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Transcript: NASCAR officials Steve O’Donnell, John Bobo on return to racing

ERIC NYQUIST:  Welcome, everybody.  Appreciate you making the time for today’s media teleconference with NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, Steve O’Donnell; and NASCAR vice president of racing operations John Bobo.  We’re going to get to as many questions as we can after today’s announcement.

To start this thing off, I’m going to open up with a question to Steve.

Can you start with an overview on the steps that have been taken in the return to racing and some of the plans from a competition perspective?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Certainly want to echo what Eric said, want to welcome everybody, hope that everybody has been able to remain healthy during what we all know is an unprecedented time.

As we stated in our release, we’re incredibly excited ‑ the teams, tracks, TV partners, OEMs ‑ to return to racing, but also understand the tremendous responsibility that’s going to come with that return.

As you saw, our return in Darlington is going to be an environment that we need to make sure we’re taking all measures available to us for the safety of our competitors and certainly for the local community.

As we developed the return to racing schedule we understood, and I’ve seen this many times from the media, that it’s going to be a fluid situation, we’re going to need to factor in many, many variables.

I think most important for us at the onset was the development of a plan that was discussed with public health officials, medical experts, state and local officials.  John Bobo, when he speaks, will run you through a lot of the details of those plans.

Then it was important for us to work with all of our stakeholders, that include the teams, the tracks, OEMs, engine builders, our suppliers, TV partners.  All those folks had to weigh in and talk about what was possible in this environment.

From there we had an internal group of Ben Kennedy, Ben Baker and Scott Miller who led the discussions around the schedule.  I think we’re on version 65 right now for the national series, so a lot of changes have come throughout that.  But a portion of that you saw today.

Just quickly going over what we’re planning on heading into:

The 17th we’ll open up at Darlington, 400‑mile race.  That race will include live pit stops.  It was important for us to be able to showcase a race as close to what normally takes place as possible.  But it was also important for us to minimize what activity took place leading up to the event.  That’s why we don’t have practice or qualifying prior to that event.

The same thing will be in place Tuesday when we go back to Darlington for the Xfinity race.  No practice or qualifying, 200‑mile race.  Then Wednesday we’ll go back with the second Cup race, 500 kilometer.  Again, no practice or qualifying, but live pit stops.

For Darlington the Southern 500 remains in place over Labor Day weekend.  The dates that we’ve announced today will be realign dates.  We’ll have more details that will be out to you shortly.  As I’m sure you can appreciate, we have some work to do with local and state officials and tracks as well to make sure that all that messaging and things are in place in those local communities of a date moved to Darlington.

We’ll go from there to Charlotte, the Coke 600.  That will include qualifying.  Of the events we announced, qualifying will take place for that event.  We’ll have three more nights of racing, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.  Monday the Xfinity race, 300 miles.  Tuesday the trucks, 201 miles.  Then Wednesday we will go with the 500 K.  No practice or qualifying for that Cup race Wednesday night.  Similar to Darlington, that will be a race moved to Charlotte, but on the oval.

Just getting a little bit into the weeds, I think you can anticipate for that first race in Darlington a competition caution of some kind for the May 17th event.  Obviously we’re still working through what that may look like.  We want to allow for some adjustments for the teams, so a lot of dialogue still going on.  I’m also confident when we go back on Wednesday night, on the 20th, you may see some different things based on what we learned with our opening event.

Our intent remains to run the same number of events that we announced at the beginning of the season, and that’s for all three national series.  Our goal was also as we put this together to keep as many races as possible intact towards the middle of the back half of the season.  That’s why you’re seeing some of the events take place as early as we can and as close in proximity to each race as we can.

With that I’m going to turn it over to John Bobo.  He’ll walk you through a lot of the hows of how we got here and what we’re going to have in place for the event.

JOHN BOBO:  Thanks, Steve.

