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June 1, 2020

5/15/2020 7:30:00 AM
Shoutouts & Callouts
Racing, golf to provide us something to watch this weekend

Jeremy Mayo
Sports Editor


The roar of a 550-horsepower stock car could not be any more different than the whoosh and tink of a golf club striking a golf ball. However this Sunday, the two sounds will unite in harmony to a tune we all long to hear - some semblance of normalcy.

The last two months have been devoid of virtually all sporting events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of what we've seen in the sports world has been replays of classic games. With all due respect to Super Bowls XXXI and XLV, Wisconsin defeating Kentucky in the Final Four and the countless Masters tournament reruns I watched the week of the event, reliving events with already known outcomes, no matter how satisfying those outcomes were, gets pretty stale after awhile.

Not surprisingly, the few "new" sporting events we've had during this timeframe have been hits, whether its NBA players playing virtual games of H-O-R-S-E, racecar drivers of countless disciplines competing in extremely realistic computer-based racing simulations or the biggest hit of them all - an NFL Draft that averaged more than 8 million viewers per day over the three-day virtual meeting.

With so many headline sporting events canceled or postponed over the last two months - everything from the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament to The Masters, The Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500 - the fact that there will be something real to watch will be a comfort to millions around the nation.

Some got an appetizer this past week with UFC fights in Jacksonville, Fla. contested in an empty arena with extra precautions abounding. That got us ready for this weekend where heading to the starting line, or on the tee if you prefer, are NASCAR and golf.

NASCAR is kicking off a whirlwind schedule at a couple of tracks near its Charlotte, N.C. epicenter, beginning with a 400-mile race Sunday at Darlington, S.C. The NASCAR Cup Series will race three more times over the next two weeks at either Darlington or Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord N.C. - including the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day Sunday, long considered perhaps NASCAR's second-most prestigious race, behind only the Daytona 500.

Also on Sunday, we will get a made-for-TV golf exhibition as Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff tee it up at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. in a two-man team skins format on what its widely considered to be one of the best - and most exclusive - golf courses in the country.

Additionally, from the links, golf greats Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are planning an exhibition match that will include future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady over Memorial Day weekend.

Now, these events will look far different from what we're accustomed to seeing on a Sunday afternoon. There will be no spectators. The media on site will be limited. Proper social distancing guidelines will be in place. These will be purely made-for-TV events.

In that aspect, what UFC did last week with its mixed martial arts show can be somewhat of a blueprint. Fighters, trainers and all involved with the production of the fight were isolated and screened for COVID-19 before the events.

All three sports are taking advantage of being centrally located in areas where coronavirus restrictions have started to relax. In the cases of NASCAR and golf, the events held within driving distance of where the teams and players are located greatly reduces the logistical challenges, and risks, associated with travel in this current environment.

At least from a sports perspective, it can be considered the first baby steps toward normalcy, or at least a new normal. We don't know when or how many professional stick and ball leagues will resume play, or if or how many fans will be able to watch them in person when they do, but the fact that there is something at least gives us hope for better days.

Much like the days following 9/11, sports can galvanize a wounded county, let us begin the healing process and, if nothing else, take our minds off the troubles of the world for a while.

These first few events could be trial balloons. If they can be run safely, don't be surprised if other leagues learn from the best practices and starting putting in place plans to resume, at least on some scale. However, should anyone from these events happen to contract COVID-19, that will likely pump the breaks on further activities.

Of course, these sports gain a world of exposure from being among the first to resume in the midst of this crisis. According to reports, the main event for UFC 249, which was a pay-per-view event, had twice the number of buys as the last UFC event prior to the pandemic.

If everything goes well, it's possible that resuming the NASCAR Cup schedule Sunday at Darlington could be compared to the 1979 Daytona 500, which was one of the defining moments that took a relatively small and regional series and put it on the national radar.

That day back in 1979, most of the eastern seaboard was stuck in their houses as a massive Nor'easter rolled through. It also happened to mark the first time that CBS had dedicated complete flag-to-flag coverage of a NASCAR race. Prior to then coverage was typically a couple of live drops throughout the day in the midst of other sports programming. An exciting finish that included a last lap crash, and subsequent fight, involving Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison helped catapult NASCAR's growing popularity through the 1980s and 1990s.

Although there are many more channels to watch now than in 1979, with so few live events taking place, Fox is banking on much higher than normal ratings for NASCAR on Sunday. NBC and TNT are making the same bets with their golfing events. It's also why ESPN has resorted to airing Korean Baseball Organization games.

As for me, I'll probably channel surf between the two events. I've long held racing and golf as Nos. 2 and 2A in terms of my favorite sports to watch behind the NFL. Having both to choose from on the same day is a double bonus, especially considering the last two months when we've had virtually nothing to choose from at all.

Jeremy Mayo may be reached at jeremy@rivernewsonline.com.





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