NASCAR Sets Return to Live Racing for Mid-May

NASCAR Cup Series FanShield 500 - Getty-H 2020
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NASCAR is revving up to return to live racing.

The stock car circuit on Thursday announced a plan to resume races on May 17, making it one of the first major sports organizations to go back into action since the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down live sports in mid-March. NASCAR's Cup Series last raced on March 8.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship also has bouts planned for May 9, 13 and 16 in Jacksonville, Florida. 

The organization plans to run seven races in its topline Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Gander Trucks classifications over 10 days, beginning with a 400-mile Cup race on May 17. All seven will be run on tracks in Darlington, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina, which are about 100 miles apart and also in relatively close proximity to a number of race shops where teams can work on cars before bringing them to the track.

Fans will not be allowed at races, but they will be televised by Fox Sports, with two — the May 17 race at Darlington and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 in Charlotte — on the Fox broadcast network and the remaining five, including a midweek Cup Series race on May 20 at Darlington, on FS1.

"NASCAR and its teams are eager and excited to return to racing, and have great respect for the responsibility that comes with a return to competition," NASCAR executive vp and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said in a statement. "NASCAR will return in an environment that will ensure the safety of our competitors, officials and all those in the local community. We thank local, state and federal officials and medical experts, as well as everyone in the industry, for the unprecedented support in our return to racing, and we look forward to joining our passionate fans in watching cars return to the track."

Just what the Fox Sports broadcasts will look like — and how many crewmembers will be dispatched to cover the races — remains to be seen. A Fox Sports rep tells The Hollywood Reporter that logistics are still being worked out.

"We are excited to welcome back the Fox NASCAR season to our airwaves to provide a return to live sports, a move toward normalcy and a much-needed distraction during these unprecedented times," said Mark Silverman, president national networks at Fox Sports. "While we are thrilled to return to the race track, the health and safety of our employees and all race participants is our top priority. We will continue working in lockstep with our partners at NASCAR and the race tracks to follow all national and local health guidelines."

NASCAR also said it has a "comprehensive plan" to ensure the safety and health of competitors and the communities around the tracks and that races will be tailored "in every way" to follow specific guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the pandemic.

None of the seven races will have practice sessions, and only the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 will have a qualifying round. The organization is also mandating the use of protective equipment for all participants, giving health screenings to everyone before they enter the facility and maintaining social distancing protocols throughout events. How that will work, say, during a pit stop mid-race remains to be seen.

Since the shutdown, Fox Sports has televised several virtual races, with Cup Series drivers competing in the iRacing simulation. They have drawn decent-sized audiences, averaging more than a million viewers on a couple of occasions. 

If the recent ratings returns for other sports-related content are any indication, NASCAR and Fox Sports may find a very receptive audience for live competition. Last week's NFL Draft on ESPN, ABC and NFL Network set all-time records for the event, and ESPN's Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance is averaging 6 million same-day viewers over its first four episodes.