Early on in March we realized we needed to be smarter about the coronavirus.  Engaged with an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist.  Also worked with a number of other consulting physicians in emergency medicine who are actively treating COVID patients right now in development of this plan.

Also as we developed a plan, we were in discussion with public health officials.  We continue to be in conversations with public health officials in South Carolina and North Carolina.  We realize that as we are guests in each community, as we prepare for these events, we’re going to keep a close eye on the trends as they develop, knowing our plans can be contingent on those events pandemic related.

Events are going to look different than they have in the past.  The way we travel to the event, the way we enter the event, move about in the event, the way we leave an event is going to be different.  We’re asking teams and all of our participants, organizations, to self‑monitor people for five days for symptoms before they arrive.  We’re asking them to fill out a questionnaire and initial screening for temperature.

Concerns after that, they will go into secondary screening with medical personnel, which will include heart rate, pulse oxygenation.  Medical personnel will make decisions at that point.

We’ll also go through an additional screening for essential personnel.  We’ve been working with the teams on a roster system to make sure the event is limited as to who can attend.  If there’s any operations we can move off‑site, that’s what we’re trying to do to limit the event.

Everybody going into the infield is going to be wearing cloth masks as they move about.  Since there will be no spectators, no fans in the infield, we’ll be able to use the entire infield to space out and socially distance.  We’ll be able to space out the car garages, not just the Cup garage, but the Xfinity and Gander Outdoor garage as well.  We’ll have drivers’ motor coaches there, but not in a driver/owner lot.  We’re spreading those out to provide a place for drivers to self‑isolate during the day.

Our two big things are social distancing and the other is compartmentalization.  With social distancing, we’re going to have one‑way walkways for people, our rules strictly enforced.  If people aren’t complying with our rules for masks and social distancing, they will be removed from the premises.

If we have someone in the broadcast lot, they have no business in the garage, they don’t need to come into the garage, and vice versa.  We need to keep people out of work areas they might not normally get into.

On pit road we are mandating all over over‑the‑wall competitors have at fireproof sock mask that will go from their nose down below their chin, or they have to use the face screen from above their eyes to below their chin.

We’re going to space out our spotters.  Our spotters aren’t necessarily going to be on the roof but across the top of the empty stadium, all six to 10 feet between them.  They can play the important role they play in the competition.

Temperatures will be taken randomly throughout the event of people as needed.  Symptomatic patients will be processed and removed from the event and given medical attention if needed.  We’ll be doing that outside the infield care center to protect the integrity of the infield care center for emergency operations during the race.

Post race we’re going to stagger people’s exits.  We’ll be looking at temperature and other factors as they leave.  We’re also requiring all the teams to disinfect as needed and we’ll even seal haulers and things like that to make sure as they go to the next event they’re safe.

We set up lines of communication for every participant to reach out to us on lessons learned after the event so we can get better and smarter on each successive race as we go forward.

Those are some of the things.

I want to talk about testing because I think it may be a question that comes up on COVID‑19 testing, those tests remain in short supply.  Getting results can take two to three days.  Really those tests should be targeted for people most in need.

On the antibody testing, we believe that is still being developed.  Our experts are still unsure about what it means.  There are four coronavirus strains, not the novel coronavirus, but the other others.  Immunity may be three weeks to six months.  Our experts are not able to tell us what that immunity may or may not mean.  We remain curious about it and are going to maintain vigilance on that and watch as those tests improve.

We’re interested in antigen testing, see that as something we can implement in our program at some point.  Again, we’re waiting on further development and FDA approval.

Contact tracing.  We are asking teams and participants to keep a log of who they’ve interacted with throughout the course of a day so if we have a positive post race we can figure out who they were in direct exposure with and ask those people to isolate for 14 days.

We do plan to move to contact tracing software when that is further developed in a more reliable platform that can work state to state as we use it.

