In the latest sign that the potential “new normal” after the COVID-19 outbreak is approaching, the NASCAR garage will open this weekend at Darlington Raceway with a new level of infield access for selected guests.
It’s a full-circle trip for the 1.366-mile South Carolina venue and track president Kerry Tharp, who helped resume the racing schedule there last May after the pandemic’s onset. One year later, the garage’s footprint will expand to fully vaccinated guests with fans back in the grandstands at a limited capacity — both sections still observing COVID-19 safety protocols.
“I think it’s exciting for sure, and it brings you a lot of encouragement for how things are going to continue to move forward,” Tharp said earlier this week, with final preparations ongoing for NASCAR’s annual throwback weekend. “The sport has been a leader, I think NASCAR has been a leader in being able to get live sports back, and I think they’ve been very disciplined in their approach with how they’ve done things. They’ve preserved the integrity of the competition area. They have brought fans back in a very strategic and meaningful way, and I think it’s served the sport well.
“Being able to expand the footprint starting here at Darlington gives us a lot of pride, but it’s also a big responsibility. We want to do it the right way, and I know we will, but I think it gives you a lot of hope for how the rest of the season’s going to be. I think as we get each week of the schedule behind us, you’re going to see more and more opportunities for fans to get back to experiencing things that they’re used to doing.”
NASCAR officials announced April 20 that the garage footprint would grow to include selected guests — such as sponsor representatives, corporate officials and media. Those guests will be subject to a screening process before entry. Another trial run at expanding the garage footprint is scheduled for the inaugural race weekend at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas on May 22-23. Those two events will help officials to determine infield protocols as the schedule moves toward the summer months.
Darlington officials had previously announced Feb. 25 that spectator seating for the weekend would be open at a limited capacity, with social distancing and other protocols in place; a similar system was in place for last year’s Cook Out Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. Other tracks with later dates on the schedule — Atlanta, Pocono and Sonoma among them — have announced that grandstands will be open at full capacity.
“It’s refreshing that we can get back to some sort of normalcy,” Todd Gordon, crew chief of Team Penske’s No. 12 Ford for Ryan Blaney, told SiriusXM on Monday. “Most all of my guys are either on the road to fully vaccinated or are fully vaccinated. I’m through it, I’m a couple weeks through everything myself. I think it’s great that we’re able to continue to move toward getting our sport and our country back to some normalcy that will allow people to kind of get back on the road to what their lives were like.
“It’s cool to see fans back in the stands. It’s cool to have an opportunity to bring people back into the garage area — fully vaccinated — but I think that’s the next step of what we’re doing and really looking forward to that.”
Darlington Raceway hosted three Cup Series races last season as NASCAR officials worked with tracks and local officials to safely resume the racing schedule. Those first races — held without fans, and minus practice and qualifying — included three national-series events run in a five-day span.
By now, teams and drivers have developed a bit of a routine with the protocols that have been in place for nearly a year. One year ago, it was a brand-new frontier. This weekend’s guidelines offer the next step in developing new at-track procedures.
“Being able to bring live sports back to this country is something that we’ll never forget. I think that it went a long way toward NASCAR awarding us a second race date,” Tharp said. “… Drivers like coming here, teams like coming here, fans — it’s in a good location and some of the most history of any track we go to, and being able to be back here now almost a year later and having the throwback weekend and having some fans here, I’d call it a real blessing.”