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President of Joe Gibbs Racing says NASCAR cancellation 'would have devastated the industry'

The Charlotte Observer — By Alex Andrejev The Charlotte Observer

July 30-- President of Joe Gibbs Racing Dave Alpern said that if NASCAR didn't race this season, there were going to be "some issues" at one of the sport's largest and winningest organizations. Alpern said he doesn't like to even think about that scenario.

"It would have devastated the industry for sure," Alpern said.

Instead, the year has gone "even better than the best scenario," according to Alpern. As professional sports wade through postponed games and team dropouts due to positive COVID-19 tests, NASCAR has continued to plod along since May without any mention of a major outbreak or shortened season. Since the sport's return two and a half months ago, only two drivers-Jimmie Johnson and Brendan Gaughan-have reported positive coronavirus tests, and NASCAR remains on schedule to complete all of its return races before the playoffs in September.

"If you would have asked me in March (if we) would be racing the week before Memorial Day, I would have said that's going to be tough," Alpern said. "So what our sport has pulled off, in my opinion, is remarkable."

Alpern said the most extreme contingency plans considered in March included delaying the start of the season to August, but it quickly became clear that NASCAR would not cancel the season, nor could it afford to. The Joe Gibbs Racing president said he's "hopeful" that his team, which fields top drivers such as Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, will be in "encouraging" financial standing at the end of the year thanks partially to reduced travel costs and mitigating the need for backup cars without practice and qualifying this season. Still, he said the team has not fully reviewed its net revenue. That review will come at the end of the year, and that JGR's financial footing will depend on "many other factors."

"The partners who fund us, we're waiting to see how their businesses are doing," Alpern said. "Are they getting back to business and are they going to be okay as the year goes on? Is our sport going to make it through the end of the year continuing to race all of our races? Which, right now, it appears that we're on a good track for that."

While JGR should stay afloat, smaller teams have suffered the financial impact of the virus worse. Leavine Family Racing owner Bob Leavine has solicited bids for the team in recent months, according to Sports Business Journal. In April, Rick Ware Racing owner Rick Ware told The Observer he estimated the team was losing, at best, half a million dollars after the organization was forced to make pay and job cuts.

LFP, which fields the No. 95 Toyota Camry driven by Cup rookie Christopher Bell, has a strategic partnership with Alpern's JGR team. Bell did not comment on the business side of the industry nor speculate about his future at LFR, but said he is "thankful" NASCAR's been able to pull off its return amid the pandemic thus far.

"I'm really glad that NASCAR took that chance and took a hold of that opportunity to be the first sport back," Bell said. "I hope that we were able to build our fan base and we got some new fans watching and hopefully they continue to watch."

Television viewership on FOX Sports for the first half of the NASCAR season finished down less than 1% from last year's 3.732 million viewers, according to Nielsen data, while ratings and viewership across Fox and NBC networks has actually increased for certain races. Those numbers help drive corporate sponsorships and partnerships for teams.

"So much of the model that we have with 70 to 80 percent of teams' revenue comes from corporate partners," Alpern said. "And the corporate partners get their value from us performing every week on the race track, through social media, the whole process of the week. If that doesn't happen, your business model just doesn't work."

For that reason, Alpern said, it would be difficult for any professional sport to miss an entire season for the pandemic, NASCAR especially.

"We would recover, but it would be hard," Alpern said. "It's a hard business when you run all the races."

He said that there were a number of contingency plans discussed in the early stages of the shutdown, including a delayed start that could have potentially pushed the season to December, but none of those plans contemplated the whole season not running.

"I'd say in that first week, maybe even our first four to six weeks of the shutdown, is as busy as I've ever been in my career," Alpern said. "From seven in the morning to six at night, there were calls largely with NASCAR, tracks, people in the industry that were, 'What do we do? How are we going to do this?' "

"Roll up our sleeves," Alpern continued. "I've never seen anything like it."

Both the nature of the sport and the timing of its return meant that NASCAR has forgone regular coronavirus testing, which other sports such as the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS have implemented.

"Our sport is so different," Alpern said. "When we were talking about protocols, there was a ton of discussion about testing. Should we test? Should we not test?"

He said that the industry was sensitive to the shortages of testing kits early on, opting to reserve those for people who needed them most. He also mentioned the "bubble" created in sports like MLS and the NBA, where athletes and essential personnel are regularly tested and do not leave a quarantined premises, as a reason why NASCAR and its teams have opted to test only those who are symptomatic or who have been exposed to the virus.

"If you're in a bubble, testing makes complete sense because then you're protecting the bubble," Alpern said. "If you are going in and out of the bubble like baseball is, like we're doing especially. We're leaving and not coming back for another week."

The lack of testing, and therefore lack of positive tests, has helped keep NASCAR rolling. The sport is not regularly reporting its results either. Those announcements are instead coming from individual drivers and teams, which must answer health screening questionnaires and undergo forehead temperature checks prior to entering the facility for NASCAR events. Alpern said JGR has been "militant" about social distancing and mask wearing, and has limited employees in the shop to those only those who "have to touch a race car to have it go racing."

That even excludes some individuals from the competition side, such as engineers, as well NFL and NASCAR Hall of Fame member and JGR team owner Joe Gibbs, as well as Alpern himself.

"If somebody gets the virus, chances are it won't have happened at the building or at the racetrack," Alpern said. "It's going to happen somewhere else. All we can prevent is they don't bring it into either of those bubbles, so the bubble at the track, the bubble at the shop, we have to keep sacred."

Alpern said he and Gibbs are adjusting to not watching the races in person for the first time in 28 years in order to avoid taking up a travel roster spot, which is limited to 16 individuals per team. Alpern said he "applauds" NASCAR for the way it has protected that bubble at the track.

"I'm the president of a race team and I'm not allowed in it," Alpern said. "And I have no problem with that. I mean, I hate it, but I don't need to be there. I'm one more person that could pass it to Kyle or Denny or one of the crew people."

But Alpern recognized that neither he nor NASCAR can control everyone's actions. He said the best he and Gibbs can do is encourage employees to "be smart." The sanctioning body is doing the same. NASCAR sent a memo to teams in early July reminding individuals to wear masks properly at events and answer health questionnaires honestly, according to the Associated Press.

"It is important for everyone to do their part ALL THE TIME," the memo said. "One cluster outbreak can derail our season."

That is something the sport, including its most profitable teams, cannot afford.

"Our sport has done a pretty remarkable job," Alpern said. "And just hope that continues ... It's easy to get fatigued with this and let off the gas and we can't do that."

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