DOVER, Del. (AP) - Mike Tatoian remembers when Dover’s first NASCAR race of the season was canceled.
While it was difficult news, the president and CEO of Dover International Speedway knew there was still an August race slated for the Monster Mile.
At the time, Tatoian remembers not being overly worried about that weekend being affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We thought, of course, the August race, that’s going to be safe,” he said. “Well, as time draws on, it’s like, OK, this thing is lingering for a while.”
Indeed, there really are no certainties in the sports world right now.
But NASCAR is going to try to bring some normalcy back to sports when it holds a Cup Series race at Darlington on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. It’s the first of four Cup races being run at Darlington and Charlotte in the next eight days.
There will also be a pair of Xfinity races and a truck event held in the same span.
All the events will be held without fans in attendance to try to limit the spread of the virus.
As the first major sporting event held in the U.S. since everything was shut down by the pandemic, the races are expected to receive a great deal of scrutiny - even from outside the racing world.
With another race weekend on tap, Dover officials will naturally be watching closely, too.
“I think it’s great for the sport,” said Tatoian. “I think the country needs it. And I think all eyes will be on the events this weekend. There are so many different reasons why it’s important we get off to a great start. I think we’re going to be catching eyeballs that otherwise wouldn’t normally be watching.
“It’s a major sport cranking it back up again and getting the country back on track. … There will be a lot of scrutiny from a lot of different perspectives looking to see how we’re doing it. We’re all rooting for a great restart.”
Dover International Speedway officials are planning as if fans will be able to attend the August race.
Tatoian was quick to point out that it was not solely NASCAR’s decision to start racing again. Health officials from both North and South Carolina were also involved among many others.
The biggest issue, of course, is preventing any new outbreaks of the virus with the gathering of large groups of people needed to hold a race.
“We won’t know until it actually gets executed, but what they have put in place is excellent,” said Tatoian. “We’re going to get better and better and more refined as we go. And the country and the world is going to learn more.”
If the Monster Mile was the venue hosting a race this weekend, Tatoian said Dover track officials would know the steps they’d need to take to keep everyone safe.
But, naturally, the more experience NASCAR gets in holding races between now and August, the better off everyone will be.
For now, Dover will continue to plan its race weekend as if fans will be allowed to attend. The Monster Mile is slated to host its next race weekend on Aug. 21-23.
The date had already been moved up from its usual fall weekend well before the pandemic struck.
Tatoian said preparing to have fans at the Dover race is “not just kind of a hope and a prayer.”
“It really is how we have to prepare,” he said. “We can’t take the attitude of, ‘Well, there’s no chance we’re going to have fans,’ and then all of a sudden, we do have the ability to host fans and we’re not prepared for it.”
Of course, Dover would rather host its weekend with fans on hand. Tatoian, though, said a TV-only event is better than none at all.
The benefits start with revenue from the broadcast itself and include sponsors having their brand shown on TV.
“It’s important for us to run the race and have it on television,” said Tatoian. “Our fans are incredibly passionate. We’d love to host them. But we won’t do it at the sacrifice of their safety.
“Having races without fans is far, far better than not having them at all,” he added.
Given the current situation, the three months between now and the Dover race is an eternity. Any number of factors between now and then could change things.
At the same time, the road to getting back to normal starts this weekend. While only one track is hosting Sunday’s race, every NASCAR venue has a stake in it.
“It’s a close-knit fraternity from the standpoint of best practices,” said Tatoian. “Here’s what we learned from that event. For sure, that will get shared with all the tracks. We’ll want to learn.
“We’re all rooting for one another,” he added. “We’re all in this together.”
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