The term “Drivers start your engines” has long been a standard opening phrase associated with motorsports events. On May 17 in Darlington, S.C. that phrase will take on a far greater magnitude across the spectrum of sports in the United States as NASCAR will be back on the road.

The utterance of that phrase at Darlington Speedway will mark the first return of a live major sporting event in the country since the COVID-19 global pandemic paralyzed the country in mid-March, and of course the online sports betting that goes with it.

NASCAR takes the huge step to return to action on May 17 with its premier Cup Series running a 400-mile event at Darlington Speedway.

NASCAR Back But No Fans

There will be no fans in the grandstands at the historic NASCAR venue and the sanctioning body will have a laundry list of rules and restrictions in place to ensure the safety of competitors, crews and officials.

“We’re incredibly excited … to return to racing, but also understand the tremendous responsibility that’s going to come with that return,” NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said. “Our return in Darlington is going to be an environment that we need to make sure we’re taking all measures available to us for the safety of our competitors and certainly for the local community. As we developed the return to racing schedule we understood … that it’s going to be a fluid situation, we’re going to need to factor in many, many variables. I think most important for us at the onset was the development of a plan that was discussed with public health officials, medical experts, state and local officials.”

Like most major sporting entities, NASCAR suspended all live events in mid-March. NASCAR’s Cup Series had run four of its originally scheduled 36-race season before the shutdown. O’Donnell has said NASCAR still hopes to run all 36 events on the 2020 schedule.

Just after its shutdown NASCAR launched its eNASCAR Pro Invitational Series which allowed its biggest stars to race in weekly online events on the iRacing virtual simulation platform. NASCAR has had six nationally broadcast Pro Invitational Series events since March 22. The series will run one virtual race on Sunday May 9 before the return to live action.

NASCAR Startup Plan Continues

NASCAR has currently mapped out a startup plan to run seven events among its three national divisions over 11 days at two venues.

The Sunday May 17 Cup Series event will be broadcast live on Fox at 3:30 p.m. NASCAR’s second tier XFINITY Series will race a night event on May 19 at Darlington with the Cup Series returning to action on May 20 for a night race at Darlington. The May 19 and May 20 events will be broadcast by Fox Sports 1.

NASCAR will then shift to the home base of most of its teams by running its traditional Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday May 24 at 6 p.m. with the event broadcast on Fox. It will mark the first of four consecutive nights of action at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the XFINITY Series running May 25, the third tier Gander Outdoors Truck Series running May 26 and the Cup Series returning to the track on May 27.

NASCAR will condense its typical formats for all events. Practice sessions have been eliminated and only the Coca-Cola 600 will have a qualifying session.

NASCAR has mandated social distancing practices to be in place for each event and will have health screenings for all team members and race officials. Crew rosters will be limited to no more than 16 individuals for each team, including the team’s driver.

John Bobo’s Take

“Events are going to look different than they have in the past,” said NASCAR vice president of racing operations John Bobo. “The way we travel to the event, the way we enter the event, move about in the event, the way we leave an event is going to be different. We’re asking teams and all of our participants, organizations, to self-monitor people for five days for symptoms before they arrive.  We’re asking them to fill out a questionnaire and initial screening for temperature.”

Bobo is confident that the already safety conscious culture of NASCAR events puts the sanctioning body in a unique position in overseeing a safely run event despite the challenges being faced.

“We have a lot of confidence in our plan,” Bobo said. “We know we have to work together as an industry to keep our own folks safe, to keep each community safe. But it is the discipline and the safety culture of NASCAR. We’re the organization that puts cars on the track four days a week at 200 miles an hour. We think it’s that same discipline and eye towards safety that everybody in our industry has that is going to help us execute on this.”

There is no current timetable for putting on events with fans.

“I think that’s still a work in progress,” O’Donnell said. “Our priority right now is to try and get back racing in a safe way. I think certainly the NASCAR fan is passionate, and we want to conduct events with fans any chance we can get. But until we believe that it’s a safe environment, and we can work with the local and state communities to make that happen, we’re going to wait until we get that okay.”

O’Donnell understands the eyes of a nation – far beyond NASCAR’s typical fanbase – will be watching and scrutinizing them as the first major sport to return to action on May 17.

“We realize up front it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport,” O’Donnell said. “But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together.  Our entire industry has come together to believe in the plan we’ve put together. We’re certainly going to learn as we go. But the process we put in place I think gives the industry the confidence that we can be first, we can do this in Darlington.”