Editor’s note — This is the first in a two-part series on NASCAR grappling with its season restart during the COVID-19 pandemic. Friday’s entry will profile Steve O’Donnell, who spearheaded much of the response.
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season could have ended after 2021 began.
When trying to digest all the logistical heavy lifting, 18-dimensional game-planning and nonstop spit-balling about fresh concepts and ideas once seen as antithetical to decades of doing business in racing, the best place to start probably is with the ultimate scheduling doomsday scenario.
In the most far-reaching hypothetical cooked up by NASCAR officials trying to anticipate every circumstance with scads of schedule drafts, Version 40 had an eye-popping remedy for if the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had caused a seven-month shutdown.
The season would have restarted Oct. 25 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, followed by a stretch of 30 races in 64 days that would wrap with three consecutive races at Phoenix Raceway … on Jan. 1-3 of next year.
THE LONGEST YEAR: How NASCAR’s craziest schedule would have gone
There was diligence to determine if it even were possible. Broadcast and sanction agreements were scrutinized, track and travel schedules were checked, and then it was presented (along with myriad other possible schedules, many also ending on Jan. 3) to the NASCAR board of directors — as viable.
“If we get beyond that, we don’t have an answer right now,” NASCAR senior executive vice president Steve O’Donnell, described by many as “the force of nature” who oversaw the restart, told NBC Sports about how the board was briefed. “That’s the last option, and then we’re done.”
The worst-case scenario never came close to realization, and while it might not have been anywhere near the best-case scenario of the two-week layoff in Version 1 of a revamped schedule, the actual reality of 2020 has been quite manageable for NASCAR.
Halfway through its 10-race title run entering Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, NASCAR already has been back on its original 2020 schedule for five weeks (since the playoff opener at Darlington Raceway) and is five weeks from completing a season that many thought impossible during the depths of the spring lockdown in which it seemed bleak that racing would return. Through more than a dozen interviews with officials, executives and drivers, NBC Sports has assembled a behind-the-scenes account of how NASCAR managed to get back on track, figuratively and literally.
“This whole year has been wild and crazy, and I give NASCAR and Steve a lot of credit because there were times I was thinking, ‘Man, I don’t see how we’re going to pull this off,’ ” Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who has the vantage point of two major NASCAR constituencies as Fox Sports broadcaster and Hendrick Motorsports braintrust emeritus, told NBC Sports. “They were very confident that, ‘Hey, we’re going to get back racing. We’re going to do it in a safe way.’
“While some of us were just trying to absorb everything happening in the world, they were very aggressively putting a plan in place with a lot of communication and interaction, knowing how important it was to get back to the track.”
Beyond rejiggering the overhauled Cup schedule through countless permutations — including and weighing endless contingencies that included a Phoenix Raceway bubble or 11 consecutive weekends of double-, triple- and quadrupleheaders — NASCAR also took dramatic steps toward refocusing its future through a much leaner lens.
With O’Donnell spearheading a workgroup of more than five dozen industry members, nearly 300 concepts aimed at maximizing cost and logistical efficiency with cars, engines and personnel (often by slaughtering some sacred cows of its race weekends) were heavily discussed and vetted.
Many of those changes already have been implemented this season and will continue into the recently announced 2021 schedule (which will feature the same drastically shorter race weekends that greatly have reduced expenses and workload from backup cars and travel) as NASCAR attempts to reshape its racetrack protocols and rosters in moves driven by both the pandemic and the ramifications of its economic fallout.
“It’s probably easier to wrap your head around it now,” NASCAR president Steve Phelps, who spent much of the spring on calls with governors, told NBC Sports. “In the moment, we just did what we needed to do to get all these races in and show the country and world what we can do. I think we’ve proved as a sport that we can do things that we didn’t think we could do.
