NASCAR will still race at Dover this week, just virtually

Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports, puts his face mask down for a moment at Dover International Speedway on Monday morning. Dover was supposed to host a tripleheader of NASCAR racing this weekend but it has been postponed due to concerns with the coronavirus (COVID-19). (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

DOVER — What a difference a year has made for Dover International Speedway.

Just 365 days ago, the race track with the catchy nickname the “Monster Mile” was preparing for a year-long 50th anniversary celebration of its high-banked, one-mile speedway — which held its first race on July 6, 1969 — and its relationship with NASCAR and its loyal fans.

Well, like it has done to so many other events in the first half of 2020, COVID-19 has impacted the start of Dover’s next half-century as its spring race, which was scheduled to take place Sunday, was postponed, along with other NASCAR Cup Series races at Atlanta, Homestead, Texas, Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Martinsville since the virus began spreading in March.

“This is the antithesis of what we had last year when we had so much excitement and celebration — celebrating 50 years — to actually having an entire race weekend postponed, and now have to wait until August,” said Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports. “It’s certainly disappointing for us and obviously disappointing for our fans, but given the circumstances that we’re faced with it, is obviously the right decision.

“We’ll work through this and, hopefully, put on a great show in August.

NASCAR officials have said time and again that the organization remains committed to running a full 36-race schedule.

Unfortunately for Dover and its fans, the only racing that will be taking place at the Monster Mile this weekend will come virtually, as many Cup Series drivers competing in the NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series will be sitting behind their computer monitors inside their homes, taking on a virtual monster — while the real race track will remain idle in the middle of a pandemic, void of race fans.

The NASCAR iRacing event at Dover could provide some solace for many of NASCAR’s followers. Though the length has yet to be determined, the green flag is scheduled to wave at 1 p.m. on the virtual race, which will be broadcast live on Fox and Fox Sports 1.

Watch the race online at enascar.com

“It’s a little weird with the property as empty as it is and not seeing our fans right here,” said Doug Yorke, director of marketing for Dover International Speedway, on Monday. “You don’t see the normal race fan signage around Dover that you normally see promoting the atmosphere that we usually get here.

“But we are working with our partners at iRacing, Fox and NASCAR to get the virtual Dover International Speedway set up and to make the virtual facility as modern looking as it can be, with all our current track partners from Drydene to Xfinity to Busch on the walls, on the track, on the restart zone, and really make it look like the race that would have been run here had we not had the postponement this weekend.”

Fighting through pandemic

Mr. Tatoian said this is a difficult time for Dover Motorsports since it had this weekend’s NASCAR tripleheader weekend postponed and June’s Firefly Music Festival canceled.

“Our world at Dover Motorsports primarily relies on two separate race weekends and, obviously, we host Firefly Music Festival, which has been canceled,” he said. “Obviously, we won’t be getting income from tickets, merchandise, parking, camping — those dollars are critical to our business, but given the circumstances like all the other businesses in the world, we’re going to do the best that we can.

“We’ve built budgets for whether we have fans (in attendance at NASCAR races in August) or without any fans … either way, we’ll get through this and build a bridge to get to 2021 in a good position. Right now, we’re just trying to build that bridge.”

While there is no definite make-up date for this weekend’s NASCAR races at Dover yet, all signs appear to be pointing to a doubleheader when the NASCAR Cup Series comes to Dover for its next scheduled race weekend Aug. 21-23. It has been speculated that NASCAR will try to squeeze two Cup Series races into one busy August weekend at the Monster Mile.

Mr. Tatoian said the current scenario of a world without professional sports reminds him of the weeks following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – when Dover International Speedway hosted the largest sporting event in the nation in the aftermath of the tragedy. He said sports can help the nation move forward — but only if it’s safe.”

“There are a lot of contingency plans that are in place, for all of the venues and all of the tracks,” Mr. Tatoian said. “They are talking about doubleheaders, going longer into the season — at this point I think everything is on the table.

“Our preference always is to have two single race weekends, but given the circumstances, one option would be running under the lights, which we don’t have, so really it comes down to two options — one, running a doubleheader (in August), or scheduling two separate race weekends. Our preference always would be to run two separate race weekends but given the circumstances if we have to run a doubleheader, then we’re going to do that.”

Back to racing — virtual-style

One thing is for certain, there will be many different drivers trying to win a virtual “Monster Trophy” this Sunday.

Denny Hamlin captured the first iRacing event at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway, while Timmy Hill (Texas), William Byron (Bristol, Richmond) and Alex Bowman (Talladega) have also risen to the top of the computer-racing world. They have put notable NASCAR names such as Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and others, on the backburner for the time being.

The series of exhibition races began Sunday, March 22, with the race at virtual Homestead. The event drew nearly a million viewers (903,000), drawing the highest rated e-sports TV program in history and putting it on the map.

Mr. Yorke said there has been a lot of work accomplished in making the upcoming iRacing event at Dover as close to the real thing as possible. It is remarkable how realistic the iRacing events look on TV. However, there is the void of the full rumbling sound and the smells of fuel and burning tires that fans get to experience when watching live from the track.

A lot more goes into creating the racing experience than might meet the eye.

“iRacing is a company based out of Boston that comes down to Dover and each track on the NASCAR circuit and tracks throughout the world and they really scan the whole facility,” he said. “They get every little bump, every little dip, every piece of concrete throughout this facility and they digitize it. On the iRacing surface you feel all that. You’re really driving the race digitally like you would be driving in real life.

“But unlike an EA (Electronic Arts) or a Madden (football game) or NBA (game), you’ve got the 40 guys in the field who are all driving their own unique race cars. There’s no (artificial intelligence) going on, there’s no computer competition out there – it’s the NASCAR Cup Series drivers driving their cars against each other digitally, just like they would in real life.”

Gary Camp, assistant vice president for marketing and communications for Dover International Speedway, said while the drivers will be racing on a virtual Dover racetrack this Sunday, the track will be busy providing online access to the speedway property for fans via its website and social media platforms.

He is planning on giving them inside access to things they probably have never seen before, such as the inside of the Monster Mile monument and other neat little features at the speedway.

Mr. Camp has worked at the speedway for 16 years and he said he cannot remember another race week like this one.

“It’s a crazy feeling to be preparing for race weekend and no one’s here,” said Mr. Camp. “We were in the offices (Monday) and there were like two people processing paychecks and doing things. This is our livelihood. This is what we prepare for all year-round, so for them to be postponed or altered or changed or delayed, it’s just a surreal moment in our lives that will hopefully never happen again.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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