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NASCAR is a rare sport that has found success navigating an era of upheaval

The stock car racing association has found a route through a global pandemic and a national reckoning on race that has eluded many other major sports.
Image: NASCAR Cup Series Pocono Organics 325 in partnership with Rodale Institute
Bubba Wallace, driver of the #43 Victory Junction Chevrolet, waits on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Pocono Organics 325 at the Pocono Raceway on June 27, 2020, in Long Pond, Pa.Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images

In an era of unprecedented chaos for professional sports amid the coronavirus pandemic, NASCAR is lapping the rest of the field.

The stock car racing association has gone from zero to 60 in the restarting of meaningful races after being locked down during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic,while the rest of the major sports are still struggling with game plans for resuming play. But the motor sport, not especially known for its diversity behind the wheel and in the stands, has also reacted to the national reckoning on racism in the wake of the George Floyd killing more decisively than its counterparts, banning the Confederate flag from all races.

As other sports remain sidelined, NASCAR races on FOX and FS1 have drawn 11.2 million new viewers during the first nine NASCAR Cup Series races after their suspension due to COVID-19 ended, according to the Nielsen Company.

“I am proud of what we have accomplished, it’s been incredibly rewarding and a special time for our sport," Jill Gregory, NASCAR's chief marketing and content officer, said.

"We also understand that NASCAR has a great responsibility in being one of the only sports back in action. It’s fair to say that the nature of our competition was far more conducive for a return than for stick-and-ball sports. We race in massive, open-air facilities that afford us the space to properly social distance. Our drivers are in self-contained vehicles and our pit crews are already accustomed to wearing protective gear on their faces.

"So, from an operational standpoint, we had some advantages that allowed us to return earlier than most."

Before the sport returned May 17, NASCAR instituted a number of COVID-19 safety precautions -- including temperature checks on drivers, mask requirements, reconfigured pits to allow for social distancing, a drastic cut to the number of personnel allowed onsite during race weekends, and largely closing the stands to the public. But once the cars hit 180 miles an hour, little seems to have changed.

"When you’re in the race, nothing really changes anyway," driver Denny Hamlin told NBC News during a recent conference call with reporters.

"It’s the before and after that has been the biggest transition for us. Not being able to celebrate after race wins (with your crew) -- that has been the biggest differences."

Other sports, however, will have a much harder struggle maintaining similar protocols. It will be impossible for a linebacker to social distance, for example, while trying to tackle a running back once the 2020 NFL season kicks off this fall.

Assuming the NFL season does kick off this fall.

After locking down through the spring, abruptly interrupting the professional baseball, basketball and hockey seasons and planned football training camp time, the major sports have come up with strategies to resume in a responsible fashion. After a contentious negotiation between the league and the players association, for example, MLB announced June 24 that a truncated 60-game season would kick off later this month. The NBA rebounded from its long shutdown with a plan for a 22-team finish to the interrupted season that will determine seeding for a playoffs — with all the games being held at Walt Disney World in Orlando to quarantine the players and the staff members.

"Football teams, basketball teams, they're very close to each other," said Dr. Robert Murphy, the director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

"The players are swearing, they're coughing, they're shouting, they're in very close proximity. So the team sports are so far more at risk for spreading this around."

Of course, NASCAR will face a much tougher test if and when racetracks reopen to some degree, as states lift bans on large gatherings. Some of the raceways on the schedule through the playoffs in September are in states where there is still a raging debate over wearing masks. Crowd control will also be difficult at security gates and concession stands.

"They have to reconfigure how people purchase foods and (souvenirs), and also how people use the bathrooms," Murphy said. "Ideally, they've got to change over so there's limited hand contact with any hardware in the bathroom. And they're going to have to get rid of the hot-air hand dryers. That's just going to blow it all around the room."

Image: NASCAR: Pocono 350 Cup Series
A protester stands along Long Pond Road just outside of the racetrack, after NASCAR banned the Confederate flag, prior to the Pocono 350 at Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa., on June 28, 2020.Matthew O'Haren / USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

What has been more surprising than adjusting to the pandemic is how NASCAR has handled the changed national dialogue on racism in the aftermath of video footage showing then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, pressing his knee into the neck of Floyd, a Black man.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed drivers, teams and fans two days later, before the race May 28 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, "to acknowledge we must do better as a sport." There was little at the time, however, to differentiate the address from other corporate messaging coming out of league offices across pro sports. This is, after all, a sport where there is just one Black owner, ex-NBA star Brad Daugherty, co-owner of the JTG Daugherty Racing team.

But then June 10, NASCAR shocked fans by banning Confederate flags from all events, just two days after Darrell "Bubba" Wallace, Jr., the only black driver in the association's top series, publicly called for the change. The flags, with a history steeped in slavery and racism, had long been a staple on race weekends, particularly at tracks in the South. One driver in the NASCAR Truck Series, Ray Ciccarelli, announced he was leaving the sport in protest; a small plane pulling the Confederate flag flew over the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama before a June 22 race.

"To put (Phelps') words into action, the first step had to be the confederate flag and we were able to move quickly and align both as a company and industry to have it removed," Gregory said. "If we’re going to champion a culture and community that is welcoming and inclusive, these types of symbols cannot be tolerated."

The historic ban also put Wallace, who now drives with "Black Lives Matter" emblazoned across the hood of his No. 43 race car, as a polarizing symbol.

"It’s not like I wanted to be in this position or asked to be in this position, it just happened," the 26-year-old racer said during a conference call.

Sales of Wallace's officially licensed merchandise have surged to the top since his June 10 race at Martinsville Speedway, a huge jump for a driver who previously didn't rank in the top 10.

Two weeks later, Wallace was at the center of another historic moment for the sport as fellow drivers marched alongside his car at Talladega in a show of unity after a noose was reportedly discovered in the garage assigned to him.

The FBI would later rule out a crime in the incident, citing video evidence which shows the rope had been in the stall months before it was assigned to Wallace. But NASCAR doubled down on its support, releasing the evidence photo of the rope to dispel any gossip that the incident was a hoax.

Gregory said the overwhelming positive reaction has shown up in more than just ratings and sales statistics. NASCAR has noticed a number of high profile Black celebrities and influencers on social media asking about future races. The association is betting that they will not drive away many old fans in their attempt to open up the sports to a much more diverse audience.

"Over the past few months, we have been able to showcase what NASCAR is all about to an audience that likely hasn’t considered us before," Gregory said. "Equally as important is providing our existing fans with the racing they love, and hopefully bringing them a level of escape and normalcy."