NASCAR got the jump on other racing series by restarting first, and while there will have been financial reasons for that, it also by default became a sort of moral compass within motorsport.
It had to deliver entertainment, but it had to get safety right. And more recently, it had to use its platform to acknowledge wider issues in the world.
The progress being made by the series – the issues it faces, but also the changes it makes – are going to be closely watched by Formula 1. And those issues and changes extend far beyond the ongoing evolution of pandemic control since racing restarted.
NASCAR’s strong stance following the growing movement to address racial injustice has looked immensely impressive to someone watching from the outside. I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of some of the decisions – my colleague Kelly Crandall expertly covered much of it – but I can tell you I’m not alone in viewing matters from an F1 perspective and being pleasantly surprised by how proactive NASCAR has appeared.
Multiple races have provided a platform for NASCAR to broadcast from, and it would be a little unfair to directly compare it to IndyCar’s approach at Texas given that was the first race back, but strong comments, direct actions, collective voices… these are all things that Formula 1 needs to demonstrate.
F1 doesn’t have that same opportunity right now while it waits for the Austrian Grand Prix to roll around, but the advantage is that it does have the time to work out what it wants to say and do. No longer is it acceptable to sit back quietly and let time act as a healer. The sport cannot hope to escape scrutiny because it won’t be back on our televisions for another three weeks. A plan needs to be put in place that extends beyond simply trying to find the next Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton has been speaking out as the only black driver in F1’s history and said he felt like he stood alone 10 days ago. But he is very much in the minority outside of the car, too.
I can’t reach double figures when I think of the number of black people who regularly attend races in the paddock, and in the area where I personally most regularly work – the media center – I can count them on one hand.
I did a podcast recently with one of those journalists — Sam Collins — who has worked in multiple paddocks, and said that in his experience, the NASCAR press room is a much more diverse place.
Whether anything that has been happening in stock car racing will turn into long-term change remains to be seen, but the spotlight that has been placed on the topic needs to register and have an impact on this side of the pond.
And Formula 1 can also learn from NASCAR from a sporting event point of view, too.
Despite announcing the first part of its 2020 calendar, and having teams back at work preparing for the return to racing, F1 is in an increasingly difficult position.
While the situation in the United Kingdom is still a very delicate one, with plenty of lockdown restrictions still in place and social distancing measures sticking to two-meter guidelines that are particularly challenging for many businesses, it is a very different story in certain parts of Europe. And it is a landscape that is changing quickly.
In exactly three weeks, the teams will all be at the Red Bull Ring in Austria preparing for the first race. And things are likely to look very different by that point.
From a UK perspective, three weeks ago restrictions were so severe that you could only meet up with one other person from outside your household, as long as you were both outside and maintained social distance. A week later, six people could meet up, and now individuals are allowed to enter households, don’t need to maintain distance and can stay the night.
Businesses have been reopening rapidly during that same period, with car showrooms, outdoor markets, zoos and drive-in cinemas all turning the lights back on. Retailers have continued to expand the number of open stores, the Premier League has agreed to resume its season and will do so in less than a week’s time.. it has all been changing, fast.
But F1’s restart plans had to appear convincing and watertight to multiple governments and stakeholders at the time of their announcement a little over a week ago. Restrictions on the numbers of personnel, access at the venue and a ban on fans were all outlined because it fit the situation at that time. But as NASCAR is showing, that situation will evolve.
There will be some fans and guests at NASCAR races some two weeks before F1 even gets going again. And while it’s true that different territories have different restrictions, F1 is actually heading to venues that are in very good shape.
Austria has just 400 active cases of COVID-19 in a population of nine million. Hungary has 1,000 active cases in a very similar number. One local journalist in the latter country told me that the situation is now “back to absolutely normal — we even have fans at the football games.”
Combined, the two countries have a COVID-19 death toll of just over 1200 – or, between 50 and 75 per million of their respective populations. The UK currently registers over 41,000 deaths, or more than 600 per million.
F1’s protocols need to be spot-on in order to facilitate travel between different countries at this time, but they also need to be sympathetic to the individual situations in each territory and not tar them all with the UK’s brush. If Austrian officials say greater numbers and even fans can attend, then they should be allowed to. The same applies to Hungary. Just because Silverstone has to be behind closed doors, doesn’t mean every event has to be.
But much like F1 was able to see how NASCAR, the Bundesliga and other sporting organizations went about their business of restarting their events, the sport is now closely watching how those that are far more advanced with their returns to action are evolving and adapting as the global situation changes.
There’s a feeling of the calm before the storm when it comes to F1’s season, with teams now back in their factories and carrying out familiar work – admittedly in unfamiliar ways – as they prepare to put their cars back on track. But the sport is never truly calm even in the midst of a normal season, and there will be massive amounts of work still going on in the background.
I’ve written before about how the opening races will be used as a blueprint to show other promoters (and other European racing series) how the events can be executed safely. In this climate, a step-by-step approach is required, so the further up the steps you can start from, the quicker you can reach something resembling a more normal grand prix. That’s crucial for F1, because a more normal grand prix is where it is going to make its money.
I thought NASCAR was simply going to be a welcome distraction from lockdown, and something that would satisfy my appetite for racing. Instead, it has become a significant example for F1 to look to.