Coronavirus has changed the way sports operates, thinks

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NASCAR fans hold onto their memories like nobody else in sports. We embrace the way it used to be. We’re quick to criticize progress because it moves us one step away from the past. We don’t like change.

But change was required as the world continues to deal with COVID-19. And that includes NASCAR.

The sport was the first to formulate and implement a game plan of all major sports to get back on the track. It meant shop workers couldn’t be in the same building with pit crews. Drivers were prohibited from working directly with anyone on the team, including the crew chief.

The plan worked. While everyone misses having filled grandstands, racing with empty seats is better than no racing at all.

NASCAR is fortunate in that its television product isn’t dependent on fans. The sound of 40 600-horsepower engines at full song is far more ear-shattering and entertaining than 90,000 fans doing the wave.

Like everyone, the pandemic has forced NASCAR to make significant changes to the way it does business. It’s fun – and important – to remember the “old days” and how stock-car racing expanded from the little tracks in the Southeast to the national stage should never be forgotten. At the same time, the coronavirus has forced a different method of operation that’s likely to last long after the last case of COVID-19 is finally cured.

Once the cars got back on the track on May 17, NASCAR canceled practice and qualifying. Team engineers now do their work virtually. Television announcers work from studios in Charlotte, not at the racetrack. Internet and newspaper reporters work from home. Nobody’s noticed the difference.

The schedule was revamped to include several Cup Series doubleheaders, including a Saturday-Sunday double-dip at the Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 8-9 and a two-for-one weekend Aug. 22-23 at the Dover International Speedway.

Since several races were scrubbed early in the season, the coronavirus gave NASCAR the opportunity to experiment with stock cars on its 3.54-mile road course on Aug. 16. Cars will return on the 2.5-mile tri-oval 13 days later.

By dropping races in Watkins Glen, New York, and Sonoma, California, NASCAR rebuilt its schedule closer to the team’s bases of operations in North Carolina. Less travel means teams aren’t spending as much money. At a time when Leavine Family Racing is considering putting their assets on the market and car owner Rick Hendrick is contemplating dropping to three teams next year, the sport needs a lot more unspent dollars if it wants to survive.

The sanctioning body also has tinkered with the schedule to include some mid-week races to gauge interest. So far, most, especially those in the Eastern Time Zone, prefer sleep over late finishes. When nearly half the country lives in the Eastern Time Zone, it’s not easy staying up late and punching in at work the next morning. The race at Kansas, for example, was the least-watched race on any network since 2001.

The idea to run mid-week races has been kicked around for years. At least, now we know.

The bottom line from most of the changes is exactly that – the bottom line. Everyone needs to be smarter with their budgets if racing is going to sustain the economic devastation created by the virus.

Despite the changes, the racing hasn’t suffered. In fact, it’s many believe it’s never been better.

There have been 10 different winners in the first 19 races. Moreover, there were 18 cars on the lead lap last week at the Kansas Speedway. Despite a couple of mid-race crashes, there were 30 cars running at the checkered flag.

“Yeah, I think NASCAR has done a great job with trying different things. No practice. Showing up and racing. It shows that we don’t need all the practice and the full three days that we used to always get,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said. “And NASCAR has been kind of shrinking that anyway. But now, I think it shows that we’re capable of doing it without it. I think some of us would still like a little bit of practice and qualifying, but nothing that you couldn’t do in the same day. And then also the back-to-back races, the Wednesday race, as long as the fans keep tuning in, obviously they can’t show up like we would want them to or be able to, but if they keep tuning in, who knows what it will hold for our schedules in years to come.”

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