MOORESVILLE, N.C. — The drive from Uptown Charlotte to Go Fas Racing’s shop in Mooresville provides subtle reminders of the global pandemic that has become so omnipresent it hardly needs mentioning.
Masked pedestrians are scattered far and few between along empty sidewalks, parking lots of major businesses sit deserted and a giant digital sign that hangs over Interstate 85 reads “Stay Home.”
But pull off the highway at Exit 52 and drive 15 miles north on a single-lane road past beat-up cars parked on overgrown grass lots and 18-wheelers on their delivery routes, and it’s easy to become oblivious to the more than 12,800 cases of coronavirus that have spread across North Carolina. Life here is always so isolated.
Reality returns with civilization along a mile-long loop called Performance Road, a motorsports haven lined with race team garages and auto repair shops. One store advertises “Hot Rods, Muscle Cars and Classics.” Its doors are closed and the lights are off, but a few hundred yards north over at Go Fas Racing’s garage, the lights (and masks) are on.
“I would say the masks are the biggest thing,” Go Fas crew member Chris Womack said. “You take breaks to clean your hands and make sure you’re not ’round nobody.”
“But other than that,” Womack continued. “Work has not really changed for us.”
Womack is a front-end mechanic for Go Fas, the NASCAR Cup team that fields the No. 32 Ford Mustang driven by Corey LaJoie. The 33-year-old mechanic talked about his job servicing the front parts of the car, such as the brakes, steering box and suspension, over the sounds of hammering in the depths of the shop and through his N95 mask, which is not normally worn for his work.
“We spray more,” Womack said. “We make sure everything’s cleaner than normal. We make sure that we’re wearing gloves and changing them in and out so we’re not wearing the same pair for an hour.”
An aerosol can of Lysol sat on a table a few feet away to his right. On his left was a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer. Those items don’t typically have such a prominent home in the shop, but now they can be found scattered on tables next to power drills and team notes. Their containers are dwarfed by the giant car bodies that take up most of the 9,000-square-foot space, but they’re just as important.
“This is such a small team,” said Go Fas crew chief Ryan Sparks, who directs a crew of eight members. “If one person got sick, it could hurt us pretty bad.”
The small staff size helps engineers and mechanics like Womack stay socially distanced while working. Womack said it has been easy to maintain six-foot spacing while doing his job, which he returned to last Tuesday. If two people are working on the same car, one tries to stay in the front and the other tries to stay in the back or on opposite sides of the body.
This practice has become standard for teams preparing the single car they will take to compete at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina next week for NASCAR’s first race back after a two-month postponement due to the coronavirus. Once at the track, contact between crew members will be even more limited and there will be no practice or qualifying laps. Teams will prepare their rides before traveling, unload them at the track and then race, hoping that the car doesn’t get severely damaged so it can be used again for the following race at Darlington three days later.
“(NASCAR) is trying to save us time and money,” Sparks said. “Not having to prepare backup cars every week where we just have one car we take to the race track.”
This is one of the reasons why it’s possible for the sport to return amid the pandemic; jobs are already broken up for optimal efficiency in NASCAR, so there’s limited contact between crew members, and with a few adjustments to the roster number and pre-race procedures, the integrity of the sport can be maintained even if the arena is empty.
“It’s gonna be super weird,” Sparks said about racing without fans. “It’ll probably be funny for some of the fans watching at home seeing everybody walking around and working in masks and stuff like that. The ‘new normal’ or whatever.”
Last week, NASCAR outlined its safety procedures after announcing its first four Cup races back. Those procedures include temperature checks of all personnel at the raceway, required mask-wearing and staggered exits from the venue, among a slew of other policies.
“We have a lot of confidence in our plan,” NASCAR’s VP of racing operations John Bobo said. “We know we have to work together as an industry to keep our own folks safe, to keep each community safe.”
Team rosters for the upcoming races at Darlington and Charlotte will also be limited to 16 individuals. For Go Fas, which only employs 17 people total compared to teams it competes against with more than a hundred employees, the restriction could actually be an advantage.
“We’ve worked with small numbers ever since we raced,” Go Fas general manager Mason St. Hilaire said. “We’re used to it. Some teams are debating between which of four engineers to bring to the racetrack now. We’ve only ever brought one.”
He added: “Our guys are really multi-talented and this is really gonna show that.”
St. Hilaire’s job now consists of determining which of the six cars will make trips to which tracks (the team has 15 cars in rotation), how many masks to bring versus how many will be supplied by NASCAR (he’s got about 100 stored in his desk drawer and another shipment on the way) and how to conduct travel for the early races (the team would usually drive to Darlington together in a seven-passenger van).
St. Hilaire, Womack and Sparks said they were happy to make adjustments to their work as long as it means the return of racing, especially since NASCAR will be on a main stage.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for us to gain a lot of new fans,” Sparks said. “Where a lot of people that would normally be watching Major League Baseball or the NBA finals right now, with no sport to watch, they might give NASCAR a try.”
But NASCAR leadership, drivers and the crew members off tiny Performance Road know the stakes of being the first sport to attempt to set the “new normal,” and echo an underlying fear — not fear for their individual safety, but fear for what a positive COVID-19 test could do to NASCAR when the world is watching.
“Hopefully we put on a good show and reel in some new fans,” Sparks continued. “I just hope no one gets sick.”
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