We have a lot of confidence in our plan.  We know we have to work together as an industry to keep our own folks safe, to keep each community safe.  But it is the discipline and the safety culture of NASCAR.  We’re the organization that puts cars on the track four days a week at 200 miles an hour.  We think it’s that same discipline and eye towards safety that everybody in our industry has that is going to help us execute on this.

ERIC NYQUIST:  Now we’ll open it up for media questions.


  1. What will be the procedure if a driver or a crew member ends up testing positive in the days following a race?

JOHN BOBO:  That’s a great question.  I think what we would do in that instance is look at every person that driver interacted with directly.  Those folks would probably have to self‑isolate.  Then we would obviously make sure that the driver is going to get the care he needs.

One thing I forgot to mention is we will be following up with each participant.  We’ve asked each organization to do that as well for 14 days for symptoms of anybody that’s attended the event.

I have to say all of our plans have been reviewed by the local health officials, including in South Carolina, the local healthcare provider there as well, as well as in North Carolina.


  1. What will be the parameters you need to see to have races with fans?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I think that’s still a work in progress.  Our priority right now is to try and get back racing in a safe way.  I think certainly the NASCAR fan is passionate, and we want to conduct events with fans any chance we can get.  But until we believe that it’s a safe environment, and we can work with the local and state communities to make that happen, we’re going to wait until we get that okay.


  1. Steve, all eyes will be on NASCAR as one of the first sports to return, which puts NASCAR in the spotlight to get it right.  How much does that mean?  Is it a factor in deciding to be the first to return?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I think it’s a big factor in terms of getting it right.  We realize up front it’s a huge responsibility for us as a sport.  But I’m also confident in the group we’ve gathered to put this plan together.  Our entire industry has come together to believe in the plan we’ve put together.

We’re certainly going to learn as we go.  But the process we put in place I think gives the industry the confidence that we can be first, we can do this in Darlington.


  1. Steve, as you announce other races, look at other races, are you looking at staying close to home, places we can drive without hotel rooms for the rest of the schedule that you’re eyeballing right now?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  That’s a good question.  Kind of two parts.

I would say outside of the first four Cup events, I’ll just speak to Cup right now, the goal for us is the next I’d say three events we would like to be drivable as well.  Once you get beyond that we do have states that have said, Hey, we’re good to go racing.

But our goal was to get at least seven or so events under our belt, drivable, learn as we go, not have to put people on planes if we could avoid that.

Once we get beyond those, I think you’ll see us move in.  I keep using the word ‘fluid’, but it is.  Once you get beyond those seven events we feel like we’ll be ready to continue to look at races where we may be able to travel.


  1. Obviously with some tracks getting additional races, that means other tracks will lose some.  Where are you at in the process of determining which tracks will lose dates?  How far along has that decision come?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  What I would say is those decisions have been made.  We’re not ready to announce those.  That’s not to hide the ball.  That is to make sure that we can have proper communication not only with those tracks and the personnel, which I’m sure you can appreciate, but we have a lot of fans in those areas.

For the couple tracks where we need to move an event, we want to do that in the right way.  We will certainly disclose that to the media, the race teams and the fans will know ahead of time before we get to Darlington.  We just want to take a little time here before we’re able to announce that.


  1. That’s something you expect to announce in the next week or so or couple weeks?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I’d say in the coming weeks is fair.  We’ve assured the industry that prior to Darlington they’re going to know.  There’s obviously sponsor implications of events that they may have sold.  We have to disclose those, purse implications.  We want to make sure we do it in the right way for the local fan base for those particular events.


  1. Steve, how many team members will be allowed in the garage area for each team at Darlington?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Total roster will be 16, that includes driver, owners, crew members, pit crew members.


  1. I know you talked about self‑monitoring in between events.  Will they be allowed to go and work in the race team shop or will they be either mandated or encouraged not to do so to decrease the chance of infection returning to a future race event?

JOHN BOBO:  We’ve recommended to the teams that the people at the events not come back into the race shop.

