A Daytona 500 unlike any other: the Great American Race during the pandemic

Drivers take the green flag to start the NASCAR Daytona Clash auto race Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) (Chris O'Meara, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

When Denny Hamlin crossed the finish line at the 2020 Daytona 500, becoming the fourth man in history to repeat as champion of the Great American Race, there was no thought of masking or social distancing and the term COVID-19 would have been unknown to most of the 101,000 or so in attendance at the Daytona International Speedway.

Fast forward a year, and the world--and the Speedway have changed. Attendance at Sunday’s Daytona 500 will be limited. The race is already sold out and the crew at the Speedway has spent untold manhours preparing for this week, and in particular, Sunday’s showcase.

“It’s very different. Last year, we were preparing to host the sitting president united states and the First Lady, and 101,000 people,” said Chip Wile, president of the Daytona International Speedway. “It’s just a very different preparation. You’re not focusing on ingress and egress, you’re focused on temperature stations, you’re focused on hand sanitizer stations, you’re focused on social distancing pods, I can tell you, our team has laid almost 10,000, social distancing pods over the course of the last, what, nine and a half months. So the preparation for this event versus Daytona 500. Yes, it feels different. But it’s just as much work. Regardless of the number of people that are here. You know, you still worry about the same things, keeping people safe, making sure that they have a great time. So you know, the jobs a little bit different. But the responsibility is the same.”

Over the course of the past 11 months, Wile has seen other NASCAR tracks deal with the changing conditions of operating major events during the pandemic. They have also seen how Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NFL have handled the pandemic. Remarkably, the organization that the folks at Daytona have leaned on the most during race preparations is just down the street.

“We spent a lot of time with our friends at Disney and universal talking to them about how they got open so quickly and what they were doing,” Wile said. “And a lot of things that people never noticed before. We’re now making sure they notice. So before all the folks cleaning the bathrooms and, and moving, you know, hand sanitizers and things nobody paid attention to now they’re right out in front of you.

“We have people in yellow shirts wiping down high traffic surface areas. And people want to see that makes them feel safe. And so those folks were before we’re backstage are now front stage and they’ve really done a nice job evolving with us and understanding their role and how they are a big now a big part of what we do.”

After all of the preparations and limitations, it’s still going to be the biggest race of the year in NASCAR. And this one has a chance to be historic. If Hamlin can take the checkered flag again, he’ll become the first man to ever three-peat.

“To win one Daytona 500 is so hard. Everything has to go your way throughout the day. You have got to have great pitstops. You have got to be in the right position at the right time. You have got to get the right push at the end. The racing here is so competitive. It’s just hard to win one,” Wile said. “And to think that he’s won three and two consecutive races in a row is incredible. It would be incredible for him to win three consecutive Daytona five 500s on Sunday night.”