“If I’m completely honest, you’re always looking for another shoe to drop, and I was more concerned about things outside your control. Once we got into a cadence with local and state health officials and governors, I was less concerned. But it was a heavy lift for this industry, and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
There is room to challenge some of the methods in which NASCAR got here. Though a comprehensive and rigorously detailed 30-page protocol handbook (overseen by racing operations VP John Bobo) has been adhered to since its May 17 return at Darlington Raceway, there has been no mandatory COVID-19 testing of the nearly 1,000 team members who have been in the Cup garage weekly (a contrast to Formula One, which conducts thousands of tests every race weekend).
Cup drivers Jimmie Johnson and Austin Dillon have tested positive, and teams were warned about a lack of vigilance in donning mandatory masks.
But there has been none of the feared outbreaks that have affected several other professional sports and caused schedule disruptions (NASCAR is advantaged because its athletes compete without close physical contact). And there also has been a unified front without the dissension that has marred other sports’ returns.
“We were the one sport where I don’t think I’ve seen one driver, one team owner, one OEM (manufacturer) go public and say, ‘I don’t believe in this plan,’ ” O’Donnell said. “They were on board going in, and though it took a lot of work, that gave us the confidence to do it.”
While O’Donnell expected that “at a minimum, we’d have to move a couple of more races,” NASCAR’s season also has unfolded relatively smoothly without any last-minute cancellations and with a smattering of fans at many tracks – all of which has gained notice.
Among the leagues and teams that have inquired about NASCAR’s practices (some of which have been applied elsewhere): officials and executives from the Southeastern Conference, Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA and Mexico’s Liga MX premier soccer division.
That was the appreciable benefit of becoming the first major team sport on center stage barely two months after the pandemic shuttered the country.
“It could have been like herding cats,” Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson told NBC Sports. “It really was a massive undertaking, and they didn’t leave any stakeholders out and gave everybody a sense of inclusion and the feeling that your voice, your opinions mattered. The OEMs, teams, TV networks, track owners rallied around this like I’ve never seen and agreed to all these rigorous requirements and compromises without a lot of hand-wringing.
“It’s hard to suggest there’s been a more successful pro sports launch than NASCAR.”
“They put teams in position to operate safely, within reasonable bounds of workload and with efficiency from a budgetary standpoint,” Team Penske director of competition Travis Geisler told NBC Sports. “I don’t think the racing has taken a hit; in some instances, it’s maybe been better. And our playoffs are happening on schedule. There’s no other sport in the world that can say all of that.”
But the urgency was as much about survival as it was seizing the moment.
Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark described the stakes as make or break for teams whose sponsorship lifeblood is dependent upon competing at the track. “For a lot of teams, it could have been catastrophic if we weren’t able to run the full season in a safe manner,” Newmark told NBC Sports. “A lot of teams would have been in really dire straits if we weren’t able to accomplish what they did.
“It was a pretty incredible process for a sport that has not been as consolidated as other sports just by our structure. We have a lot more stakeholders not necessarily unified by ownership of a league or a players association. It was impressive what NASCAR was able to do taking in all that information and not be paralyzed by it. It probably felt overwhelming, and they could have said, ‘Hey this is a crisis, we’re the league, and this involves safety and is time-sensitive, so you need to step in line.’
“But that’s not what they did.”
The planning for NASCAR’s restart started on two parallel lines.
From March 12, the day before races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway went on hold, O’Donnell met multiple times daily with NASCAR officials Ben Baker, Scott Miller and Ben Kennedy, who used a shared drive to create hundreds of schedule contingencies (each version could have anywhere from three to three dozen offshoots).
O’Donnell also convened a massive conference call of 65 representatives from teams, manufacturers and TV networks with a simple message: The floor is open.
“Steve challenged everyone to send in four to five things that we can to make our sport better and to come back racing,” 2018 Cup series champion Joey Logano, the lone driver on the call, told NBC Sports. “He literally just took everyone’s list and copy and pasted it into a master list.”
When all of the ideas were compiled, NASCAR had 287 suggestions to sift through that were split into three major categories – Technical (engines, cars, gear ratios, rules, NextGen car), Sporting (rosters, race lengths/formats, pit stops, inspection), Operational (garage access, budget caps, aviation/travel).
