NASCAR raced to become the first sport back during the pandemic. Then, some say, it started to fall behind.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
  • NASCAR returned to racing in May, touting itself as “the first professional sports league” to do so after a two-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The return came with strict safety protocols and eventually led to limited numbers of fans returning to the grandstands.
  • Employees travelling with the sport described issues behind the scenes to Insider, such as lax mask adherence outside of the racetrack and in private, as well as a prevalent “It’s a flu” attitude.
  • There have also been multiple high-profile incidents of participants not following protocols, many of which have not been penalised by NASCAR.
  • One fan who attended a recent race told Insider: “Leaving the track just ruined it. It was a run-for-all, go-for-it, mask off. It was just a disaster. I just ran to my car to get away from people.”
  • NASCAR’s managing director of racing operations, Tom Bryant, told Insider that it doesn’t claim its protocols are perfect, but: “We have seen, no doubt, that wearing masks and compartmentalising and social distancing – those things are working. There’s no argument to that.”
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

“What a better night to have fans back than tonight,” NASCAR driver Chase Elliott said upon winning the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway last week. “There’s no feeling like it. Nothing like it. This speaks for itself.”

Fans descended toward the track to cheer Elliott on, crowding near each other and almost entirely forgoing masks in a country with more COVID-19 infections than anywhere else in the world. Elliott then walked the fence to fist-bump those fans individually. He, like most of them, wore neither a mask nor gloves.

The day after the race, July 16, the US hit another record high of daily infections: more than 70,000, up from just recently breaking the 50,000 barrier on July 1.

Elliott’s celebration didn’t align with NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocols, instated so that the sport could return after a two-month pandemic hiatus. However, multiple people working in the sport, who asked not to be named to protect their job standing, told Insider issues have existed behind the scenes – even as NASCAR travels to COVID-19 hotspots across a country that’s the hotspot of the world.

Elliott’s actions simply marked a wearing at the seams.

Chase elliott all-star race bristolNASCARChase Elliott embraces the crowd after winning the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020.

NASCAR returned to action in May, touting itself as “the first professional sports league” to do so. The Bristol race featured more than 20,000 people in the roughly 140,000-seat venue, becoming the largest US sporting crowd since the pandemic began. It happened less than two weeks after seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson tested positive for the virus.

The resumption of the season came with strict virus rules and potential fines of $US10,000 to $US50,000 for breaking them, and as of July 15, the event-operations protocols sent to on-site workers by NASCAR totaled 47 pages. But adherence to them varies, both publicly and privately.


Elliott’s celebration was one of many public displays. In a feel-good moment in May, Elliott and Kyle Busch had a close-up conversation after a race without masks. NASCAR did not penalise either and did not respond when Insider asked why.

Elliott said he snuck into the stands at Bristol to watch the race before his in apparent violation of NASCAR’s compartmentalisation rules, in which participants are “restricted to working only in the area necessary to perform their role.” Fellow driver Kurt Busch also posted a photo from the fan-filled stands before the main race. Drivers Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton got into a physical fight in which Gragson wore no mask in July, and neither were penalised.

In Texas in July – where the track had the approval to admit up to 67,500 spectators, or 50% capacity, for the Cup Series race – a red flag paused the field in front of the grandstands. Many crowded the fence once again, few masks in sight.

At Talladega Superspeedway in June, Darrell Wallace Jr. emotionally walked to the catch fence after a noose was found hanging in his garage stall, high-fiving fans in the stands through it. Many had masks around their necks, and Wallace had none at all.

“Sorry I’m not wearing my mask, but I wanted to show whoever it was that you’re not going to take away my smile,” Wallace said.

NASCAR used the quote as the video caption on its YouTube channel. He was not penalised.

NASCAR toldreporters that it spoke with Elliott about going to the stands, but deemed it not to be a clear violation of the rules because his motorhome was outside of the track. Elliott and Wallace’s embraces of the fans were viewed not to be blatant, either.

NASCAR did recently penalise a team, Jeremy Clements Racing, for bringing unapproved individuals into the infield.

Tom Bryant, NASCAR’s managing director of racing operations, began working with a team to create NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocols back in March. Bryant told Insider NASCAR makes no claim that its protocols are “the perfect answer,” and that the organisation is learning as it goes.

“But we have seen, no doubt, that wearing masks and compartmentalising and social distancing – those things are working,” Bryant said. “There’s no argument to that.”

‘Our industry is mostly “It’s a flu” people’

Some people who work in NASCAR told Insider they felt the organisation is doing the best it can to race during a pandemic, minus mandatory testing – a requirement in organisations like Formula One, which is sharing test results every week, or the NBA, which has its own isolation bubble.

