ADRIAN — The countdown clock has been in the minds of all of Michigan's NASCAR fans ever since Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag at last year's Consumers Energy 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
As of Saturday, Michigan's NASCAR faithful was just over 88% of the way (265 days out of 301) through its wait before the V8-powered Cup cars were scheduled to return to the two-mile oval in the Irish Hills on June 7 for Friday activities ahead of that Sunday's FireKeepers Casino 400.
But with the coronavirus pandemic bringing the entire sporting world to a screeching halt in March, that date is up in the air.
Michigan's pair of race weekends, originally set for June 5-7 and August 7-9, are one of a multitude of question marks on the NASCAR schedule. The impact of any change to Michigan's race weekends could be substantial to the local communities around MIS.
“With the majority of the track being in Lenawee County, the communities of Adrian and Tecumseh see a huge influx of people through those weeks,” said Matt Swartzlander, director of the Adrian Chamber of Commerce. “It will be a ton of lost revenue, and we'll just have to gauge the economic impact as it happens and hope for the best.”
The NASCAR sanctioning body is planning for racing to start up again this month. NASCAR released a schedule Thursday for an 11-day span that features seven fan-less races at two tracks in Darlington, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina across its three major series (Cup, Xfinity and the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series). The races span from May 17 to May 27
According to Fox Sports' Bob Pockrass, NASCAR's higher-ups already know there will be tracks that lose races and will release the names of the affected tracks prior to the first of the Cup Series races at Darlington in May.
NASCAR and MIS' higher-ups currently have no public timetable for a return to MIS. A potential revised schedule published by The Athletic in early April had MIS listed with a probable doubleheader on August 7-8, though nothing official has been confirmed by either the speedway or NASCAR itself.
According to Swartzlander, the two race weekends at MIS bring fans in droves totaling almost 100,000 per weekend, with those 100,000 fans per race generating revenue that totaled around $400 million a few years ago for the areas surrounding the speedway — numbers that stand to take a substantial hit if races go ahead without fans or are canceled outright.
“While it will create a large impact, we know our friends at MIS are committed to the Lenawee County community and are doing everything they can to make these events happen in a safe and efficient manner,” Swartzlander said in an email Friday.
Some states are beginning to reopen, but Michigan, under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's leadership, still has a shelter-in-place order in effect, trying to flatten the curve and keep COVID-19 from potentially overwhelming hospitals. While keeping the coronavirus curve as flat as possible, the shelter-in-place order may have put NASCAR into a certain spot with regards to Michigan's pair of Cup races.
Despite there being several months left in NASCAR's normal season to try and get the race weekends at MIS in, the window will get more narrow as days pass, as MIS has a finite time frame during the year for the weather conditions to be suitable to race. That means the likelihood of a possible race or races without fans is a strong one, but with no official word available, local businesses will likely be in a holding pattern until NASCAR releases more information in the coming weeks.
“We are planning to have (MIS President Rick Brenner) for a program in June,” Swartzlander said. “Obviously when we scheduled that it was going to be a lot different topic, but we're very interested to see what MIS and NASCAR has in store for Michigan and hearing from Rick in June. We'll work hand-in-hand with MIS, as they're a big supporter of the chamber, to make sure that we do what we can for our small businesses during this time and mitigate any lost revenue.”
The protests across the country that are demanding states be reopened for business seems to have convinced states, including Michigan, to begin to loosen restrictions, but whether or not those are relaxed enough to get the minimal personnel to be at the track to get a race in, let alone 100,000-plus attendees for a race weekend, remains to be seen.
“Hopefully, we would encourage the governor to look at all things that can safely re-open our economy,” Swartzlander said, “and allowing NASCAR to run their races at MIS is a huge part of that, especially for our local communities. While being safe and doing all of these things, it's important to allow our business owners to be able to serve their clients and customers in our community and make sure that they have the business to be able to support their families.”
The Irish Hills Regional Chamber of Commerce and Visit Lenawee declined to comment until NASCAR and MIS finalizes plans for racing activities at the speedway.