“A lot of those things were stuff we might have looked at before and said, ‘we can’t do that; hell will freeze over first,’ ” O’Donnell said. “Well, hell may be freezing over, so let’s look at this.”
After the call, workgroups were created that intentionally mixed skillsets (e.g., pairing drivetrain specialists or tire experts with marketing wonks and racetrack specialists) and had a mix of large and smaller team representatives to ensure balanced analysis.
Nothing was deemed too arcane or pedantic as minutiae (“dry cleaning could get tight with too many Wednesday-Sunday turnarounds” … “can OEMs buy hot passes?”) was met with as much vigor as ambitious big-ticket items such as limiting or standardizing engines, pit stop overhauls (including the allowance of “noncompeititve” stops, limiting choreography and adding air jacks), introducing team budget caps and stricter roster limits, eliminating manufacturer “war rooms” and investing in common aviation to charter bigger planes.
“They put us together in mixed bags from top to bottom, from higher ups to doer level,” Geisler said. “That’s what made it successful. They set the tone of there are absolutely no dumb ideas. We are vetting any opinion. We’ll respect each person’s perspective and ultimately try to come up with the best compromise.”
The larger conference call group continued to meet weekly to discuss the subgroups’ ideas, and there was enough familiarity.
“When we started that process, I was like, ‘Oh man, this has the potential to be a disaster just because of all the inputs they have to manage,’” Richard Childress Racing president Torrey Galida told NBC Sports. “We ended up with 15 different subgroups, and we were all working from home. I was meeting sometimes three times a day as we collected ideas and worked through their feasibility. We’ve all been on those calls that turn into clusters just because you’ve got too many people trying to talk, and Steve and his team did a great job of driving that forward and keeping everyone on track.”
One of the most impactful moves – essentially eradicating practice and qualifying – grew out of those discussions, along with another technical decision such as tabling NextGen.
“There was a lot on the table that we all had to kind of figure out,” Logano said. “When you first hear no practice or qualifying, how do you start the field when you can’t just put the fastest car at the front. Trying to find ways to be fair and keep the integrity but also put on a good show.”
Other questions were harder to answer.
“The biggest was, ‘What happens if?’” Logano said. “If one of the drivers gets COVID, if one of the team members gets COVID. Is it just whoever survives wins the championship? A lot of those could not be answered.”
Things got just as sticky with scheduling. Within the first two weeks of the shutdown, NASCAR already had grinded through 40 versions of the schedule as Kennedy (who worked at home from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. daily the first month) moved to a massive Excel spreadsheet to handle all of NASCAR’s national series and delays ranging from eight to 31 weeks.
About a quarter of the 85 schedules would be fully vetted throughout the industry. “Some didn’t make it to our broadcast partners or tracks,” Kennedy told NBC Sports. “Our goal was to get all our races in, so we wanted to be thinking of hypothetical scenarios with midweek races and doubleheaders. There was a lot of tossing fire to the wind and seeing what comes out.”
There were some interesting quirks in the Jenga-like puzzle to slot in all the races. Because NASCAR wanted to maintain its final 10-race playoff integrity, the crowded sports landscape in the final four months created a tipping point when midweek races and doubleheaders became untenable.
If the pandemic layoff lasted 11 weeks or fewer, it would be viable to still determine the championship at Phoenix. But in any scenario with a delay longer than 12 weeks, the season finale could be no earlier than Dec. 13. If the delay went 17 to 19 weeks, the championship race would move past Christmas to Dec. 27.
Any season that began after a 20-week delay – meaning a restart in August or later – would take the 2020 season finale to Jan. 3, 2021.
NASCAR briefly considered using a bubble in Phoenix, but O’Donnell said the idea was scrubbed because it felt illegitimate to use one track to finish the season (unlike the NBA, which has standardized court lengths, or Supercross, which was able to run its final seven races at the same Salt Lake City, Utah, stadium while altering the layout nightly).