Others didn’t. Responses ranged from content to worried, to saying the procedures have “appeared as a joke at times.”

Brad keselowski ryan blaney texas motor speedwayChris Graythen/Getty ImagesRyan Blaney and Brad Keselowski speak to each other after the Texas Motor Speedway race in July 2020, neither wearing masks.

In July, as reported by the Associated Press, NASCAR sent an internal memo saying “pockets of complacency” needed to be addressed. The memo said more people in the industry “are going to contract the virus,” but that “the key is limiting it.”

“One cluster outbreak can derail our season,” it said. “Please ensure this is communicated properly throughout your organisations.”

One aspect of NASCAR’s precautions involves a screening upon entering a track’s infield tunnel in order to access garages, where temperatures, credentials, and health questionnaires are checked. But two members of the sport separately recalled times when they approached the tunnel to see no one stopping them at all.

“There’s been a couple of times where I’ve driven straight into the track where I was able to bypass screening and security,” one team member said. “At some key times on accident, we’ve discovered there’s no one at the tunnel to turn people away.

“While Sundays are usually kind of strict, Friday and Saturday shows can be surprisingly open, and I’m shocked fans haven’t snuck in.”

Bryant told Insider at the track, the screening process before races takes anywhere from six to eight hours for essential personnel. The process and access closes about 30 minutes before the race starts.

“There’s multiple layers of security to prevent people from wandering into the infield,” Bryant said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there haven’t been cases where someone may have breached that, but I am going to tell you that those cases are rare.”

Texas motor speedway NASCAR covidMatthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesTexas Motor Speedway at limited capacity for the NASCAR Cup Series race in July 2020.

One employee described problems with the screenings themselves, saying sometimes temperature checks happen on shirts or areas of the body other than the forehead. Another described getting an abnormally low reading that wasn’t questioned by the screeners, while some – including ARCA Racing Series driver Willie Mullins, who spoke with Insider through wife Dinah Mullins – said their temperatures were generally taken at the forehead as directed.

“He said [wearing the mask] sucks, it’s hot,” Dinah Mullins said on her husband’s behalf. “It’s not fun. But he is happy to be back at the track and happy that they have found a way to make it all work.”

Bryant told Insider screeners at the track are briefed and trained prior to the first arrival of infield personnel. They’re taught that three locations will work for temperature readings: the forehead, behind the ear, and the wrist.

“If we do see an abnormally low screen like you’re saying, it’s not uncommon for us to have a second person come over us with a different thermometer and get that temperature from a different location,” Bryant said.

Multiple people, including Mullins, told Insider NASCAR’s done a good job of requiring masks in the garage area. Aside from a couple of higher-profile incidents that weren’t penalised and a lowered mask here and there, that shows on broadcasts.

But a theme among some Insider spoke with was that the industry is “mostly ‘It’s a flu’ people,” as one team member put it. Another said they feel like people are wearing masks because they have to and not because they want to, and that while they felt NASCAR is “taking it as seriously as they can, it’s hard to say if the crews are.”

“Once we are in the hauler and the doors are closed, most guys are taking off their masks,” they said. “In reality, they just rode in a van without masks on together to get to the track, and likely worked at the shop on the car without masks together, so right, wrong, or indifferent, those guys are definitely not worried about getting it from each other.”

Bryant said that NASCAR can’t be with everyone when they’re not at the track, thus everyone has a responsibility to make sure they’re minimising the risk of exposure for themselves and those around them.

“We do have to rely on people to be grownups and to do the right thing,” Bryant said. “I would submit that, based on what we’ve seen overall, that is largely occurring.”

Bryant added that when industry personnel arrive at the track and “pull up to that first security checkpoint, they have got their mask on and it stays on.”

Insider saw a photo of one private plane heading to the racetrack recently, in which the sender said the plane was almost full and had “no one wearing mask[s].” The plane was indeed almost full, and while not everyone could be seen from an angle that would show a mask, those who were weren’t wearing one – making NASCAR’s compartmentalisation rule during the races a moot point for groups not following protocols on flights.

In NASCAR’s event guidelines, groups flying private are encouraged to take temperatures before boarding and “provide as many empty seats or rows and free space between passengers as possible.” Cloth masks “should be worn by all passengers at all times while inside the aircraft,” the guidelines state.

Bryant told Insider that with private planes, the short answer is that a NASCAR official is not on each one to ensure protocols are being followed.

There are also the suites at the track, where industry employees mix with local guests and two workers said masks haven’t been prevalent. Photos viewed by Insider back those claims up.

NASCAR’s health questionnaire, a requirement to enter the track, includes standard questions and agreements that workers will wear a mask on property. But answering truthfully is another thing.