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Similar with drivers.


  1. Steve, do you anticipate the Playoff to be the existing 10 races on their current dates or is there a possibility that the Playoff might extend a little bit deeper in November than you have scheduled right now?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I would say on versions probably 40 through 55 we extended through December.  Then things have changed.  It’s backed up.  As of today we expect the Playoff calendar to stay intact on the Cup side where we had it ending at the beginning of the year.

Again, that could change if some things happen, but that is our intent right now.


  1. Especially the short tracks have different infield layouts.  Will that factor where you’ll be able to go in terms of the distancing?

JOHN BOBO:  Our setup at each track will look different.  If we’re at a short track, we’ll obviously be staged outside the infield in more of our operations to make sure we have the social distancing and compartmentalization we need on the inside.


  1. When picking a date on when to return, how much consideration was given to knowing that sooner is better for the teams because of financial considerations of them not having revenue coming in?

JOHN BOBO:  I would say first consideration are the state and local trends, whether restrictions have been eased in a way that allow our event.  We want to go into communities where we know we’ll be welcomed and be good guests.

I would turn it over to Steve.

STEVE O’DONNELL:  When you do look at other sports, we do look at we’re an outdoor sport, we do have drivers with helmets, we are in racecars.  There are some unique things about our sport that we did feel like provided us the opportunity to get back if we could, to John’s point, where we knew we were going to be safe.  That was first and foremost during our decisions.

If we didn’t feel like we had the support of the local community, health officials, the state, you wouldn’t see us racing till November.  That was a key for us to make sure that was in place.


  1. As far as qualifying goes, how will that be determined?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  We are probably not ready to determine that.  I shouldn’t say that.  We’re not ready to announce that because we have a few different ideas.

A good assumption will be to start off for the first race by points, so you’ll qualify based on points, the lineup, same with picking pits.  We realize that as you go through events that’s not the best way to do things, so there’s some discussion going on with the race teams and drivers about as you get to race two and three, are there some things we can do to mix it up a little bit around pit selection or possibly for race two start that lineup based on how you finished in race one.

More to come.  We want to flesh out a few more things with the teams, make sure we have the best possible lineup set.


  1. As far as testing on the teams, if there are multiple cases on a team, what will you do to stop the transmission of that?  If you have to replace a driver, what would be the procedure for that?

JOHN BOBO:  If people are removed, we are going to replace people.  If there are multiple positives, of course we’re obviously going to look at everything that’s gone on around there and investigate, see what we need to do to continue to be safe.

STEVE O’DONNELL:  We hope we don’t have to do this, but we will allow a replacement person for a team member or for a driver.  The parameters will be set up in place with the screening prior to the race, especially for Darlington.  A worst‑case scenario, a three‑hour window if we had to replace someone, we’d have that time.  As you get beyond that, you look at the what ifs.  We’re going to learn as we go.

If you had multiple teams, that’s certainly a different story than if we were just isolating one person.


  1. Looking at the Cup Series, you talked about a 16 crew member roster including the driver, owner and the spotter.  Knowing how small the landscape of a pit box is, how many people are going to be allowed in each pit box?

JOHN BOBO:  We’re going to have the luxury without fans there to space out as much as possible, especially if there aren’t other guests sitting in the pit box.  We are encouraging teams to have people on different rows, to move to different locations, to do whatever it is they can to socially distance.

I will say this, though.  For the pit crews, they’re wearing fireproof shoes, socks, fire suit, gloves, then facial protection.  Anyone behind the wall, they’re also wearing PPE every step of the way.  We will monitor to make sure that’s done as well.


  1. What media, if any, is going to be permitted to attend the races?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  We’re sitting here with Eric and we are looking at the policy around that.  Obviously the goal for us is to be as inclusive as possible but also adhere to what we need to do from a local event standpoint.

More to come in terms of media presence at the event.  I know Eric and the team are working hard on that and should have something on that in terms of how it’s going to look, policies and procedures.