Teams were heavily involved with helping determine scheduling viability, both for travel logistics and the availability of parts and cars. Because of Florida’s permissive atmosphere for holding Cup races during the pandemic, the original restart plan was to start at Daytona International Speedway, using the track’s oval and road course.
But the construction of Sonoma cars hadn’t started before the pandemic shuttered shops for six weeks, leaving no time to turn around road-course cars for Daytona by the end of May. There also was a leeriness about air travel and potentially keeping team members overnight on the road, so NASCAR shifted to a “quasi-bubble” plan around making Charlotte and Darlington its home base for the first four races and two weeks of its return.
“The proximity of being able to travel quickly in and out and leave your stuff there without a problem,” O’Donnell said. “We were able to get some wind under our belt and learn.
In the 55th version of the schedule (which was dated April 24, six days before NASCAR released its restart plan), the Coca-Cola 600 was followed by a 400-mile race Memorial Day at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
O’Donnell said Geisler and other team executives raised concerns about its wisdom, referencing the July 5, 2015 race at Daytona that was delayed several hours by rain and ended with a massive wreck after 2 a.m. that left NASCAR more mindful about how competitor fatigue could be perceived.
“We’d gotten down the path a little bit, and car-wise, engine-wise and tires, we were OK with doing it,” Geisler said of running consecutive races at Charlotte. “But then it was, ‘Dude, the drivers probably can’t run 1,000 miles on back-to-back days.’ It came down to all the parts would hold up, but we couldn’t be sure the humans would.”
That sparked a trend toward backfilling gaps with more doubleheader race weekends with shorter lengths of 300 miles.
There were a few other hiccups. The Aug. 2 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway nearly was shifted to Bristol Motor Speedway after government haggling about quarantine exceptions for out of state visitors (a compromise was reached in which the NASCAR traveling party was prohibited from restaurants).
O’Donnell said avoiding any announced race dates changing was important in avoiding precedents in which states found it easier to deny NASCAR races.
“Because we had so many contingency plans, I’d be lying if I didn’t say we all thought there’d be a risk” in the restart, O’Donnell said. “But I felt our industry came together like I haven’t seen to put us in the best position to succeed. I thought the only thing that would derail us would be a state outbreak out of our control, and they shut us down vs. us doing it. I’ve been pleasantly surprised the states have been willing to work with us.
“That’s worked really well. It’s a testament to what John Bobo and the team did putting its protocols together. I had no question that the industry would wear masks and adhere to everything to get us through.”
Many said the groundwork for NASCAR’s restart can be traced to a whiteboard inside a Las Vegas hotel conference room in December 2016. Denny Hamlin, notably dressed in casual wear amidst a sea of suits and ties, sketched out the blueprint for stage racing.
It’s the most high-profile example of NASCAR’s paradigm shift under the charter system, which led to the creation of various councils and panels that engendered more brainstorming and teamwork on the league’s long-term direction.
“That was the first moment where you had all the stakeholders in the same room, and they essentially bought into change,” Hamlin told NBC Sports about his moment in Vegas. “It was going to be a dramatic change for our sport. So when they were talking about how can we restart this season, and the sacrifices it would take to make it happen, everyone realized for the greater good, there had to be winners and losers.
“Tracks were like, ‘OK, we’ll race with no fans and no practice; you’re just going to use our track for four hours and go home. That would be tough to normally swallow, but it’s either that or nothing. They were willing to make those changes, and since then, our sport has been more nimble and not so slow to make changes.”
Similar to the restart meetings, the Las Vegas meetings that produced stage racing started with a blank-slate solicitation of ideas that are evaluated through three criteria: Does it improve TV ratings? Does it improve attendance? Does it improve sponsorship?
“And if the fans see anything as a negative, unless it’s a huge cost-savings measure, then it’s gone,” O’Donnell said. “If the fans don’t care, then why aren’t we doing it? It became harder to justify when you limit it to just those categories and you have to answer to your peers. It can be hard to hear, but it’s a productive discussion.”
The restart discussions also became an accelerant for some ideas (namely compacted race weekends) that had been languishing since the stage racing meetings.
