Column: Test NASCAR’s unvaccinated as a protocol compromise

Published 11:47 pm Monday, August 23, 2021

By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer

CHARLOTTE — More than a year ago, NASCAR was one of the first major sports to resume competition in the pandemic, touting strict protocols as it headed back to the track.

The one thing NASCAR wouldn’t do back then was test its competitors for COVID-19, citing the short supply of tests just two months into the pandemic.

Fifteen months later, NASCAR still doesn’t test its drivers and crews — even though tests are easily available and daily testing could help the series as it barrels toward the playoffs with separate rules for the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

There’s been little attention on the hesitancy throughout the NASCAR garage, where only five Cup Series drivers have publicly disclosed they’ve received at least one shot. Joey Logano, one race away from launching his bid for a second championship, only got his shot last week because driver Corey LaJoie was sidelined under protocols that seemed to catch the drivers off guard.

LaJoie couldn’t race because he had close contact with someone else who had tested positive for the virus under protocols that have been updated to follow CDC guidelines since vaccines became widely available. Drivers wondered why a negative test wasn’t good enough for LaJoie to race, raising enough questions that NASCAR held a Friday call to clarify its policies.

Following the CDC recommendations led to the creation of separate guidelines depending on vaccination status. An unvaccinated driver who has close contact exposure must quarantine seven days and receive a negative test on Day 5 before they can return to the garage.

That means an unvaccinated driver will miss a race following close contact exposure, their title hopes dashed. A vaccinated driver can return to the garage with proof of a negative test taken 3-5 days after the close contact. There is no automatic benching, no requirement to miss a playoff race.

The drivers don’t think different rules depending on vaccination status is fair, and since LaJoie’s benching they are unlikely to be forthcoming about possible exposures and contact tracing. But there is a simple compromise available for NASCAR: daily testing.

Want to get in the garage? Show your proof of vaccination or arrive early enough to be rapid tested each day.

There is no reason why it can’t be done as Roger Penske proved this spring leading into the Indianapolis 500. Penske didn’t force anyone to be vaccinated, he simply said if you aren’t, then you better build time into your schedule each day to be tested before he’d let you into Gasoline Alley.

IndyCar had some hesitant drivers and Penske gave them a choice. The alternative was certainly inconvenient for anyone trying to get to work on time, but it worked. IndyCar confirmed Monday all of its drivers are all fully vaccinated and the entire paddock is at more than 90%. The clinics run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway have vaccinated more than 92,000 people.

An IndyCar driver has yet to miss a race because of a positive COVID-19 test or contact tracing or any other virus-related protocol. The series is also open to guests and fans in the garage; masks are only required indoors and the industry is functioning business as usual.

In NASCAR, LaJoie was the fourth Cup driver since the start of the pandemic to miss a race because of COVID-19 protocols. He sat out Sunday at Michigan, where Kyle Busch was without his spotter and Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin were each down a tire changer either because of confirmed positive tests or NASCAR virus protocols.

All of this as NASCAR inches back toward stricter procedures. Drivers are canceling appearances and some teams have halted guest access in their suites. Penske and his executives stayed home Sunday rather than make the 90-minute drive from Bloomfield Hills to Michigan International Speedway to watch Ryan Blaney win for Team Penske in their own backyard.

Busch, Hamlin and Keselowski are all qualified for the playoffs, which begin Sept. 5 at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, and all learned at Michigan that NASCAR’s protocols can have a trickle-down effect on an entire team.

When LaJoie wasn’t permitted to race, Logano decided Team Penske has too many employees counting on the success of the No. 22 team for the driver to jeopardize it for everyone over his vaccination status.

NASCAR has said it doesn’t want to mandate vaccines and that’s unlikely to change. But the leaders can make it harder on those resisting the shot by making the unvaccinated pass an on-site test before accessing the garage. If a testing program seems cost prohibitive, NASCAR should bill each person who requires testing.

This goes beyond the drivers. Everyone who wants access to the garage should be held to the same set of guidelines, either proof of vaccination or a test at the track.

The right to make your own choice is often cited in the heated debate over vaccinations, and daily testing not only preserves the right to choose not to be vaccinated but also makes the garage a little safer. Everyone wants a return to some sort of normalcy and NASCAR was getting there through June and July, when pit road reopened to sponsors, and guests and drivers mingled again with the fans.

But as the number of positive virus cases has surged due to the delta variant, NASCAR looked at its vaccination rates and decided it had to start tightening the rules again. Nobody wants to miss a race, no team wants its season upended, and NASCAR certainly doesn’t want an outbreak that could lead to a possible shutdown.

Start testing. Then those who aren’t vaccinated can’t complain about two sets of rules and NASCAR can get out of reverse.