Fan friendly? Dover awaits word from Carney if fans can attend August races

NASCAR fans pack Dover International Speedway for last October’s race. Special to the Delaware State News/Chuck Snyder

DOVER — There will be an unprecedented six NASCAR events run over the span of three days at Dover International Speedway from Aug. 21-23, with 1,347 total combined laps being contested among four different racing series on the high-banked, one-mile oval racetrack.

Mike Tatoian, president and CEO of Dover International Speedway, said any way you slice it, that is exciting.

However, Mr. Tatoian said that what would make it a truly remarkable weekend of racing at Dover would be if Gov. John Carney, along with his public health advisers, give the approval to have fans witness a piece of NASCAR history from the grandstands during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have spoken with the governor’s office,” Mr. Tatoian said. “In order for us to get the approval to host the triple doubleheader, we had to submit an extraordinarily comprehensive plan to the governor, so that he could have his public health officials approve it. We submitted a plan that included just the racing only — no fans — but included in that plan was also (a scenario) to be able to host fans. We’re just waiting on approval of that plan from the governor’s office and, hopefully, we’ll hear something very soon.”

The grandstands that surround the Monster Mile have a capacity of 54,000 seats. Nobody expects Gov. Carney to allow unfettered access to the NASCAR races, but Mr. Tatoian believes the track can handle a limited crowd with social distancing, the use of face masks and hand sanitizer readily available.

“We’re not exactly sure what we’re going to be allowed, so we don’t want to make any assumptions,” he said. “If we have to maintain a 6-foot social distancing, it will be less than 54,000 people that we have capacity for. So, really, it is how will we be able to accommodate whatever the governor will allow us in an appropriate manner? It really is now up to the governor and his public health officials to feel comfortable.

“We feel comfortable we can execute it if we’re allowed to, and this is what we’re all about — we’re all about hosting these races for our fans, and we’re looking forward to hopefully getting an approval from (Gov. Carney) soon.”

Mr. Tatoian added: “Jim Hosfelt, our director of public safety and track operations, has been in close contact with NASCAR and the public health officials, along with experts that we are using, to make sure that we adhere to all the standards that are necessary to make sure, first and foremost, to keep the competitors and all the team members and officials safe inside the track. If we’re allowed fans, of course, to be able to do the same for our fans at the track.”

With or without fans, it will already be a busy, historic weekend of racing at Dover.

One hectic race weekend

Officials from the speedway announced on Wednesday that the Monster Mile will host an unprecedented three NASCAR doubleheaders at the track from Aug. 21-23, hosting a pair of NASCAR Cup Series events, two Xfinity Series races and a Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series event, along with an ARCA Menards Series race over the course of three days.

It promises to be a stark contrast from the silence at the track in May — when all its scheduled races were postponed because of COVID-19 — as the racetrack will be fully stocked with auto-racing action the entire weekend.

The Drydene 311 NASCAR Cup Series race will remain on its original Aug. 23 date (4 p.m., NBCSN), while the rescheduled May 3 Cup Series race, also 311 miles long, now moves to Aug. 22 (4 p.m., NBCSN). Each Cup Series race day will also include a 200-mile NASCAR Xfinity Series event, including the postponed race from May 2. The Saturday Xfinity race will start at 12:30 p.m. (NBCSN), while the Sunday event will begin at 1 p.m. (NBCSN).

The new date for May’s postponed NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race is Aug. 21 (5 p.m., FS1), and the General Tire 125 ARCA Menards Series East race will kick off the marathon weekend that afternoon at 2 p.m.

NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson signs autographs for fans before last October’s race at Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Mr. Tatoian said it was NASCAR that came up with the 311-mile Cup Series race distances for Dover. That distance is the equivalent of just more than 500 kilometers, which is a nice round number for the racing industry.

The hectic race weekend at Dover is not going to be an easy challenge to pull off, with or without fans. Just one simple variable, such as a rainstorm, could throw the schedule into chaos.

“It may be the first time in the history of NASCAR that the industry will run six races in three days,” said Mr. Tatoian. “So, that alone is a logistical challenge, but given the circumstances that we’re going to have to operate under makes it even more complex to be able to execute a weekend like that.

“The good news is we’ve had tremendous cooperation from NASCAR, from public health officials. … Our staff is great from the standpoint of being able to execute this, but it will be a lot of logistics. Right now, it’s a triple doubleheader, so there will be a lot of people coming in and out, a lot of (car) haulers going in and out.”

NASCAR set the bar for sports return

NASCAR returned to racing in May after a 70-day shutdown that began in mid-March due to the coronavirus.

It was the first major sport in the country to return to action during the pandemic, when it held a Cup Series race — without fans — at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina on May 17.

Since then, NASCAR has crammed in Wednesday night races, doubleheaders and anything else it can possibly do to ensure it completes the 36-race season it had planned before COVID-19 struck. Since returning, there have been races without fans and a couple with a limited number of spectators in the audience.

Other sports, such as Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League, are all looking at the protocols NASCAR has used in their plans in their hopes of returning to action by the end of July.

“I think some of us have talked to the NBA, certainly with Indycar (and) World of Outlaws from a racing standpoint,” said Steve O’Donnell, vice president of NASCAR. “(We) talked about how we would do things with the PGA Tour. A lot of folks just talking about what the best practices could be.

“I think everybody was really looking forward to seeing how this works. Anything we can share with other leagues, we want to do that. We certainly wanted to get out and try and showcase our sport early. But it’s in our best interests for all sports to be out there.”

Mr. Tatoian said it was NASCAR that has set the benchmark with how to deal with COVID-19 from a sports industry perspective.

“I think we’re all extraordinarily proud with how NASCAR’s been able to navigate through (the COVID-19 pandemic),” he said. “The benefit I think we’re going to get on our race weekend is now, they will have gone through this 10 or 11 or 12 times. It started off with an extraordinarily high benchmark of event protocols and procedures, and it continues to get better and better.

“We’ve been able to learn a lot, and (NASCAR) has been able to learn a lot to create a lot of efficiencies. So, by the time we get to our race weekend, so much of this will have already been executed really well, so we get the benefit of everybody that went before us.”

Mr. Tatoian is confident that Dover is primed and ready to host an unbelievable race weekend — one in which he would love to have at least some fans enter the grandstands and enjoy the view and experience the sounds and smells of race day. That, he said, would make for the perfect scenario.

“I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing fans,” he said. “That’s what I really hope happens. As always, there will certainly be a lot of excitement on the track over those three days. This is going to be like an all-you-can-eat buffet all weekend with as many cars that are going to be on the track, so it will be great.

“Our races are going to be exciting enough themselves, but what I’m really looking forward to is to open those gates and see the fans coming into the facility. That’s what I’m hoping happens.”