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AP photo by Tyler Barrick / Drivers head to the green flag for the start of a NASCAR event at South Carolina's Darlington Raceway on May 11, 2012.

Kerry Tharp spent nearly four decades in the sports media relations world, helping promote student-athletes at Tennessee, Oklahoma and South Carolina before leaving the college realm to enhance NASCAR's communication efforts.

From the days of Jimmy Streater quarterbacking the Volunteers through the days of South Carolina joining the Southeastern Conference through the days of Jimmie Johnson winning seven Cup Series championships, Tharp has played a role in aiding those on a competitive stage, but now the microscope is on him.

Since 2016, Tharp has been president of Darlington Raceway, which is the site of next Sunday's 400-mile Cup Series race that will welcome live mainstream sports back to our country after a two-month hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will be the first Cup Series showdown since March 8, when Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch finished 1-2-3 at the FanShield 500 in Phoenix.

"I think it's exciting to say that we are going to be, for all intents and purposes, the first live sporting event since the pandemic," Tharp said. "There is excitement, and there is a humbleness that you have to know that the eyes and the ears of the world will be focused on Darlington, South Carolina. There is also a great deal of responsibility that we have to shoulder, because we have to get this right.

"The world hit a pause button the second week of March, so we feel honored and proud, but we also feel a sense of responsibility."

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AP file photo by Timothy D. Easley / Kerry Tharp

NASCAR remains intent on staging all 36 Cup Series races in 2020, picking Darlington as its relaunch locale. The race will start at 3:30 p.m. and be televised by Fox, with Darlington Raceway hosting another Cup Series competition three days later.

The Wednesday race will be 500 kilometers (310.686 miles) and will have a 7:30 p.m. start on FS1. In between the two Cup Series clashes at Darlington will be a Tuesday night Xfinity Series race of 200 miles.

None of the three upcoming Darlington Raceway events will have spectators.

"It's really just the essential crew for each team, with NASCAR officials, obviously fire and safety, and a few security people," Tharp said. "It's totally different from what we're used to. We're used to promoting and selling, but we're not at the point yet in our country to bring in large groups of people, whether it's a sporting event or a concert. We're just not there.

"The first thing we need to do is show we can put on an event successfully and safely without fans, and then we'll take the next steps."

Tharp said each racing team will have a roster of 16, which includes the driver and the crew chief. That will result in hundreds of people in the infield compared to thousands.

There has been strong media interest in Sunday's race, Tharp said, both nationally and throughout the Carolinas. After the races at Darlington, NASCAR will make the short move to North Carolina for the Coca-Cola 600 in the Charlotte suburb of Concord on May 24.

Consecutive Cup Series races without spectators have been scheduled for Charlotte Motor Speedway as well, which obviously will have an effect on community businesses near those tracks that typically thrive.

"It certainly won't be like a normal race weekend where you have 50,000 or 60,000 people on your property for three or four days," Tharp said. "The folks who are coming to our events aren't really leaving the race track property. They're coming in and will be medically screened to make sure there are no symptoms. They're going to compete and put on a heck of a race, and they're going to do the same things Tuesday and Wednesday.

"There will be no interaction with our teams and drivers within our communities like there typically is, but that's what has to be done right now."

NASCAR took a positive step in filling the athletic void with iRacing, but the sport experienced setbacks when Bubba Wallace quit a virtual race — losing a sponsor in the process — and Kyle Larson voiced a racial slur that resulted in his firing by Chip Ganassi Racing.

Now, the simulators are being shelved and the actual racing is returning, and there is no denying the significance of what Tharp's venue is about to contain.

"It's hugely important, and the main thing we want to focus on is a safe environment for our competitors, the teams and the officials who are coming to our event," he said. "That is objective number one, and it's very important for us to come out of this in good shape. Our plan is to learn from each race, because there will be things we do Sunday that we'll do better on Tuesday and Wednesday as we progress through this.

"Our goal would be for other sports leagues to take a look at what we did and model after us. It's a lofty goal, but it's one we're going to shoot for."

7-11 SURGE

NASCAR will return to the track from its coronavirus shutdown with a combined seven races in 11 days for its three top-tier national series, with all of the events at either Darlington Raceway or Charlotte Motor Speedway and no fans in the stands.

Sunday, May 17: Cup Series at Darlington

Tuesday, May 19: Xfinity Series at Darlington

Wednesday, May 20: Cup Series at Darlington

Sunday, May 24: Cup Series at Charlotte

Monday, May 25: Xfinity Series at Charlotte

Tuesday, May 26: Truck Series at Charlotte

Wednesday, May 27: Cup Series at Charlotte

 

 

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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