  1. Do you know when we can expect that announcement or just later this week?

ERIC NYQUIST:  We’ll get you in the coming week.  We’re working through this along with a lot of other variables.  It folds into everything that’s going on.

John, maybe you can speak to that in terms of keeping it to a number.

JOHN BOBO:  One thing that’s our goal is to keep this to essential people only that’s needed to have the race.  It is a race designed for broadcast and not for spectators or people there.  As Steve said, we definitely want to make sure that we can accommodate media to tell our stories as well.

ERIC NYQUIST:  I think it’s fair to say, Do we expect we’ll be able to have everybody on this call at an event?  We don’t.  That’s unfortunate.  I think you’ll see a pool type atmosphere set up around the event to make sure we can accommodate as many as possible, but still TBD.


  1. Can you talk about the Xfinity and Trucks, what that process is going to be going forward, how you will schedule those guys?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  In terms of their race schedule?


  1. Not only the schedule, but their participation, coming to the tracks, limitations on crews.

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Exact same thing as will be put in place with the roster limitations.  We’ll get you those exact numbers.  They’ll be scaled down.  Everything that is put in place from an event standpoint will be in place for all three series.  Live pit stops but no practice and qualifying.  Then the mileage that we’ve announced so far.

We have looked at those events, there will be a few more that will be realigned, than you’ll see in Cup.  In Cup you’ll probably see three races we had to realign.  A few more will take place on Xfinity and Truck.  The intent is we’ll run all points races, the same number we put out at the beginning of the year.


  1. Has there been any consideration with some of the tracks up north that are in hot zones of running a Road Atlanta or another road course or track that NASCAR may own that will allow something to be in the south?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Good question.

I think our first priority was to look at the tracks on the schedule and see if there was a way to accommodate the schedule with those tracks.  So that was our first priority.  Fortunately, as of today we’ve been able to do that.  We’ve certainly had discussions around that with all of our series.  At this point we’re going to remain at the tracks that have been part of the three national series.


  1. I noticed none of the Cup races that have been announced so far have been put in consecutive days.  Pocono has been billed as the sport’s official doubleheader.  Have there been any conversations with Pocono to this point to keep that intact or any efforts to intentionally keep Pocono as the first scheduled doubleheader?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I would say at this point our intent is to keep Pocono as a doubleheader, and for that to be the first scheduled kind of Saturday, Sunday doubleheader.  I think it is fair to assume as you get deeper into the schedule you may see one if not two more additional doubleheaders in the schedule, especially on the Cup side.


  1. Would one of those be expected at Dover?  Dover is currently scheduled for August 23rd.  Would that be one of the other tracks being looked at as a doubleheader option?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  At this point we don’t want to get into which tracks we’re looking at because we want to make sure we’re able to accommodate those at each track.  Got a few more conversations we want to have with our TV partners.  I’d say at least two if not three doubleheaders will be part of it.


  1. This is a very fluid situation, things can change obviously.  If you decide to use a pool media, just use the NASCAR wire service or something like that, will some of the things you’ve incorporated into the iRacing, like the post race teleconferences, anybody with media accreditation with join, are there things like that that you’ll do to open it up for those that will be forced to work remotely?

ERIC NYQUIST:  It’s a good question.  As has been touched on a number of times on the teleconference, obviously it’s going to be a new event, a new setting.  We’re preparing to serve and work through as much in a remote fashion as possible.  That will include the media, how we’re able to deliver, provide the content, the access, things of the like.

We’ve been hard at work on that.  We’ll have more details leading up to the event on that.


  1. Obviously behind the scenes you’ve had to contact different sponsors who may have been looking forward to having a race.  Is that an ongoing one‑on‑one basis for sponsors that are going to be ‘left out’?  Is that something that has to factor into all this?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Yeah, I think there’s so many different conversations with any event, not only that’s taking place without fans, which is difficult.  A lot of our business is based on fans being in the stands, hospitality events, drivers interacting with fans.  When that’s taken away, that’s a challenge.

