Life, and Racing, After COVID-19: What We Know and What We Predict

Photography Credit: LAT Images

There’s evidence that patient zero lived in Wuhan, China, a city of 11 million people that most of us probably couldn’t locate on a map (find Shanghai, look left). He or she very possibly worked at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a massive full-block mess of a venue with a thousand merchants who not only sold seafood, but also edible wild animals, including badgers and beavers, camels and crocodiles, otters and ostriches, peacocks and porcupines, sheep and shrimp. There are more, but they don’t readily lend themselves to alliteration.

On November 17, 2019, in Wuhan, patient zero was diagnosed with some sort of new virus. But he or she didn’t know they were patient zero, because doctors weren’t sure what they were dealing with. 

The first known patient was diagnosed with this “novel coronavirus” on December 1, but doctors couldn’t find a link to the Huanan Market. But as more and more cases arose, evidence pointed to the Huanan Market as a likely original source. Maybe, scientists suspected, the virus originated in snakes the market sold. Or bats. Or very possibly pangolins. A pangolin is a spiny anteater that curls up in a ball when frightened, like many of us are now.


Photograph Courtesy Wikipedia

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market was closed on January 1. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported that it was being shut down for “renovation,” apparently by workers wearing white hazmat suits and spraying some sort of disinfectant. 

On January 20, Chinese officials–and consequently the media there–finally admitted that yes, some sort of medical issue did appear to be afoot. Many of the people of Wuhan didn’t realize how serious it was until the morning of January 23, when the entire city, all 11 million people, went into complete lockdown. 

That was more than two months after that first infection was discovered. By then, it had spread to Thailand, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. And the United States.

This is where we thank you for your patience for having stuck with us for more than 300 words, none of them remotely related to motorsports. From here on in, they will be. Mostly.

So where were you on January 23, Wuhan’s lockdown day? Many of us at Grassroots Motorsports were at our big white tent located inside Turn 2 at Daytona International Speedway, and many of you were either there or on your way. 

After all, Thursday started at 9 a.m. with practice for the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race on Friday, and the action continued for the next 12 and a half hours, closing with the Ferrari Challenge race that took the checkered flag at 9:35 p.m. 

In between, there was practice and qualifying for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener, the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and then there was 90 minutes of night practice, which true fans consider a can’t-miss session.

And then, two months ago from today, the green flag fell on the 58th IMSA Rolex 24 At Daytona.


Photograph Courtesy Chevrolet

What would you have thought if you were told–perhaps during a caution flag when it was quiet enough to hear–that two months from that Saturday afternoon, the U.S. would be hit with a coronavirus pandemic so severe that in the early morning hours of today, Senate leaders and representatives of President Trump would present a $2 trillion “stimulus package” to try to rescue an economy suddenly so frail that analysts have long since abandoned comparisons to 2008 and gone straight to the Great Depression of 1929?

That we are all staying at home? Can’t eat in restaurants, go to movies, attend concerts, even attend school?

Or–getting back on topic–go to races?

A few tracks held races the weekend of March 14-15–here in Florida, a handful of dirt and paved oval tracks, a drag strip or two, and an SCCA “March Madness” event at Palm Beach International Raceway, which attracted some of the GRM team. 

Then, a day later, President Trump told us to avoid groups of more than 10, and that was it. For how long? Don’t know. China announced yesterday that the lockdown of Wuhan would be lifted on April 8. That’s 76 days.

We aren’t comparing Wuhan to America, but if we are trying to guess when life–and by life, we mean racing–will return to some semblance of normalcy, we guess based on the Best Evidence Available, and there isn’t much. 

We don’t know, and the sanctioning bodies don’t know. So let’s look at the guesses of the major sanctioning bodies, based on the races that have been canceled or postponed. 

The idea that a race would be restored to its original date after having been moved–possible, perhaps, if some miracle cure appears overnight–still seems highly unlikely. If anything, we’ll see more races scratched. Count on it.

But here’s where we stand now. And by “now,” we mean right now–as in Wednesday, March 25–because making any sort of statement in print about a moving-target subject like this is written at our peril, and believed at your peril. So feel free to write this down on a calendar. We’d suggest in pencil.


Photograph Courtesy NASCAR

NASCAR: Because this series has more races, starts earlier, and lasts later in the year than most, NASCAR has arguably been hit hardest. The NASCAR Cup series got in the season-opening Daytona 500, then the races in Las Vegas, Auto Club Speedway in California, and the March 8 race in Phoenix.

Listed as “postponed” are, in order, Atlanta, Homestead-Miami, Texas Motor Speedway, Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover, on May 3. April 11-12, Easter weekend, are two rare days off for the Cup series, so nothing was scheduled then.

