By JENNA FRYER AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR announced Thursday that it will resume its season without fans starting May 17 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina with the premier Cup Series racing three more times in a 10-day span.
NASCAR joins the UFC as the first major sports organizations to announce specific return to play plans since the coronavirus pandemic shut down U.S. sports in mid-March.
“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.
NASCAR’s revised schedule goes only through May and has a pair of Wednesday Cup races, fulfilling fans longtime plea for midweek events. The first race is scheduled for Darlington, NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway, followed by a second race at the 70-year-old, egg-shaped oval track three days later.
Charlotte Motor Speedway will then host the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 to mark 60 consecutive years the longest race on the NASCAR schedule will be held on Memorial Day weekend. The track in Concord, outside NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte, will then host a Wednesday race three days later.
There will also be lower-tier Xfinity and Trucks series races at the two tracks. The North Carolina governor has said the the Charlotte races can be held as long as health conditions in the area do not deteriorate.
“This has been a proactive effort to put our motorsports industry back to work and boost the morale of sports fans around the world, while at the same time keeping the health and safety of all who will be on site the top priority,” said Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports. He said “sports fans around the world need this, a return to some sense of normalcy with live sports on TV, and NASCAR is uniquely positioned to deliver it from a competition standpoint.”
NASCAR has set guidelines to safely hold the events using CDC guidelines on social distancing and personal protective equipment. Only essential personnel will be permitted to attend the events, and cloth face masks will be required. The entire venue will be used to maintain distancing in garage stalls and where the haulers are parked.
NASCAR suspended its season March 13 with only four of its 36 scheduled races completed. The stock car series, heavily reliant on television money and sponsor payments, has vowed to complete its full schedule. The revised schedule for now stays at tracks within driving distance of Charlotte-based race teams and in states that have started reopening.
“Darlington is one of the most iconic and historic tracks in the sport and will be a tremendous backdrop when NASCAR returns to racing,” said track President Kerry Tharp, who noted the track will now have three Cup races in one season for the first time in its history.
Darlington is also scheduled to open the playoffs with the Southern 500 on Sept. 6. Because the track now has two additional dates, NASCAR will lose two Cup races from its other properties. The same goes for Speedway Motorsports, which gained one additional race so far and will have to forfeit one at another facility.
Almost all teams began returning to their shops this week with either a reduced initial workforce or in split shifts. Now that NASCAR has told the teams where it will be racing this month, they can start preparing cars suitable for the two tracks.
Although Florida and Texas invited NASCAR to compete in those states without spectators, the sanctioning body is holding off on scheduling events at tracks that require air travel and hotel accommodations.