If you have move an event, there’s a lot of sponsorship that has to be factored in.  To Eric’s point, we’re going to do our best in the event that we have to move an event, what can we do for the realigned event for a sponsor or sponsors who happen to be in place in a different market.  What can you do around virtual signage, things we’ve been able to do that we’ve learned with iRacing, to bring additional sponsor to a sponsor things that weren’t doing before this virus.


  1. Steve, obviously Florida is beginning to ease restrictions on Monday.  Daytona being relatively drivable from the Charlotte area, has Daytona been discussed as a track that could be added to the schedule in the next few weeks?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Daytona and also Miami were discussed and are still discussed.  I think the challenge there very honestly was the governor has been very supportive of NASCAR, NASCAR being here.  Certainly drivable, but a decent drive.  You’d probably have an overnight.  We were really trying to avoid for those first races out of the box to get in and out and have people home that night.

You will see Daytona in that same slot is our hope, as the last race before the Playoffs, and Miami sooner than later as well.  We know that’s an area we can race in a smart way, but we wanted to try to make sure we could get the races as close to the shops as possible.


  1. It sounds like all of this is written in pencil.  Do you have a lot of different potential scenarios mapped out if this happens or that happens?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  I’ll speak to the schedule part and John can speak to the health and safety.

Purely on the schedule we feel like we have a schedule mapped out for all three series that gets us through Phoenix.  We feel like it’s pretty well baked.  We feel like we’ve had the right cadence with where states are, where health officials may be.  Certainly we have backups to backups to backups.

I would say we started about seven pencils and a lot of erasers and have moved to pen now in terms of saying to our broadcast partners and tracks that this is what we believe we can collectively do.  The industry is there, as well.

But until we are racing and until we see how things take place, until we see how this virus affects things down the road, we can’t say for sure.

I do feel confident as an industry we have a schedule that we feel like we can pull off and we can pull off in a good way for the fans.

JOHN BOBO:  Like everyone else, we have to look to our local, state and federal officials on what’s permissible, what we can do, look to the science, to the medical considerations, be able to respond in real‑time as needed based on those trends.  That is what our plan is built around.


  1. If a driver has to be replaced, a driver tests positive, would they keep their points personally going forward, whatever the substitute driver gets for them, or is it like it is currently?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  Thinking as of this moment, it will be as it is currently.  Obviously that could change if we see something different.  I know it’s not the same.  I think it’s a fair question.  But we want to keep the same policies we’ve had in place and try not to deviate from those.  If we had to based on new circumstances, we’d certainly consider that.


  1. You mentioned tracks.  Georgia has been opening up.  Atlanta drivable from Charlotte.  Is it fair to say that’s part of the mix soon?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  That would be fair.


  1. Are you going to have a Victory Lane?  If so, do you have an idea how that’s going to look?

STEVE O’DONNELL:  A bit in the weeds, but we have thought about it.  The drivers have asked us about this, too.  Our goal is to certainly have a celebration on or around the start/finish line.  In an ideal world we would like have to have Victory Lane.  Not sure of all the logistics of how we pull that off.  We certainly want to try and have a trophy, at least that celebration with the driver.

You may see some things that Jill Gregory and her team are working on.  What are some virtual things we can incorporate that we saw in iRacing that can be part of this.  Especially for some of the team members that may not be able to be part of it but are an integral part of that team’s success.

ERIC NYQUIST:  Thank you everybody for taking the time to join.  Appreciate Steve, John, you making the time on this.  For the media, if you have any follow‑up questions, please feel free to follow up with any one of us on the NASCAR communications team.  We’ll do our best to make sure you get what you need.  It’s a fluid situation.  Everybody have a great day and, importantly, hope you’re all staying safe.  Thank you.