Kevin Harvick celebrated by himself on the Darlington Raceway frontstretch. His winner’s interview with Fox Sports was done with a boom mic to abide by social distancing rules, and without the accompanying background noise of a live crowd.
“I didn’t think it was going to be that much different, and then we won the race, and it’s dead silent out here,” said Harvick next to his car at the start/finish line. “So, we miss the fans.”
That image was just one reminder that NASCAR’s first race in 10 weeks was not held under normal circumstances. From my position high in Turn 3 as one of four reporters on-site in the press box, Sunday did not have as weird a vibe as I’d expected. But it was certainly unique. The press box was the only area we were permitted to go, and all interaction with drivers and other members of the garage was remote. We spent a lot of time on Zoom.
But with the infield still packed with haulers, personal vehicles, safety equipment, and motorhomes, the feeling of attending an important event was still there. If you stared long enough, you tricked yourself into believing it was just like any other race weekend – or maybe a pre-season test, where attendances are also small.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps estimated there were about 900 people on the property. However, like Harvick’s post-race, there were plenty of reminders that this event was different to what we’re used to.
All pictures from the garage featured individuals wearing masks and adhering to COVID-19 safety protocols. Drivers drove themselves to the track on Sunday – no family or friends – and self-isolated in their vehicles or motorhomes until called to their cars around 3:20 p.m. ET., walking without an entourage and carrying their own equipment.
Those allowed on the property went through a medical screening process before accessing the tunnel or the suites. Most weekends, those at the track will have access stickers recognizing the media center, press box, garage or another area, but for Darlington a sizable ‘E’ (for essential) was issued, and will forever serve as a reminder of this time in the sport’s history when I look at my 2020 credential a few years down the road.
Outside the track, the grounds were empty, taking away the usual race day maze of foot traffic to navigate around. Race day traffic was non-existent, as were the roadside campers and tailgaters. Most gates at the track remained locked.
While a few fans did linger, the appearance of sheriff vehicles parked around the property likely kept many away. Raceway Grill, located next to the track outside Turn 2, did host a watch party for fans.
NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell told the media afterward that he felt things went smoother than expected. But O’Donnell also repeatedly recognized the oddity of a Cup race with no fans and limited personnel.
“From everyone we talked to in the garage area, the entry process went incredibly well,” said O’Donnell. “Everybody was here on time, the cars were out and through inspection – the 18 [Kyle Busch] had an issue – but in terms of everybody getting through inspection, the flow working well, the plan working well, I think everybody found their groove.
“(We) didn’t have to tell anyone or remind anyone to wear a mask. I think the industry really came together and did a tremendous job to enable us to get to the race.”
When the green flag dropped for the first time since early March, racing still looked the same. Drivers who made mistakes, like Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, paid dearly. Hendrick Motorsports again looked like legitimate contenders. Matt Kenseth showed he still knows how to wheel a race car, and Ryan Newman, well, he’s still Ryan Newman.
Harvick dominated, which wasn’t all that surprising. He’s been one of the best at Darlington in recent years, and it seemed fitting that in NASCAR’s return at one of the toughest tracks, one of its toughest drivers would rise to the occasion. And given the circumstances, Harvick will never forget his 50th career win: he was the only person permitted in victory lane.
“Awkward,” he said of that moment. “Usually you get out of the car, and the crowd is screaming and yelling, reacting. Today out of the car, it was like, well, I don’t really know what to do here. It’s a situation that you’ve got Regan [Smith] from Fox six feet away, a masked man. I didn’t know if I was supposed to put a mask on and talk to him. They had a six-foot boom mic you were talking to. There was that sense of awkwardness until we get all this situated to exactly what we’re supposed to do.
“When we got done, everybody left. The procedure said to drive back to victory lane; I got back in my car, drove to victory lane. There were two photographers there, no team guys. I was able to kind of give my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left victory lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it. But in the end, in the big picture of things, being able to do what we did today, and that’s race, is what Everybody wants to do.”
Procedurally, Sunday appeared to go smoothly. O’Donnell said everyone who entered the facility passed the screening process, and the medical staff was comfortable with putting on a race. Only time will tell if everyone who worked the event left without contracting the coronavirus.
As one of the first sports back on network television, NASCAR appears to have succeeded in its mission of being safe but entertaining. And while everything surrounding Darlington was different and historical, at the end of the day, racing was still racing.