The last NASCAR race before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation took place at Phoenix Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona on March 8, 2020. Joey Logano fended off Kevin Harvick in overtime on that radiant day in the desert. Little did we know the host city’s name was an eerie precursor to what would take place in 2020.
The city of Phoenix’s namesake comes from its founder’s building on ancient Pueblo ruins that were occupied between 700 A.D. and 1,400 A.D. The ancient society’s fate ended in mystery, most likely a drought, but the modern-day Phoenix rose from its ashes in the second half of the 19th century and continues to flourish today.
We celebrated my daughter’s 7th birthday on Friday, March 13th with 10 of her little friends. Later that evening our governor declared a state of emergency, schools were closed, professional sports shut down and life as we knew it changed dramatically.
Like most sports fans I found some solace in watching classic sporting events in the first few weeks of the pandemic; for example, the Checker 500 NASCAR race in Phoenix on November 6, 1988. Alan Kulwicki, a Polish American, took the victory and invented the Polish victory lap, which entails the driver turning around and driving in the opposite direction facing the fans with the checkered flag. Today, this tradition continues and is practiced by winners at every race.
Then came iRacing, online racing simulation. I never thought I would tune in to watch people playing video games, but it was surprisingly entertaining. That, or I was starving for live sporting events.
After a 70-day hiatus, NASCAR headed to Darlington to race without fans. The silence drove Kevin Harvick speechless in his victory interview. He said he was used to boos and cheers coming from the grandstands and the silence there was eerie.
NASCAR has led the way in sports reopening. With a plan in place, fans are gradually and safely coming back to the track. Other sports are following suit. The sport is even attracting new fans. Across the 7 Cup Series races at Darlington and Charlotte the return to racing reached 18.6 million unique viewers. 6.8 million of them were new viewers who had not tuned into any of the first four races of the year — one little bit of a silver lining.
The ethanol industry came to a screeching halt alongside the sporting world. With no cars on the road there was no need for fuel, and the industry was facing the biggest challenge in its history. Many plants had to idle or shut down and the outlook was bleak.
Those in the biofuels industry are no strangers to adversity. Many industry leaders embraced their bend-not-break attitude and quickly retrofitted bioprocessing facilities to produce indusutrial-grade ethanol to be used in sanitizer, helping to ease a worldwide shortage. This has not only created a new market for ethanol; it also embodies the message that ethanol is clean and safe. The fuel cleans the air you breathe, and the sanitizer product cleans your hands and halts the spreading of germs. It’s a great message and will prove to be a bit of our silver lining.
Now cars are back on the roads and ethanol plants are back online. Like that of the Phoenix, the resilience demonstrated by those in the ethanol industry during the pandemic highlights our intention to rise up stronger than before.