The NASCAR industry will move one step closer to normalcy next month when the infield reopens to select guests and members of the media on May 7-9 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina.
The garage area has been closed to only essential personnel since the sanctioning body returned to competition last May from the coronavirus shutdown. That has meant only drivers, crew members, officials and safety crews have been permitted into the infield bubble.
The details have not been officially unveiled by NASCAR, but guests will have access to the garage and pit road but will not yet be allowed to meet with drivers or cross over onto pit road. Drivers must remain in their motorhomes until the moments prior to opening ceremonies of each event.
These guests will primarily include team partners, who will be permitted into victory lane for socially distanced photographs or on top of the pit box, a common practice for sponsor guests prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.
NASCAR will require that any guest is fully vaccinated, and each team will be responsible for confirming that status. The sanctioning body may ask for a vaccination card at the health screening checkpoint but will not store any guest’s health data.
Team owner Joe Gibbs says opening the garage to sponsors is an important part of strengthening the sport’s economy as vaccination numbers increase.
“We’ve got so many guys that love racing, key people that support our race team,” Gibbs said. “I’m sure other race teams are the same way. We need, as quick as we can, to get those people inside, back where they can get and enjoy racing again.
“I think most of our key sponsors – the CEOs, upper management of our sponsors – most of them, as I continue to talk to them, have been vaccinated. So hopefully that’s going to make a difference, too. I have. I know a lot of people on our team have. So, I’m hoping that’s our breakthrough.”
NASCAR will continue not requiring competitors to be vaccinated, and masks will continue to be required for everyone inside the infield bubble.
At least 127.7 million people have received one or both doses of the vaccine in the United States. This includes more than 80.6 million people who have been fully vaccinated. 258.5 million doses have been distributed.
The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that 47.6 percent of the U.S. adult population has received at least one dose of the vaccination, and 29.6 percent of adults are fully vaccinated.
23XI Racing publicly had a team vaccination event at their shop this with driver Bubba Wallace and over 50 crew members and family members receiving the Pfizer shot.
“I’m not trying to shove it down people’s throats,” Wallace said on Friday morning during a media teleconference. “I’m just saying, ‘Hey, I’m comfortable taking this route to get us back to a normal capacity in all aspects of life – go back to what we used to do.’
“… People I know are very hesitant on trying out some experimental shot or vaccine. But I’m okay right now. I feel good. And knowing I’m doing my part, a small part, to help everybody feel comfortable (with getting vaccinated) is big.”
Cup Series champions Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott have also addressed the options they have.
“Everybody’s got their own level of comfort,” Keselowski said. “I’m not judging those who have or have not in the workplace. I don’t think we should force anyone to get it or not to get it. I think it’s a personal decision that everyone has a right to, and so accordingly I think once it’s open to everyone those who feel comfortable getting it should certainly get it if that’s what they want to do. I haven’t made a decision on what I’m going to do yet personally. I haven’t been in a position where I need to because it hasn’t been available to me, but it’s a discussion that my family and I certainly will have when that time comes.”
Elliott respectfully declined to discuss his choices — wanting to keep that between his family, friends and personal physician.
“I view it very personally as I think a lot of people probably will,” Elliott said. “I, myself, view it personally. I don’t share my medical records with the public. I don’t tell you guys when I go to the doctor. Not out of disrespect, but that’s just that I’m kind of a personal guy, I guess, when it comes to my health.
“I’m making decisions about my health on my own terms; and I will respect everyone else’s decisions just the same as I hope to get the privacy and respect of mine.”
Team Penske crew chief Jeremy Bullins says its encouraged but not required at his shop.
“It’s one of those things where it’s encouraged,” he said. “It seems like it’s going okay and there’s no reason not to get it, so it’s something we’re encouraging everybody to do. But it’s a choice and I understand if somebody doesn’t want to get it.”
Several drivers are partaking in short track events during their off days where restrictions are more relaxed or otherwise non-existent.
Chase Briscoe interacted with fans last weekend at Martinsville Speedway and said a reopening of the infield area is a natural extension of the interactions that have already started away from the NASCAR infield.
“Last week walking into Martinsville, I probably signed for 30 or 40 fans walking in because they’re all standing there,” Briscoe said. “I feel like it’s no different if we have sponsors in the garage or whatever.
“The sponsors in the garage is a huge thing that we’ve been needing to have happen. … That’s something they’ve been needing to be able to do – to go and talk to other companies from a B2B standpoint and meet these other people and CEOs and things like that.”
Joey Logano has restarted his ‘JL Kids Crew’ program where disadvantaged children join his Team Penske No. 22 team at the track.
“We haven’t been able to do that since COVID started,” Logano said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We have a list of kids ready to go, and it’s been frustrating. We want to do it and we’re trying to find different ways of doing it, and it’s not the same if you do it on Zoom. It’s just not. Virtual meet and greets are not the same.”
With partially reopened garage areas, the NASCAR world as it was before COVID is one step closer to coming back.
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