“There’s tons of people scared to fail,” one team employee said. “They live paycheck to paycheck and many of these small teams don’t have any sick pay or leave in place. You miss two weeks, you miss two weeks of pay.”

“Crew guys and others seem to be expendable, while they’re very concerned with the drivers,” another person said.

“So many people just ‘want to go race’ or ‘have to get to work’ that they definitely fear the questionnaire,” another said. “Unfortunately, in my own opinion, this is exactly the mentality that could bring us down.”

Bryant told Insider NASCAR’s screening isn’t “just a matter of filling out a questionnaire.” The questionnaire is reviewed by NASCAR’s medical-liaison team, and if someone says they have been exposed or have symptoms, the organisation’s medical director will take over. The first step is a telehealth interview, where the doctor will determine if the person can come to the track.

“If he determines that they are OK to travel to the event, he will usually schedule a secondary screening,” Bryant said, adding that someone reported COVID-19 exposure just this week. That’s when they’re either cleared to participate or not.

‘I just ran to my car to get away from people’

NASCAR fans Brinton Hester and Matt Harrington were hopeful when they heard that Bristol Motor Speedway, where Elliott would eventually shower the crowd with fist-bumps, was opening its gates to fans in July. The track put in place strict safety guidelines for its event, masks were required in community areas, there were queue times for entry, the setting was open air, and the race would be a welcome trip out of the house after months in quarantine.

Harrington, a lifelong follower, bought tickets the night they were announced. But after months of diligence, he’d soon start questioning the decision.

“‘Am I a hypocrite for doing this?'” he wondered. “But I kept telling myself, ‘You know, this track is big enough to hold people. The seats should be pretty spread out.'”

Both he and Hester would come to regret that reassurance.

Fans entering the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor SpeedwayPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesFans entering the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway July 15, 2020.

Bristol hosted more than 20,000 spectators and dedicated a page on its website to its COVID protocols before the race. The idea was to space them out across the roughly 140,000-seat venue and allow room to take off masks while in their seats.

The safety page also included a video, in which Bristol General Manager Jerry Caldwell said the track was “thrilled” to have fans attend on July 15. “Our staff here at Bristol Motor Speedway has been working really hard to make sure that you continue to have a safe, fun, and memorable race experience,” Caldwell said.

Nestled into the middle of the video, the narrator added: “Bristol Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports cannot guarantee that you will not be exposed to coronavirus during your visit.”

Fans at the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor SpeedwayPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesFans at the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020.

Hester said he and his wife had to confirm they wouldn’t attend the race with symptoms upon buying tickets, but that there were no additional screenings at the track. Both Hester and Harrington said most people in the concourse area, where concessions, merchandise, and bathrooms are located, were wearing masks, but Hester said many were worn incorrectly – exposed noses, under the chin, and the like.

Harrington described the concourse and concession lines as “cram-packed” and shoulder-to-shoulder once the event got going. “That was when I looked around and I said, ‘This was a mistake,'” he said.

Then, the question became: “How are we supposed to leave?”

Harrington hadn’t seen anything about exit protocols online but said the track sent an instructional YouTube video near the end of the race. It wouldn’t load.

“Leaving the track just ruined it,” Harrington said. “It was a run-for-all, go-for-it, mask off. It was just a disaster. I left mine on and I literally ran. I just ran to my car to get away from people.”

Matt Harrington

Bristol Motor Speedway spokesperson Becky Cox told Insider the track consulted with experts for its procedures and “found guests to be courteous when reminded of new protocols.”

“On background, we’re in the midst of surveying ticket holders and currently seeing overwhelmingly positive feedback, so I hope you are conducting due diligence before posting your story,” Cox said.

On background, a form of quasi-anonymity was not agreed to beforehand. One spectator said their group was “very impressed” with how the race was handled, according to feedback viewed by Insider.

The track also shared safety information with spectators through its website, app, social media, press releases, and messages over the PA and video screen, Cox said.

“This was a good first step and we’ll continue to refine and enhance our operations in our events to come,” Cox said.

Both Hester and his wife got precautionary COVID-19 tests once they got home, and self-quarantined until they got the results. The tests came back negative.

NASCAR fan Bret Grimes, who attended the Talladega race weeks before, told Insider the safety precautions worked well there and the race “felt perfectly safe.”

“I’d do it again if it was handled the exact same way,” Grimes said. “I would only do it if it was the exact same way, and not like it appears Bristol was handled.”

Harrington said that if Bristol was going to do “every single thing right,” it needed to finish the job once the race ended. Otherwise, there was no point at all.

“You’ve got all of these people’s safety – don’t just write off their safety on a waiver you see on the way in,” Harrington said. “But I trusted them. I really did. I really trusted the track and NASCAR to do a better job than what happened.”

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