(Reuters) – Like a movie with no musical score, NASCAR returns from a two-month novel coronavirus-forced hiatus on Sunday for a race without the fans who provide the background soundtrack for sporting events around the world.
Not even the growl from 40 V8 stockcar engines will make up for the silence in the empty grandstands at South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway as NASCAR drivers discard iracing consoles for a return to the danger and excitement of the real thing.
While drivers are certain to feel the adrenaline pumping through their veins again, when the green flag drops it is unlikely motor racing fans will get the same familiar rush.
How a sporting world without spectators in the stands is greeted will be decided by TV ratings and viewership numbers, but after months of watching virtual sports and archive of historic clashes, everyone seems ready for some live action.
“We’re going to be missing some of that (excitement) but I look at the reaction from fans all over social media, how excited they are that they get to see a race,” Jeff Gordon, three-time Daytona 500 winner and now race analyst for FOX told Reuters.
“Sport and traditions are the things that bring normalcy to us so I think having a NASCAR race on TV, I think most people, and I know I do, appreciate being part of this event.
“But I don’t want it to get to the place where people are just comfortable with no fans there and just say, “Oh that’s the new norm”.
Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) which will stage the first IndyCar race on June 6 had one word for racing without fans — “depressing”.
The sight of 135,000 empty seats will be a dispiriting one with the sprawling North Texas circuit a ghost town of shuttered concession stands and garages with the exception of a few race teams rolling around the 84 acre infield like tumble weeds.
“It will be depressing. Nobody in the stands! What!,” Gossage, told Reuters in a telephone interview. “This whole thing is counter-intuitive.
“It is just not exactly when we thought we would, but we will not miss a thing between IndyCar, two (NASCAR) Cup races, two truck races, two Xfinity races we will run them all.
“Whether there are fans there or not is to be determined.”
Fans or no fans, IndyCar and NASCAR have determined the show must go on.
While North America’s biggest sports leagues, the NBA, NHL and MLB, muddle through scenarios that could get them playing again, NASCAR is ready to go and will stage seven races over 11 days.
When drivers receive the command to, “start your engines” it will be a small victory for NASCAR fans, who have been waging a battle against COVID-19 and boredom from self-isolation at home.
As different as things will look on television, it will be more dramatic for drivers who will shift from virtual racing to bumper-to-bumper action where wrecks have real consequences.
Along with no fans there will be no qualifying or practice.
Each team will be limited to 16 personnel, including driver and owners, and follow strict guidelines on social distancing.
Drivers who go to work covered from head to toe in safety gear from helmets to fire retardant socks will have one more item on Sunday — wearing masks from motor homes to their cars.
“It is going to be unique and different,” said Gordon.
“These drivers and teams are going to be anxious and nervous trying to execute flawlessly with no practice, no qualifying, very limited resources to get themselves prepared and it is one of the toughest tracks on the circuit.”
The most jarring sign that things are different will come at the end of the race when there will be none of the wild celebrations that come with victory.
“In Victory Lane the crew members are not going to be allowed in, I guess it will be the car, the driver and me with the trophy,” said Gossage laughing as he looked ahead to the IndyCar opener. “One photographer and one TV camera and that’s it. We will just look at each other and jump up and down.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Ken Ferris