At present, NASCAR says its first race back will be at Martinsville on May 9. The following two weekends are to be spent at Charlotte, where, on May 24–Memorial Day weekend–they’ll hold the Coca-Cola 600, arguably NASCAR’s second-most-important race, after the Daytona 500.

So, if that stands, NASCAR has seven Cup races that are “postponed.” The weekends of July 25-26 and August 1-2 are presently scheduled as off, to be replaced by coverage of the Summer Olympics. But with the Olympics apparently moved to 2021, that opens up two weekends for  postponed NASCAR events.


Photograph Courtesy NASCAR

And that’s it until the Phoenix finale November 8. No more off weekends. Postponed races would have to be canceled, run during the week, or combined into a doubleheader, which NASCAR is doing anyway at Pocono June 27-28, with one race on Saturday and one on Sunday. NASCAR would be making a return visit to Texas, Bristol, Richmond, Talladega and Dover, so doubleheaders would be possible at those tracks. 

Atlanta and Homestead-Miami only get one race a year, so they’d either have to run on the Olympics weekends, run during the week, or be canceled.

That is, of course, if NASCAR is really back on May 9. The weekend of May 16-17 could also possibility host a rescheduled race. Charlotte has the non-points All-Star Race on Saturday, which could easily be moved to mid-week, then revert to normal with the Coke 600 on Memorial Day.

Is NASCAR being optimistic? Let’s look at…


Photograph Courtesy FIA

FORMULA 1: The F1 schedule, arguably the most ambitious in motorsports given the size of the traveling circus and the far-flung destinations it visits, is facing a massive nightmare.

The Australian Grand Prix, the season opener: canceled. The Vietnamese Grand Prix: postponed. The Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai (remember, just east of Wuhan): postponed. The Dutch Grand Prix: postponed. The Spanish Grand Prix: postponed. The Monaco Grand Prix: canceled. The Azerbaijan Grand Prix, scheduled for June 7: just postponed two days ago.

That would make the new season opener the Canadian Grand Prix on June 14. As it stands, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would wrap the season on November 29. (The F1 race at Circuit of The Americas in Texas, scheduled for October 25, is presumably safe, assuming the track–which earlier this month laid off some employees and curtailed some activities–is ready.)

At this writing, that leaves F1 with two races canceled, five to reschedule–somewhere.


Photograph Courtesy Honda

INDYCAR: It all seemed so simple, so right: Roger Penske buying not only the IndyCar series, but Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But the 83-year-old billionaire is facing enough drama to make his hair turn gray. Or gray-er, if that’s possible. 

Penske and his crew have the monumental decision to make about the Indianapolis 500, scheduled for May 24, Memorial Day Sunday. IndyCar has already lost the season-opening race at St. Petersburg on March 15, then Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, then Long Beach, and then the IndyCar Challenge at COTA, scheduled for April 26. All are canceled, not postponed. 


Photograph Courtesy Honda

The season opener, as the schedule now shows, is the Indianapolis road course race on May 9, then the 500 on May 24.

If you have to reschedule the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500, where the hell do you put it? Labor Day weekend, which is September 5-7? Maybe, if you’re willing to go up against the (postponed) Kentucky Derby, and to dump the Grand Prix of Portland, scheduled for September 6. 

So right now, IndyCar has 13 races left (counting the Detroit doubleheader as two), ending the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on September 20. 

We’d speculate that of the major series, IndyCar has the best shot at salvaging its season, but the controversy stirred up by the no-refund policy for the St. Petersburg race alone has given the series enough bad publicity among fans to last all year.

NHRA: Yes, we know, we don’t typically cover drag racing, but maybe your brother-in-law likes it, and you can impress him with some data. Which is: The season opener at Pomona in California on February 9 happened, as did the Arizona Nationals in Phoenix. 

Then the first casualty, the Gainesville Gatornationals in Florida on March 13, then the Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas. The NHRA lists both races as “postponed,” resuming the schedule on April 19 in Houston.

That’s three weeks earlier than the planned comebacks for NASCAR and IndyCar. Hardy, virus-resistant folks, those drag racers.

You have to dive pretty deep into the NHRA’s website to find much about the pandemic, but it’s there, as are features to read and watch, such as “Funny Car Racer Tommy Johnson, Jr., Hard at Work Making Candles.”


Photography Credit: LAT Images

IMSA: Okay, yes, we saved this one for last. As referenced, the Rolex 24 At Daytona, as well as the companion Michelin Challenge race, opened the season January 23-26. 

But the second race of the series, at Sebring International Raceway, is scheduled nearly two months after Daytona, and as we’ve documented, a lot can happen in two months. 

So the SuperSebring weekend, scheduled for March 18-21, has been postponed. It will now close out the season November 11-14, the date that was being held for the IMSA “Encore” race for supplementary series. 

And SuperSebring weekend is so super because it was supposed to feature a 1000-mile race on Friday by the FIA World Endurance Championship series, then the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on Saturday. 


