DARLINGTON, S.C. (WIS) - When Kerry Tharp was contacted by NASCAR officials about restarting their season in Darlington on May 17, he joked that he didn’t have anything on his schedule that weekend.
Tharp, the president of Darlington Raceway, will be on hand as NASCAR drivers rev their engine for the first time since March at “The Lady in Black” for the Real Heroes 400 on Sunday.
“We’re very proud and very honored that Darlington was the destination for our return to racing,” Tharp said. “You know, what better venue to come back racing than Darlington Raceway? It’s an iconic track. I tell people it’s like the Wrigley Field of NASCAR. Lot of tradition. Lot of history. It’s a very difficult track to get around, especially if you haven’t been racing in about two months. This is kind of like starting off on maybe the toughest hole on a golf course. This is a No. 1 handicap hole right here at Darlington. It’s a big challenge for the teams and the drivers, but I know they’re looking forward to it.”
However, Tharp will not be joined by NASCAR fans who hoped to see the race in person. Instead, fans will have to watch the race from home on television.
“That will be different,” Tharp admitted. “We’re used to having 60,000 people on our property and we’re not going to have that, but I know our folks are going to stay at home and watch and listen and follow.”
An executive order from Gov. Henry McMaster is still in place barring fans from gathering at sporting events in South Carolina in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, Tharp and race officials are also doing their part to ensure the safety of the drivers and team members during their time in Darlington.
“There’s been a lot of planning, a lot of details, that has gone into this process,” Tharp explained. “Our leadership in Daytona, Charlotte, Concord, N.C., in particular, has all banded together, collaborated, and put together, I think, a very sound “Return to Racing” plan. A lot of medical people weighed in on this. NASCAR has enlisted several medical experts across the country. We’ve got some medical experts out of the Florence area at McLeod Regional Health Systems to weigh in on these protocols. Everybody’s comfortable, I think, with the plan that we have in place.
Tharp said participants will be pre-screened before getting onto the property and they’ll be screened again once they arrive. That includes a temperature and symptoms check. Tharp also noted that a limited number of people will be allowed inside the racetrack as a precaution. Those who are allowed on the property will be outfitted in personal protective equipment. Plus, Tharp said there will be a lot of sanitizing during the events with teams also being urged to follow social distancing markers that have been laid out.
Another unique change for this weekend’s race is that teams will not arrive at the raceway until Sunday. Cars and haulers will also be spread out in certain areas on the infield.
“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that we have a safe environment for these competitors,” Tharp said. “That’s really a top priority for us is that we come to these events safe and sound and are able to continue our schedule for the balance of the season.”
Aside from UFC events, there have hardly been any live sports for fans to watch at home. To be able to host this live event on Sunday is an honor, according to Tharp.
“I think that just is another example of how resilient and how proud this state is,” Tharp said. “This state has been over the years and years since it’s been a state hasn’t always had it easy and the people in this state are tough, God-fearing people that love each other and love the state and sports is a big part of the state, obviously -- college sports, Darlington, the Heritage. The PGA will have an event in Hilton Head next month without fans, but [it’s] a professional event in the state of South Carolina. So, for us to kind of take the leadership role in helping bring back live sports to this country, it’s something that I think everybody in this state should take pride in.”
Still, with that honor of hosting one of the first major live televised sporting events since sports were shut down, Tharp also understands there is pressure that comes with that.
“It’s a humbling experience, a big responsibility” Tharp said. “We’ve got to get this right. We’ve got three chances here coming up Sunday, Tuesday, [and] Wednesday. We’ve got to get these right and move on to Charlotte and continue to improve this process, but we’re the first ones out of the box. We need to get it right.”
The Real Heroes 400 will take place at 3:30 p.m. on May 17. Check your local television listings for more information.