Racing Against Coronavirus

The global coronavirus pandemic shut NASCAR down for two months. The racing at Darlington Raceway on May 17 won’t look like anything we’ve ever seen before. But will those precautions keep drivers, crews, and media safe?

Why Worry About Viruses?

There are millions of types of viruses in the world. Some only infect plants (mosaic tobacco virus), some affect animals (Bordatella) and some attack people (Measles and Coronaviruses, for example.)

How Viruses Work

Viruses contain DNA or RNA, which are basically instruction books that tell a cell what to make. Coronavirus is a RNA virus.

Viruses can’t replicate on their own: They need a cell to make more of themselves. A virus’s RNA or DNA is wrapped in proteins that help the virus attach to and break into cells. Once inside, the DNA or RNA tells the cell to make thousands more copies of itself. A virus hijacks your body’s cells and turns them against you.

Viruses mutate: Copying a virus can introduce mistakes in the genetic code. Mistakes that help the virus survive become part of the virus. Those reproduction mistakes help us track the virus the same way DNA lets people track their genealogy.

Coronaviruses got their name because the way the proteins are arranged on the outside makes it look like a corona or halo. Ebola is an arenavirus, which was named because arena is latin for sand and arenaviruses look like tiny sand particles under a microscope.

A diagram of a coronavirus, showing the RNA inside and the proteins on the outside that give it its name.


Viruses are small: the diameter of a human hair is about 80 microns. Typical viruses are a tenth of a micron. (For comparison, a cell is about 10 microns.) The limit of human vision is about 40 microns, so you can’t see a coronavirus. And, at that size, it’s hard to find any normal material that could be used for PPE.

A human hair is about one-hundred microns or so. A micron is about a hundredth of that

Luckily for us, Coronavirus is spread through droplets. When you cough or sneeze (or, to some extent, talk), you spew droplets into the air. Smaller, lighter droplets travel further in the air. Coronavirus droplets are from two tenths of a micron to a couple hundred microns.

A cough or sneeze can spread virus-containing droplets six to ten feet in the air.

This is where that six-foot number comes from.

How to Stop Coronavirus

  • First and foremost, keep it contained
    • Masks are not there to protect you: They’re there to keep you from introducing coronavirus into the environment. You can have the coronavirus and never have any symptoms, but if you’re sneezing all over the place, some person at higher risk than you (grandparents, people doing chemotherapy, people with a hampered immune system) can pick it up from you.
    • If you’ve been exposed, isolate yourself from everyone for 14 days, which is the time it takes for the body to make enough copies of the virus that you start to experience symptoms.
  • Clean, clean, clean. Coronavirus can survive on surfaces for times from a few hours to a few days.
    • Disinfectants containing at least 60% alcohol break the virus open, thus rendering it inert.
      • This does not work inside the body, so no, this is not an excuse for you to spend your days drinking beer.
    • Soap and water dissolves the fatty lipid shell around the virus, again, rendering it inert
      • And for heaven’s sake, don’t drink disinfectants or bleach!
      • Also, never mix bleach with any cleaner containing ammonia. It creates a chlorine gas that can kill you.

What NASCAR is Doing

NASCAR will be one of the first sports back with live offerings when the series races at Darlington Raceway on May 17th. The coronavirus poses new issues for the sanctioning body.

Are Outdoor Sports Less Likely to Spread the Coronavirus?

Some people argue that NASCAR is an outdoor sport and thus doesn’t have the same problems as a sport like basketball.

In general, that’s true that outdoors is better, but that’s not because of temperature or more fresh air: it’s because there is more room to spread out. That should decrease the number of times you interact closely with other people.

Baseball is an outdoor sport, too, but there’s no way to keep the ump and catcher six feet from the batter. And putting the players in the dugout isn’t really much better than locking them in a room.

NASCAR is using all these factors to their advantage.

  • Tracks are big. They have lots of room to spread out, especially with no fans. Every other garage stall will be used, which means some teams will be setting up their garage in the motorhome lot at Darlington.
  • NASCAR’s further limited the number of people each team can bring to 15, including the driver. That’s down by about five people per team, which means there are 225 or so fewer people at the track. Fewer people means fewer interactions.
  • Single-day races within driving distance of Charlotte eliminates the need for motorhomes, hotels, and airplanes — however, teams do still have to get to the track.
  • Even stripped down, without fans, there will be in the neighborhood of 2000 people at Darlington on the 19th.

Can NASCAR Ensure No One Who’s Sick Gets Into the Track?

Unfortunately, no. They will be taking temperatures entering and leaving the track, but we’ve seen that

  • It’s possible to have the coronavirus and not exhibit any symptoms
  • If you have the coronavirus, you are contagious before you exhibit any symptoms like fever.

Will NASCAR Test Everyone?

The only thing a coronavirus test tells you is that you have the virus. Results take 2-3 days, so a test can’t be used at the entry to select out anyone who might be sick. There are faster test machines, but they need to be used in hospitals, not at racetracks.

