The question of the day for sports fans might have been: “What if they held a NASCAR Cup Series race, and nobody came?”
That would have been a reasonable inquiry during the COVID-19 pandemic that has seen businesses closed, a population in lockdown, the NBA schedule canceled, no Major League Baseball spring training nor any immediate plans for NFL to return in the fall.
So, what if a NASCAR Cup Series race were held? How would that shake out? Aren’t NASCAR races typified by thousands of drivers, crew chiefs and crew along pit road and the garage areas; an infield packed with sponsor hospitality areas and tailgate parties; and grandstands filled with 100,000 or more loud, enthusiastic fans?
Wouldn’t all those people — from the Grand Marshal to the concessionaires to the pit crew guy whose sole responsibility is to tighten the lug nuts on the left front tire of his team’s car — be exposing themselves to the virus?
Those are just a few of the questions the planners at NASCAR HQ in Charlotte had to wrestle with as they scrambled to save their racing season – and possibly their iconic American organization – in the face of a modern plague that had already infected a million and a half people and killed more than 90,000 in the U.S. alone.
But on Sunday, May 17, at Darlington Raceway here in South Carolina, also known as “The Track They Couldn’t Tame,” NASCAR gave it their best shot.
Darlington Raceway is the oldest track on the Cup circuit, and some say the most challenging, with its unusual egg shape, asphalt surface and 23- and 25-degree banked turns that draw drivers into racing against the wall.
On May 17, it was also historic: hosting the first major sports event under social distancing conditions with no qualifying or practice laps, no skeleton crews in the pits and not a spectator in sight, except for a handful of hardy souls who set up portable TVs and barbecue grills in the parking lot “just to hear the engine noise”, as one man put it.
To get inside the track itself, everyone, from the most famous driver to the least known mechanic, was temperature checked. Once in, face masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing were required.
This race would bear a special name as well — the “Real Heroes 400,” honoring all the medical and health care professionals who put their lives on the line caring for COVID-19 patients. On each car, the name of the driver was taped over with the name of one of the “real heroes.”
After remote welcoming remarks by Governor Henry McMaster and NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France, who remained in Charlotte, the proceedings were underway.
Charleston’s own Darius Rucker got the festivities off to a patriotic start with a stirring rendition of the national anthem. Retired NASCAR great Jeff Gordon and the Fox Sports broadcast team – also 100 miles away in Charlotte — were poised at their microphones. The drivers in their Fords, Chevrolets and Toyotas were in their starting grid. And the green flag dropped, also remotely.
Home viewers might have reflexively turned up the volume on their sets as pole-sitter Brad Keselowski and 39 other drivers stomped on their accelerators. But with no capacity crowd on hand to rise to their feet and cheer the clean start, the silence was deafening. Only the whine of the engines at speed was evidence that a NASCAR race had actually begun.
If that nonexistent crowd was looking for a crash — one of the hallmarks of NASCAR racing — they wouldn’t have had to wait long. On the first lap, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. nicked another car and spun into the infield wall on the back straight away. He was uninjured but out of the race.
Keselowski held onto his lead until challenged by Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson, dropping him to third. Moments later, on the final lap of the stage, popular veteran champion Johnson crashed after making contact with Chris Buescher, then a lap down from the leader. That was it for Johnson the rest of the afternoon. The caution once again came out, and driver William Bowman inherited the stage win.
In Stage Two, Kevin Harvick moved out to an early lead he seemed destined to hold onto. On Lap 109, challenger William Byron lost control and junked his car on the outside wall, bringing out the yellow flag again.
A few laps later, one of the weirdest cautions ever emerged when an adhesive advertising banner was ripped from the outside wall onto the hood of Denny Hamlin’s car, shredding and then affecting several other vehicles. Track maintenance personnel rushed to clear the mess.
After another minor crash, this one involving Christopher Bell, Harvick suffered a slow pit stop, emerging in eighth place. Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. dueled for the lead, with Keselowski taking the checkered flag for the stage.
In the third and final stanza, Kevin Harvick quickly captured the lead and held it for the rest of the race — despite an early brush with the outside wall — to claim the title in the “Real Heroes 400.”
The win marked Harvick’s 50th Cup Series victory. He screamed in celebration as he crossed the finish line and gave the empty grandstands a treat with a smokey burnout.
Then, he stepped out of his #4 Ford, looked around and observed, in his words, “dead silence.”
“It’s weird just because there’s nobody up there,” he mused.
Ryan Newman finished 15th, but just being in the field was a victory for him — a return to racing after suffering head injuries in a horrific accident during the Daytona 500 in February.
“As I watched the crash, I had to make myself believe what I went through,” he said.
Evidently, there were quite a few believers out there in sports TV land. The race racked up Daytona-like viewership with a 3.71 household rating, which translates to roughly 6.32 million pairs of eyeballs focused on the “Real Heroes 400.”
Martin Truex, Jr. came in sixth overall. In a way, it’s a shame that he didn’t win. That would have been some poetic irony to end the day’s racing. After all, on a day dedicated to all the first responders for the coronavirus pandemic, the Toyota he was driving bore the most talked about numeral of the era: 19.
By Bill Farley