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      Safety first at Daytona

      By MURRAY GREIG | China Daily | Updated: 2020-12-14 09:16
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      When the 2021 NASCAR season opens with the Daytona 500 on Feb 14, most of the 100,000 grandstand seats at Florida's iconic Daytona International Speedway will be empty, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

      This season, NASCAR raced half of its 32 Cup races with limited fans, and president Steve Phelps expects more of the same in the upcoming campaign.

      "Do I believe we'll have fans in the stands? I do," Phelps said during a videoconference call with media on the weekend. "What percentage of fans in the stands? I'm not sure. Will we have folks in the garage, fans in the garage? I don't know.

      "The hallmark of our sport is about accessibility to the garage, accessibility to the drivers and crews. We don't have that now because we need to keep people safe. The only way we're going to run a race is if we're going to keep people safe."

      Only drivers, race officials and safety workers were permitted into the infield and garage this season, and Phelps previously said that wouldn't change until there was a vaccine available in the US. But he's confident NASCAR can sustain another a year of limited attendance, if necessary.

      "Will everyone's bottom line look more challenged? The answer is definitely yes," he said. "Do I believe we as a sport are going to shut down? We are not. We are going to run races. We can sustain this period where we have a limited number of fans, limited amounts of hospitality. Is this where we want to be? Of course not. Are we financially viable to move forward? We are."

      NASCAR has that luxury due to $8 billion worth of television-rights contracts with Fox Sports and NBC Universal through the 2024 season-the richest broadcast deal in North American sports, after the National Football League. The cash is distributed among the tracks (65 percent), Cup Series teams (25 percent) and the sanctioning body (10 percent) itself.

      The 2021 curtain-raiser in Daytona will come one week after the NFL stages Super Bowl 55 in nearby Tampa, where Raymond James Stadium will be at 20 percent capacity.

      The decision to host race fans, the speedway said, fell "in accordance with enhanced safety protocols and procedures to provide a safe environment for guests, NASCAR competitors, employees and the local community".

      "The Daytona 500 is one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports, and fans from all over the world converge in Daytona Beach to be a part of motor sports' biggest day," speedway president Chip Wile said in a statement.

      The race has been sold out for the past five years.

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