together to provide 90 minutes of distraction, laughs and competition that can’t help but make the next seven days of self-distancing and isolation a little bit easier to take.

The event combined a level of competitive intensity normally expected from a group of professional athletes with an unprecedented and refreshing dose of “who cares?” With no points to be tallied, no championship to be won and no money on the line – save for the $5,000 Hamlin pledged to contribute to charity if he won – the competitors were looser, more laid-back and more able to simply have fun than we have ever seen them before. FS1 set the tone for the day with its pre-race National Anthem, apparently performed from the singer’s garage in deference to its superior acoustical qualities.

FS1’s usual on-air team of Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds did their usual stand-up job supplying the necessary Xs and O’s, with Clint Bowyer – who is rapidly becoming NASCAR’s version of the NFL’s Rob Gronkowski – supplying color commentary and comic relief from an adjoining studio; all while taking part in the event himself.

Early in the event, it became clear that iRacing and actual racing are not the same, as the top stock racers on the planet slogged their way through repeated, multi-car crashes that slowed the tempo of the event. Johnson seemed particularly out of his element, being caught-up in a pair of skirmishes in the early going, despite running at the back of the pack.

But again, that didn’t really seem to matter.

Nine cautions (or was it 10?) slowed the 100-lap, 150-mile event, forcing FS1 to run approximately 20 minutes long and join Horse Racing Nation a little later than originally planned. But unless you were waiting breathlessly for updated odds for this year’s Kentucky Derby, nobody really cared.

It was… in a word, fun. Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman tweeted during an early caution, “I have to pee. (My dog) Finn may take over during the next caution.” He then blamed the dog for a crash that ultimately took him out of contention; something you just don’t see every day in big-time, professional motorsports.

On social media, fans reacted with near-100% approval, making the race the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter; supplanting even the omnipresent COVID-19 pandemic as the most talked about topic in the Twitterverse.

That’s a wonderful thing, and it was much needed.

On Twitter, which was almost as entertaining as the race itself, the event was a huge success. With the exception of that one NASCAR media person who hates anything and everything about the sport, the event was received with 100% favorable reviews. They ranged from “Really needed this today. My family and I were on the edge of our seats” to “Brought some normal to our Sunday afternoon!”

When the checkered flag flew yesterday, my own gut reaction was “Wait! We’ve got plenty of time left! Line them up and race them again!”

We need more of that sentiment, and the sooner, the better. There hasn’t been much to look forward to in our world lately. Sunday’s race helped, just a bit.

Hamlin’s win was almost certainly the first time a driver has won a big-time NASCAR race while wearing no shoes, since the early days of Junior Johnson. It was his 31st overall iRacing victory, ensuring that if a second series race is organized in the near future – and it sounds like one will be – his fellow drivers will be spending considerable more time practicing than they did this time around.

They’re competitive professional athletes, after all. And fun only goes so far.

In the last 7-10 days, the sale of new iRacing subscriptions had increased roughly 200%. Will iRacing ever replace “real” racing in the hearts and minds of NASCAR Nation? Likely not. But with the COVID-19 pandemic now firmly entrenched across North America and warnings from the infectious disease experts that the worst may still be to come, it looks like we’ll be staying behind closed doors for a little while longer, at least.

And the longer that lasts, the more we’ll need an occasional hour of distraction to keep us from ripping each other’s faces off.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

NASCAR Mulling Multiple Rescheduling Options

In addition to sickening thousands and killing nearly 100 in the United States, the COVID-19 virus has thoroughly disrupted the lives, careers, educations and leisure activities of virtually every American. NASCAR fans are no different, with the Coronavirus pandemic forcing the sport to take an unplanned (and thoroughly unwanted) eight-week hiatus in the months of March, April and early May.

Scheduled NASCAR Cup Series races at Atlanta, Homestead-Miami, Texas, Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover International Speedways have been postponed, with makeup dates still to be determined. The sanctioning body updated the media Tuesday, insisting that their goal is to run all 36 scheduled NASCAR Cup Series races, as well as the non-points All-Star Race. Their stated desire is to leave the 10-race playoff schedule untouched and unaltered, concluding the 2020 season as scheduled at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, Nov. 8. That will require the sanctioning body to reschedule all seven postponed races within a tight, 17-week time frame, with only two empty weekends (the pre-planned summer Olympic layoff) open for rescheduling between the resumption of competition on May 9 at Martinsville Speedway and the start of the at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day Weekend.

