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Racing Across the COVID-19 Finish Line – Different Approaches to the Same Dilemma

A race car across a COVID-19-riddled finish line

Sports racing attracts millions of fans from all over the world. A wide variety of enthusiasts attend events ranging from grand prix series to the NASCAR circuit. But when the pandemic struck, things rapidly came to a screeching halt. Formula 1 racing never got its season off to a start. And NASCAR soon followed suit by shutting down several planned races. Only recently have both major sports car racing sports resumed actual races. And the impact that COVID-19 and racing restrictions are having are significant.

Naturally, different sports racing organizations have some nuances in their approach to COVID-19 and racing related changes. Different policies for social distancing, testing, and quarantining can be appreciated. But one of the most notable differences pertains to whether or not racing leagues adopt the sports bubble approach. Some have, and some have not. And it’s worth exploring within this context to see which strategy might offer the best solution. This could not only have benefits to racing sports but to other entertainment events as well.

“The key principle was to create this biosphere within which we all operate and within that we create individual bubbles. The reason for the bubble is if there is a [COVID-19] case then I hope we can contain it within that bubble.” – Ross Brawn, Managing Director, Formula 1 Motorsports

Formula 1 Racing’s Sports Bubble Approach

Before early July, Formula 1 racing had cancelled 9 of its signature grand prix events. In fact, the season’s first race in Australia, which was schedule in March, was halted just days before the event. From that point forward, Formula 1 and its partners had to determine how to manage COVID-19 and racing protocols. And ultimately, they decided that a sports bubble approach offered the greatest safety. In doing so, they have had remarkable results, which has allowed its season to resume thus far without catastrophe.

Using a sports bubble approach, Formula 1 allows small pods of individuals that are isolated from others. Those within a sports bubble, which contains from 1 to 12 people, are not allowed to interact with anyone else. In doing so, the rationale is that any problem with COVID-19 and racing personnel can be quickly contained. Teams can also have numerous sports bubbles. In fact, Mercedes, who’s again leading this year in points, has two dozen. Formula 1 worked alongside the WHO to develop this strategy, and so far, it’s worked well without any major mishaps.

“I think there’s a lot of concern over getting sick in the middle of the season, especially before the playoffs or in the playoffs and how that’s going to work.” – Brad Keselowski, NASCAR driver

NASCAR’s Approach to Social Isolation

Unlike Formula 1 racing, NASCAR chose not to impose sports bubble concepts in its post-COVID-19 protocols. Instead, NASCAR creates rules that mostly isolate drivers from their teams. For example, drivers travel in isolation from their homes to racing destinations. NASCAR encourages the use of private airports instead of commercial ones. And once at the race, drivers are kept separate from their teams. During the race, drivers as well as all team members interact through Microsoft Teams to maintain social distancing. Actual sports bubbles are not created, since everyone may return home after a race. But in actuality, it seems like NASCAR has encouraged drivers and teams alike to do it themselves.

A finish line at some race track
COVID-19 has gripped the sports bubble, but professional racing is attempting to break out.

According to some NASCAR drivers, natural incentives exist for them to create their own sports bubbles. If they miss a single race, then they may not make it to the playoffs this season. This would be a tremendous setback given the investments. For example, Jimmie Johnson missed the Brickyard 400 because he tested positive for COVID-19. As a result, he may not qualify for end-of-the-season entrance into the finals. This same risk exists for Formula 1 drivers as well. But NASCAR appears to rely on this incentive more when it comes to COVID-19 and racing precautions.

“We realize what we are dealing with is a very dynamic problem. After each race, we’ve had an intense debrief with all the people involved, worked out how to tie up any loose ends or fix any issues, and so as we go on, we’re only going to get stronger and stronger in our way of meeting this new challenge.” – Ross Brawn

To Test or Not to Test?

In addition to different approaches to social isolation, NASCAR and Formula 1 differ in another important way. Formula 1 requires everyone in the paddocks to be tested for COVID-19 every 5 days. NASCAR, on the other hand, requires no testing at all in its COVID-19 and racing regulations. Jimmie Johnson was only tested because his wife had a positive test. Formula 1 also requires anyone with a positive test and their contacts to quarantine. Likewise, they must have 2 negative tests before they can return. NASCAR has no such policies.

NASCAR made this determination early in its season this year when COVID-19 tests were in short supply. But even with tests being more available, NASCAR has continued its policies. In total, only 2 people are known to have positive COVID-19 tests for NASCAR. The same figure exists for Formula 1. Of course, many others may have had positive tests within NASCAR if testing was uniform. But at least in terms of effects, neither sports racing league has suffered thus far with their chosen approach.

And the Checkered Flag Goes To…

Other sports teams are using the sports bubble approach including the NBA and the NHL. Others are not, such as MLB and its COVID-19 policies. In these types of sports where teams play together, evidence currently favors sports bubble strategies. But that’s not the case for NASCAR and Formula 1. Drives and teams can be effectively isolated without implementing a sports bubble. But each league has taken a different approach to COVID-19 and racing rules. Both are simply trying to get to the end of their seasons safely. And thus far, both approaches seem to be working. With a few more months left in their seasons, hopefully both strategies will prove to be successful.


To read more about challenges and how facing them has made for some great successes, check out Ed Kopko’s PROJECT BOLD LIFE: The Proven Formula to Take on Challenges and Achieve Happiness and Success.

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