NASCAR opted against antibody tests. At this point, they’re not reliable enough, plus we don’t know for sure whether having had the virus makes you immune to getting it again — especially if the virus mutates quickly.

NASCAR prioritizes protection over detection, which means assuming the worst case — that someone is carrying the coronavirus — and making sure it can’t spread.

Doesn’t Pit Crew Equipment Protect Them Already?

During the debate about whether we should have pit stops in the first races back, some people argued that the pit crew, next to the driver, has the most safety equipment, so why eliminate pit stops?

While it’s true that pit crews wear a lot of safety equipment, that equipment is optimized against impacts and fire, not viruses.

Viruses can live on your skin for a long time. That’s why you shouldn’t touch your face and you should wash your hands every chance you get. Any viruses you’ve picked up with your hands can get into your nose or mouth: two favorite entryways for viruses.

There are huge differences between biosafety suit and a firesuit.

A biochemical safety suit and a firesuit may look similar, but they have totally different functions.

A lot of the issue comes down to woven vs. non-woven fabrics — something that’s been discussed a lot in reference to hospital-grade PPE and homemade masks.

Woven fabrics have holes. Tiny holes, but remember that viruses are even tinier. In contrast, the fibers in non-woven fabrics are randomly arranged, leaving much smaller (if any) holes. Multiple layers of non-woven fabrics are used for hospital-quality PPE — but they’re also difficult to breathe in.

Woven fabrics have holes in the them: the sizes of the holes determine what can get through. Non-woven fabrics block particles from getting past.
  • Firesuits are made from woven Nomex (or other fire-resistant) fibers. There’s no difference between a firesuit and a quilted coat until the suit is exposed to fire.
  • Biosafety suits are made from non-women materials
    • Tyvek is a non-woven, hard-to-tear material high-density polyethylene that allows water vapor in or out, but not water
      • The United States Postal Service uses Tyvek for some Priority and Express Mail envelopes
      • Houses are often wrapped in Tyvek sheets.
    • Tychem is also non-woven and hard-to-tear, but has a higher resistance to liquids.

If you’ve ever tried a sauna suit — an impermeable material that makes you sweat so that you lose water weight — you know that no one wants to do a pit stop in Tyvek or Tychem.


Racing helmets protect against impact. Even a full-face helmet with a visor won’t keep a virus out, so NASCAR will require pit crew members to wear either:

  • a face shield that goes from above the eyes to the chin
  • a fire-resistant balaclava (sock mask) that covers the nose and mouth.

Even during pit stops, the pit crew wears the equivalent of a face mask.

Face Masks

Everyone will wear face masks at all times they are around anyone else. There won’t be any conversations over lunch because everyone will have to spread out far enough that it’s safe to remove masks.

Remember: Face masks don’t protect you: they protect everyone else from you. And vice-versa.

It’s not me I worry about. It’s the forty-two other &@@holes out there.

Michael Waltrip

I know where I’ve been and who I’ve been in contact with, but I have no way to know that about you. Wearing a mask protects your fellow workers, plus the wife undergoing chemotherapy, the grandfather suffering from diabetes, and the child with an undiagnosed heart problem.

Refusing to wear a mask is giving everyone around you the middle finger. You’re broadcasting that you don’t care if they get a disease that might kill them and their family.

NASCAR can fine any competitor $10,000 to $50,000 for not following the new health and safety rules, including mask wearing.

Why Isn’t Practice Safe? Or Qualifying?

Another argument says that there’s no point in limiting on-track time because the drivers are all in their own cars. That misses the reality of what happens in the garage. Here’s why there’s no practice or qualifying.

  • The car must arrive at the track ready to race. This eliminates time spent in the confines of the garage setting the car up, which minimizes person-to-person contact.
  • There’s no need to have a back-up car, which means less demand for person-power back at the shop.
  • There will only be one inspection, which will happen right after the teams unload. They’ll use a staggered entry and exit to/from the track to control the flow of people.

What If the Worst Happens?

Sure, there’s a positive to being the only live sport back. We know people starved for sports who might not normally watch NASCAR plan to tune in. It’s a great chance to get new fans.

But what if there’s a coronavirus outbreak at the track?

NASCAR’s already thought about contact tracing. Team members are required to note who they interact with, but NASCAR is working on a phone-based app to do this.

The idea is simple. Everyone who wants to be at the track must install the app. When your phone gets within six feet of another person’s phone, they ping each other (probably via bluetooth) and record the interaction. If someone does come down with COVID-19, the app notifies everyone who was in contact with that person so that they can quickly quarantine.

What’s the Best that Could Happen?

NASCAR is working with local and state health authorities, but I really hope they are engaging with public health researchers because this is a unique environment in which to study techniques to prevent coronavirus spread. NASCAR can enforce 100% compliance with the safety recommendations — something that isn’t possible most places. It’s a small, well-defined system from which we could learn a lot about this disease and how to operate safely while it’s still uncontrolled.

1 Comment

  1. An absolute voice of education and reason!. I have explained the mask issue 1000 times at least, but too many abhor simple education.

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