Clearly, traditional Saturday/Sunday scheduling will not be enough to dig NASCAR out of the massive hole left by an eight-week COVID-19 layoff.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps admitted yesterday that there are a lot of things on the table, including some scheduling options that have not been previously utilized. Midweek events seem likely going forward, and while Phelps said that no decisions have been made on whether to reschedule events during the planned, two-week Olympic break, it is difficult to image officials leaving a pair of prime, midsummer weekends open, while simultaneously scrambling to reschedule races on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Depending on the status of the pandemic, NASCAR could see its way clear to return before the anticipated Martinsville date in May, racing in front of empty grandstands. Moving Talladega, Texas or Homestead-Miami – three of the farthest-flung events on the postponed schedule -- into the vacated Dover date on May 3 would make Dover available to serve as the meat in a three-race-in-eight-day sandwich, beginning with the regularly scheduled New Hampshire race on Sunday, July 19, followed by a midweek stop at The Monster Mile and a rescheduled Richmond event on Sunday, July 26 (the first Olympic weekend).

Bristol twinbill? Sign us up!
NASCAR could manufacture an additional open weekend by moving the All-Star Race from Saturday, May 16 to the following Saturday; the day before the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. While necessitating a Saturday doubleheader with both the NASCAR Xfinity and Cup Series in action, the move would free-up the May 16 weekend for another rescheduled race.

An additional race can be made up the weekend of August 2; the first weekend of the Olympic Games.

Bristol’s postponed event could conceivably be rescheduled in conjunction with the track’s annual Bass Pro Shops/NRA Night Race on Saturday, Sept. 19. After racing on Saturday night, the Cup teams would simply remain in town and run the rescheduled event on Sunday afternoon, as part of an unprecedented Night/Day Doubleheader. This scenario would obviously impact the playoff schedule, but would allow one of the postponed events to be made up with no more than an additional hotel night required for NASCAR’s traveling teams.

That leaves just one more race to be rescheduled, almost certainly as a midweek event. Wednesday or Thursday night racing is far from ideal, and race teams will be hard pressed to compete three times in an eight-day window. But it can be done, if the will is there to do so.

NASCAR’s Phelps said he is working closely with race teams to ensure "financial viability" until racing can resume. He also announced that all testing – including wind tunnels, shaker rigs and the like -- has been banned until further notice, including driver simulators.

The intent behind the move is twofold. First, it is designed to save teams money during the layoff by keeping them away from the wind tunnels, which rent out at approximately $3,000 per hour. In addition, it further encourages teams to leave their testing and wind tunnel personnel at home, exercising personal distancing, rather than congregating in large numbers to conduct research.

If teams know the competition is not testing, they are much more likely to wave it off themselves.

Phelps said it is too early to tell if the 2021 NextGen race car will be delayed as a result of the COVID-19 virus. A two-day test scheduled for Atlanta Motor Speedway this week was cancelled, and there is no word on when testing might resume. While the specifics of the new car have almost all been determined at this point, more component testing is needed before suppliers can finalize their plans and begin production.

Phelps assured reporters that the sanctioning body is “working diligently to stay on schedule,” but further postponements could result in delays for the new car’s scheduled July rollout.

COMMENTARY: Pennsylvania Tracks Put Profit Over Personal Safety

It’s been an interesting week for race fans in the state of Pennsylvania.

The Keystone State is a hotbed of motorsports activity. Pocono Raceway in Long Pond has been part of the NASCAR landscape since 1971, playing a leading role in NASCAR’s northeast success from the beginning. But the life blood of Pennsy’s motorsports scene is dirt short tracks, with nearly 80 -- count `em – 80 clay ovals spread across the state. From nationally known venues like Williams Grove, Penn Can and Selinsgrove to comparatively anonymous venues like Numidia Raceway and Muddy Run, Pennsylvanians love and support their racing with a fervor than most states can only dream of.

This week, though, their love for racing went quite a bit too far.

At a time when our country – and much of the rest of the world – is face-to-face with the most dangerous viral epidemic in the past 100 years, dirt tracks in the state of Pennsylvania stood in stark defiance of Governor Tom Wolf’s strongly worded recommendation that they close their doors temporarily, allowing their patrons to exercise some much-needed personal distancing and protect themselves and their loved ones from the COVID-19 virus.