Photograph Courtesy Mercedes-Benz

It’s doubtful we’ll see anybody from the WEC in November, with the 24 Hours of Le Mans moved from June 13-14 to September 19-20, and with a regular WEC race in Shanghai November 10.

Next up after Sebring’s March date is the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach April 17-18, where the IMSA series was to pair up with IndyCar for one of everybody’s favorite weekends. As St. Petersburg taught us, it’s tough to reschedule a street race. And since Long Beach is a street race, it isn’t happening.

After Long Beach was Mid-Ohio on May 1-3, and a few days ago IMSA moved it to September 25-27. So the next weekend would be Detroit, May 29-30, for the resumption of the series. 


Photography Credit: LAT Images

After that, there’s Watkins Glen, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Ontario, Lime Rock, Road America, Virginia International Raceway and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca September 11-13. 

But IMSA just moved the Laguna Seca race a week earlier, to September 4-6, to give the IMSA competitors who want to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans September 19-20 more time to prepare.

Traditionally, the last race of the year is the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, scheduled for October 7-10. But IMSA moved Petit back a week, to October 14-17, to provide “a more balanced schedule,” whatever that means. And winding up the 2020 season is the semi-SuperSebring weekend, November 11-14.

SO, EXHAUSTIVELY: That’s the plan at the exact second these fingers hit the keyboard, but you know there will be more changes. 

Meanwhile, there are so many, so many, other things to consider about what will happen when we reach the other side of this pandemic.

Here are a few.

• Beginning in December 2008, the U.S. government began its $80.7 billion bailout that pulled GM and Chrysler out of bankruptcy and helped keep Ford from filing Chapter 11.

That was a crisis that was years in the making. This one is weeks in the making, but it could prove devastating for the entire auto industry–from the manufacturers to the suppliers to the dealers–and this time it affects every car company, not just the Big Three.

Add the losses they will feel in the U.S. to the losses the global companies will feel worldwide. Yesterday, India ordered a full country-wide lockdown for at least 21 days. That’s 1.3 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population, who were told to not leave their homes. How many cars do you think they’ll sell in India the next three weeks?

The point is, and there is one, that we’re all aware of the extent to which the manufacturers support auto racing. When bad things happen, the manufacturers pull back. Remember when Porsche quit its Le Mans P1 program, using the excuse that VW’s “dieselgate” shrank the corporate racing budget?

NASCAR and IndyCar have been actively courting new manufacturers. That process may be set back considerably. One reliable OEM source told us that some contracts for sponsorship of races call for full payment if the race doesn’t happen, act of God or not. If a sponsor’s check has been cashed for a race that was canceled, good luck on getting that sponsor to chip in for anything in the future.

• One thing absolutely no one knows is what will happen when the “all clear” signal is finally given. How quickly will fans return to the stands? Book flights on the airlines? Book rooms in hotels? If some canceled races aren’t refunding ticket money, how wary would you be of buying tickets for the first race after President Trump says everything’s fine? 


Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

• Circuit of The Americas was the first track to show signs of virus-related distress. How many other tracks will find it impossible to weather the storm? How many owners of local oval tracks or drag strips, perhaps already teetering on the edge, will be unable to pay the mortgage, $2 trillion stimulus or not? (Think about that $2 trillion. There are only 7.8 billion people in the entire world. Of course, that number may be dropping.)

• So much of racing relies on sponsorship, from the weekend racer to Formula 1 teams. NASCAR team owners have already told us that sponsors are a tough sell for the $20 million or so, per car, it takes to field a contender. How hard will it be now? (Suggestion to teams: Pitch the toilet paper manufacturers. Now!)

• Another unknown is the broadcast situation. Early on it appeared that sanctioning bodies would run races before a crowd-free track, just to provide TV content. Obviously, that proved to be a non-starter, one reason being that sponsors were shy about buying time for a race that appears to be a Thursday practice session.

• If you’re looking for some good news, look online. IMSA’s online SuperSaturday is closing in on 80,000 YouTube views, while more than 900,000 souls tuned in for NASCAR’s eRace this past weekend. In fact, Fox Sports just picked up the remainder of the year’s NASCAR iRacing sim season. And our own project car forum continues to explode as garage time seems to be on the rise–and garage time, as we know, is often fed by parts, chemicals and tools. 

If you’ve made it this far, we salute you, and you can thank us for cheering you up later.

Finally, yes, we know people are sick and dying. When Prince Charles tests positive, you know nobody is guaranteed a pass. When 365 Waffle Houses announce they’re closing, you know no business is immune from a virus. Racing is a large part of our lives, but it’s just that–a part. Embrace your family, your friends, your pets, and we’ll see you in the grandstands.

We just wish we knew when.

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Comments
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christinaylam
christinaylam New Reader
3/25/20 4:01 p.m.

