For the first time in 10 weeks, NASCAR fans will be able to hear those iconic four words: “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
All eyes will be on Darlington, S.C., on Sunday as NASCAR becomes the most significant American league to resume competition since March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced all major sports leagues to hit the pause button. While both NASCAR and Fox have tried to keep things as normal as possible, viewers will notice a number of changes beyond the empty stands ringing the racetrack, which will remain fanless for all NASCAR races through at least June 21.
For starters, both qualifying and practice have been canceled to limit the need for backup cars and additional staff, creating what some have called a “hold my beer” moment for drivers heading into the first turn.
The race will also pause for a competition caution on Lap 30, where the top 20 cars will be allowed to pit, followed by the remainder of the field on the next lap. NASCAR will then reorder the cars in their original position, so long as no one lost a lap on pit road.
The changes also extend to Fox’s broadcast, which will feature announcers Jeff Gordon and Mike Joy calling the race remotely from the network’s studios in Charlotte, N.C., the same set-up they used to call Fox’s NASCAR’s iRacing events. Joy said because NASCAR is among the first leagues to return to competition, he expects the audience to be larger and made up of viewers who don’t follow the season week-to-week.
“I think it’ll be more like our Daytona 500 telecasts, where we’re talking to maybe a once-a-year racing audience, a more general audience,” Joy told the Inquirer. “So that means less jargon, less nicknames and being a little more explanatory than we would on a normal regular season telecast.”
Having no fans on site gives Fox some wiggle room to experiment with drone cameras, which will be positioned above the empty stands to offer viewers at home a glimpse of what the race looks like from the grandstands. Otherwise, Joy said viewers can expect a broadcast that looks and sounds like any other NASCAR race while acknowledging the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on racing.
“It’s a fine edge to walk. You don’t want this to be the COVID 500,” Joy said. “You can’t ignore it, but I don’t see a need to dwell on it. And especially not take away from the racing because of it.”
Here’s everything you need to know to watch and stream the return of NASCAR Sunday afternoon:
Fox’s coverage of The Real Heroes 400 begins at 3 p.m. with NASCAR Race Hub, hosted by Shannon Spake and Adam Alexander.
Gordon and Joy will call the race on Fox beginning at 3:30 p.m. They’ll be joined in studio by strategist and rules analyst Larry McReynolds, while Reagan Smith will report live from Darlington Raceway. Joy said Fox Sports has put a number of protocols in place to protect employees, including temperature checks and scattering producers and other broadcast personnel across three different locations — Darlington and Fox Sports’ studios in Charlotte and Los Angeles.
On top of that, the Spanish-language broadcast of the race will air on FOX Deportes, with announcers Tony Rivera and Jessi Losada calling all the action remotely from the network’s studios in Los Angeles.
“I think putting all that together and have it go smoothly may be our biggest challenge,” Joy said.
Darlington Raceway is a historic, 1.366-mile track that opened as NASCAR’s first superspeedway in 1950. Nicknamed “The Lady in Black” and “The Track Too Tough to Tame,” Sunday’s race is NASCAR’s 117th on the track, which features an oblong, egg-shaped layout and a wide arc through Turns 1 and 2.
The race will be 293 laps, totaling 400.2 miles. Stage 1 is set to end at Lap 90, Stage 2 at Lap 185, and the final stage at Lap 293.
NASCAR has added a number of regulations to protect racers, their crews, and other employees from COVID-19. Rosters are limited, face masks and social distancing are required (enforceable by hefty fines), and everyone entering and exiting the raceway will have their temperature checked.
But NASCAR isn’t planning on testing racers for coronavirus ahead of the race, citing a lack of tests and concerns over their accuracy. But that doesn’t seem to bother most drivers, who appear satisfied with NASCAR’s plan to trace and isolate employees if they end up testing positive for COVID-19.
“I think when you look at the guidelines of entry and exit and temperature checks during the week, and all the logs and things of where people are and who they have interaction with, I think we have done what we need to do from what fits our sport the best," 2014 Sprint Cup Series champ Kevin Harvick said during a conference call this week. "So it’s just a much different situation than other sports that actually have human-to-human contact and have to be in each other’s face.”