DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — This was a 400-mile drive unlike any other in modern day NASCAR.
The grandstands were completely empty. There wasn’t a single tailgate inside the track. Everyone wore face coverings — some with the team logos, others opting for plain disposable medical masks. It was nothing close to the corporate sponsorship, pomp and patriotic travelling circus that symbolises NASCAR.
But when the engines fired at Darlington Raceway following a 10-week layoff during the coronavirus pandemic, it turned into a regular old race.
Kevin Harvick beat Alex Bowman to win NASCAR’s first race back, a spectacle closely watched to see if the largest motorsports series in the United States (US) could successfully return to the track.
“I just want to thank everybody from NASCAR and all the teams for letting us do what we do,” Harvick said. “I didn’t think it was going to be that different, then we won and it’s dead silent out here. We miss the fans.”
It was a crucial gamble for NASCAR, which had to get back to the track to stave off financial ruin. With races on hold, no money was coming into the sport whatsoever and the NASCAR business model can not sustain the lack of revenue.
NASCAR developed a health plan approved by officials in both South Carolina and North Carolina and scheduled seven races over the next 11 days at two tracks. As other states began to open, the series tacked more races to fill the calendar with 20 events across seven Southern states between now and June 21. There will be no spectators at least through that date.
This first event was called the ‘The Real Heroes 400’ and dedicated to health care workers fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The names of health care workers across the country were substituted for the drivers’ name above the door on each of the 40 cars.
Harvick’s car honoured Dr Joshua Hughes, an emergency medicine physician in the Charlotte area.
“Josh is one of my really good friends, I spend a lot of time talking to him through this pandemic and really have heard how those doctors are affected with everything they have going on with their personal life and whether they’re sick, not sick, how they should treat people,” Harvick said.
“I’m just really honoured and really thankful for all of our front line workers, not only our doctors, but grocery stores, truck drivers, fire fighters, police departments — you name it.
“All of you front line workers are the reason that we’re here today and our country is actually still running.”