Geisler said the familiarity of having been in meetings with “the whole gamut of what everyone calls industry stakeholders” was helpful. “We all really benefited from the relationships and contacts we built,” he said. “On these calls, it wasn’t the first time any of us heard someone from a broadcast network talk, and we understand the perspective of what they wanted. Even though it’s not ideal, we were ready to set aside our personal agendas when (the pandemic hit), and that’s a learned behavior for racers. That is not natural. But they’d pushed us to do it over the years.”
In some cases, it’s brought them to an unexpectedly better place. Geisler hails the impact of eliminating backup cars as “much more significant than we gave it credit” in eliminating a drain on manpower and money from preparing twice the cars weekly.
It wouldn’t have been believed pre-pandemic as one of the 135 suggestions under the Sporting Category indicated with amusing and unintentional prescience.
“We can NOT have a policy of no backups,” an industry member wrote, “unless we are literally unloading cars and putting them on the grid to race.”
That now will happen for 28 race weekends in 2021. It’s the weekend schedules previously employed for decades that now seem improbable.
“Setting aside the Daytona 500, the thought of going to a racetrack and competing over the course of three days is ridiculous,” Wilson said. “You look back, and it’s ‘What the heck were we doing?’ It’s just not necessary, and there are other things we can do to draw fans into the racetrack besides them watching a practice.”
With Toyota Racing Development learning from the new one-day schedules that it can run engines for three consecutive races up to 1,400 miles (eliminating the need for constant coast-to-coast shuttling to its Costa Mesa, California, base), Wilson said TRD is trying to chip in with its own compromises as NASCAR mulls a next-generation engine.
Wilson said some of the proposals would have caused him “to walk out of the room if you ever suggested it. It’s accepting some significant limitations on our ability to develop this product. If you take the car, the one thing that has the most DNA of Toyota is the engine, and if you’re doing anything to compromise that, we generally have been prepared to lay across the railroad tracks.
“Today, we have a much more mature big-picture perspective, and it’s quite simply our sport is able to grow and sustain itself. Being able to attract new team ownership is more important than Toyota’s benefit out of having unlimited engine development. I’d like to say we would have gotten here eventually, but it wouldn’t have happened nearly the speed that it’s happening now. All of this really has accelerated the urgency, and that’s not bad because our sport will embrace more change faster than otherwise.”
For Galida, the RCR president, it was a moment like racing the Daytona road course sight unseen “that proved to everybody there are things that we can do that we hadn’t thought we could. That attitude has pervaded everything we’ve done since we went back racing. It was all borne of necessity, but people across the board are much more open to different ideas and ways of doing things.”
But it’s not quite an environment where everyone will get their way, either. That’s evident in some compromises and tradeoffs that are in between the lines of the 2021 schedule. Without being granted shorter weekend schedules, it would have been unlikely that teams would have acquiesced to Bristol Motor Speedway getting a dirt race.
The Team Owners Council also agreed to more iRacing events (another positive takeaway from the pandemic interruption) with star drivers and a Netflix-style documentary to help provide content to fill quieter Fridays for TV programming.
“Some might say we listen too much, but at the end of the day, we’re going to make the decision in the best interest of the sport,” said Phelps, the NASCAR president. “We’re not going to make decisions because Option A, because a group wants it. But we are going to tell you why we have chosen Option A. At one point, there was more of whatever happens behind the curtain was no one’s business but our own. We’ve tried to say, ‘OK, here’s what is happening, and we’re interested in what you have to say, but we’ll draw the curtain again to make the decision.
Gordon, who won his four championships during the reign of Bill France Jr., sees it as a better mix between NASCAR’s iron-fisted rule in the 20th century and a 21st-century commitment to collaboration that some felt got out of hand
“I feel like we’re getting back to the old NASCAR but with, ‘We’re going to take your ideas and thoughts, positive or negative, and make what we feel are the best decisions for the sport, even if you don’t like it,’” Gordon said. “They’ve got enough communication where they can say that now. I think that’s what happens with strong leadership.”