Life as we knew it changed so quickly. I was hanging at the GRM tent at Sebring and wouldn't have dreamed that it would come to this a short two months later. A few of the scheduled club races are being asked to give up their weekends to some pro series looking to reschedule. I expect to see some changes in the club racing schedule for events later in the summer or fall. For now its time to break out the sim rig and join your fellow racers online. Hope everybody and their family is staying safe during this time. 

Danny Shields
Danny Shields HalfDork
3/25/20 4:36 p.m.

That's a powerful, well-researched and well-written article. In the overall context of this pandemic, our beloved car racing events seem insignificant.  We all have to do whatever it takes to get through this before we can get back to the good times.

mikeatrpi
mikeatrpi HalfDork
3/25/20 4:53 p.m.

This is excellent journalism!

slowbird
slowbird Dork
3/25/20 5:24 p.m.

Just to illustrate how fast things are changing, NHRA has now revised their schedule and won't resume until June.

Will any of the June races get postponed? Will we still be locked down in September? Is 2020 going to be the "lost" year for everything? Who knows.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/25/20 5:49 p.m.

In reply to slowbird :

Yeah, the NHRA revision was released minutes after we posted the article. 

Steven's comment when he forwarded the release to me, in fact: "oh well. like we said, everything is written in pencil right now."

And, yes, he's the best when it comes to writing this kind of stuff. 

Thank you, SCS. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/26/20 7:59 a.m.

And by the way, we don't mind if you share this article with your peeps. laugh

Thanks as always. 

captdownshift
captdownshift UltimaDork
3/26/20 9:00 a.m.

The issue for big racing when some form of normalcy resumes, whenever the timeline, as Steven states, is sponsorship dollars. Manufacturers and other sponsors aren't going to have the liquid funds available to support the efforts of many teams across series. 

From a club racing standpoint, as brought up on GRMLIVE last night, it's about track survival and their ability to weather the storm with regards to effectively a lost season of entry fees, events and concessions. The emphasis for series will have to be development of classes which may not be the fastest around the track, but be sustainable with a low outlay or cost for participants to be able to run once racing resumes. You may say something like IT class racing, only with 200TW tires be required, as this would be more cost effective for participants than running purple crack and doesn't negatively effect the competition on track. We may see a shift away from people campaigning higher horsepower, larger wheeled, heavier and yes, faster, modern cars as they're more expensive regarding consumables. Expect to see more contingency sponsorships as well, as suppliers are going to want their support to have a direct tie in to participant sales. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/26/20 12:19 p.m.

And remember what Steven said about marking things on your calendar in pencil: The Indy 500 has been rescheduled to August 23.

BMWguy
BMWguy New Reader
3/26/20 1:56 p.m.

Fabulous article, David.  I think sponsor involvement, or lack thereof, will be crucial going forward.

Rons
Rons Reader
3/26/20 6:22 p.m.

One of the biggest factors for racing organizations is the length of the shut down. My thoughts go to a quote from Annis Stukas "We're in the business of making people forget they don't our product." You don't want people to realize they don't need you.

CrustyRedXpress
CrustyRedXpress Reader
3/26/20 7:48 p.m.

Sharp writing-thanks.

barefootskater
barefootskater SuperDork
3/26/20 8:57 p.m.

Just so long as Challenge isn't cancelled. 

chada75
chada75 Reader
3/27/20 2:50 a.m.

In reply to barefootskater :

It won't. On a VERY small level, Our Autocross Club faced a location being lost next year and the resulting schedule change for this season put a damper on running for the points before the Corona Scare . May have to wait until next year.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/27/20 3:57 p.m.

In reply to CrustyRedXpress :

Thank you. And Steven did the heavy work. 

And if you feel like sharing the article, please and thank you.

Thanks. 

scs
scs New Reader
3/28/20 12:39 a.m.

Thanks for all the kind words, from both GRM readers and editors. Like my friend Steve Potter, PR guy extraordinaire who used to run Lime Rock, said on Facebook, my story is basically a framework in which to blend everything into that will be happening (and already is -- thanks, David, for the updates on the NHRA sked and the Indy 500 move.) David and I were talking right after the story posted, and he asked what my best guess was for when racing might resume, and I said Memorial Day. NASCAR is still saying they will resume racing May 9, and they are saying they will run the Coke 600 on Memorial Day, May 24 -- that would be huge for NASCAR if that happens, not having to compete for once (we hope) with the Indy 500. The governor of North Carolina just issued a "stay at home" order that runs through April 29, so we'll see how that goes. One thing we'll be watching closely: Is this mass movement to online racing just a time-filler, or will it continue at a comparable level after real racing returns? Any, thanks for reading... SCS

dxman92
dxman92 HalfDork
3/28/20 5:28 p.m.

Great article. You know it hits the fan when Waffle Houses are shutting down. surprise

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