Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
The return of NASCAR’s Cup Series has given sports fans some live entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shut down sports across the globe.
Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina and Denny Hamlin was victorious in the second race at Darlington, the first Wednesday night Cup race since 1984.
There are no fans, which creates a strange dynamic, but racing is back nevertheless.
Two-time NASCAR Cup Series winner Ricky Craven of Newburgh, who is retiring from his Fox TV analyst career after this season, said he is enthusiastic about the return of racing and the fact “it was the first major sport out of the gates.”
The Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association seasons have been suspended since March.
The Real Heroes 400 was the first race in 70 days.
“We all needed this. With what our country has been through, it has been a little short of confidence. This gave us a big boost of confidence and encouragement,” Craven said.
He admits, “I have been consumed by the sport and am obviously partial to it.”
Craven said he was impressed with how smoothly the first race went and that once the race began, it felt normal.
However, he observed that it was strange when Harvick was interviewed on the track after the race and there was nobody in the stands, so there was no celebration.
“It probably went as well as you might expect under the circumstances,” said Fort Kent’s Austin Theriault, who made his NASCAR Cup debut last year with five races for Rick Ware Racing and is hoping to land more rides this season.
“It was real good to see some light at the end of the tunnel for the race fans, the teams and the people throughout motorsports,” Theriault said. “NASCAR is the quintessential American sport. It appears that we are ready to turn the chapter and there will be better days ahead.”
He said watching racing gives people an opportunity to look ahead to a new normal.
Theriault was encouraged by the Wednesday night race, saying a prime-time midweek race has been on NASCAR’s radar for a long time.
“There aren’t many options for sports fans midweek,” said Theriault.
NASCAR revamped its schedule to hold the first four races during a span of 11 days at two tracks. The next two will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
Darlington and Charlotte are only 96 miles apart, which enables drivers and crew members to stay close to home. It will help reduce travel costs and provide a safer environment in dealing with COVID-19.
“Everybody is looking at every way they can to save a buck these days,” said Johnny Clark of Farmingdale, a six-time Pro All Stars Series North Super Late Model points champion. “Everybody has taken a hit because of [COVID-19].”
Clark is glad to see NASCAR return.
“We do need to test the waters a little bit to see where this all goes,” he said.
Cecile Seekins of Stockton Springs, a former racer who is married to longtime driver Duane Seekins, said something is missing.
“I love watching racing. I enjoyed [the first race] but I would rather see fans in the stands,” Seekins said. “I think they could have had some fans if they spread them out. They would have been safe, I think.”
Seekings said the setup for the first four races will benefit the drivers who have fared well at those two tracks in previous events. She feels bad for the drivers who haven’t done well there.
Travis Benjamin of Morrill, a three-time winner of the Oxford 250 and a two-time PASS North SLM points champion, said he is happy to see any kind of sport on television.
He noticed the difference in atmosphere without fans.
“When the trailers pulled in, there wasn’t a soul there,” he said. “Usually, there are a lot of people around. It was definitely different.”
Race teams aren’t allowed to take nearly as many employees as usual to the races. That includes Benjamin’s cousin, Matt Benjamin, who does a little bit of everything, including rear suspension work, for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Travis Benjamin said Matt was bummed out that he couldn’t go and watch Matt Kenseth race. Kenseth, who finished 10th in the opening race, replaced Kyle Larson after Larson was fired for making an inappropriate comment during an iRacing event.
Travis Benjamin said running four races in a span of 11 days, including Saturday’s the grueling Coca Cola 600, likely will take its toll on the drivers.
“It is so hot in those cars. They are going to have to stay hydrated,” Benjamin said. “I don’t race half the laps they do and I know I get tired.”
Donny Silva of Hudson, Asa Jones of Sullivan, Dana Wilbur of Frankfort and Hermon’s Kyle Gray, racing regulars at Speedway 95, are glad racing is back and hope the Hermon racetrack can open soon for racing.
Watch: How Bangor emergency crews are adapting to the pandemic