At least three tracks; Lincoln Speedway in Abbottstown, Port Royal Speedway in Port Royal and Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg held race events last weekend, inviting fans to huddle close in their grandstands, against the advice of the governor, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Lincoln Speedway: Still racing.
Car counts at Port Royal and Lincoln were reportedly down, with 24 Sprint Cars turning out at Lincoln – compared to an average of 30 in recent weeks – and 33 Sprinters competing at Port Royal, compared to 45 the week prior. One can only hope that common sense and a desire for self-preservation played a role in those downturns. Unfortunately, the folks who inhabit the grandstands quite literally threw caution to the wind last weekend, turning out in strong numbers at both tracks.

Sprint Car driver Anthony Macri likely spoke for many when he told the York Dispatch newspaper, “It doesn’t really scare me much, or obviously anybody else that’s here. It’s unfortunate what’s going on, but it’s just great to at least have something (to do). Everything else is shut down, so it’s nice to get out of the house and do something.”

Alan Krimes, the winner of the 410 Sprint Car feature at Lincoln, attempted to lighten the mood in Victory Lane, saying to the track announcer, “I think we’re too close. Aren’t we supposed to be six feet apart?”

Funny, but not funny, all at the same time.

PA Governor Tom Wolf
On Monday, Governor Wolf ordered a two-week, statewide closure of all non-essential businesses – including liquor stores, bars and restaurants for all but take-out customers – in an attempt to stem the spread of Coronavirus. He said he made that decision “because medical experts believe it is the only way we can prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed.”

Inexplicably, however, he did not extend the ban to race tracks, specifically allowing track operators to decide for themselves whether to do the right thing, or put profit ahead of public safety. Sadly, most of them made the wrong choice.

“I’m not going to force them to cancel,” said Gov. Wolf to television station ABC27. “This is something that all of us, 12.8 million Pennsylvanians, are in together.” He urged Pennsylvanians “not to expose (each other) to any symptoms that we might have. To not expose ourselves or our family members. We owe that to them.”

He urged track operators to “think not… in terms of what the law is, (but) in terms of what we owe our fellow citizens. This has to be self-enforced,” he repeated. “This is not your government mandating anything. This is your fellow public servants telling you the right way to handle this public health crisis.”

So while Pennsylvania will have public health guidelines in place for the next two weeks – a very short period based on the CDC’s recommendation that people congregate in groups no larger than 10 for the next eight weeks – the guidelines will not be enforced.

On the same day that the President of the United States urged all Americans to stay home and give the medical community a much-needed leg-up on the COVID-19 pandemic, the Governor of Pennsylvania effectively invited folks to load up the car and head for the race track.

It was colossally weak and ill-advised stance that some of his fellow Pennsylvanians may sadly not live to regret.

Port Royal came to its senses.
Lincoln Speedway put out a written statement last Thursday, saying that “Racing this weekend and for the foreseeable future will go on as scheduled as we monitor the guidelines and recommendations set forth by officials at the local, county, state and federal levels. Should we need to make changes to our schedule, we will do so with the best interest of our fans, competitors and staff in mind.”

It was curious wording, to say the least, since in order to continue racing, track management had to ignore the very guidelines and regulations they professed to be monitoring.

Since then, they have agreed to postponed race events for two weeks; a positive step that was too long in coming.

Port Royal also came to its collective senses, pulling an abrupt about-face and announcing that it will postpone racing activities for the next two weeks, with a stated goal of returning to racing on April 4. Eventually, all three tracks bowed to public pressure and pulled the plug, giving new meaning to the term "too little, too late."

It should not have been this difficult to do the right thing.

As of Monday, the state of Pennsylvania had 76 cases of Coronavirus, with 13 of them diagnosed in a single day. There have not yet been any fatalities in the Keystone State, a statistic that will hopefully continue.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases offered a more bleak assessment, saying, “When you’re dealing with an emerging infectious diseases outbreak, you are always behind where you think you are.”

He warned that the COVID-19 spread is going to continue, adding that there are many people who are currently infected, but unaware of it.

The solution is shockingly simple. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands frequently with soap and water, and work from home if you can. Practice social distancing whenever possible and put your social life on hold for the next few weeks.

And if the people who run your local short track elect to put profit over personal safety by opening their gates this weekend, for God’s sake, don’t go.