From protective masks and hospital gowns to drive-through tests and machines to help virus-stricken lungs fill with oxygen, the handiwork of racers from NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA and beyond can be found in every corner of the coronavirus fight.
After all, at its heart, the COVID-19 pandemic is a race. A race to save lives, to find a cure and to speed toward the soonest possible date when we can begin to feel normal again. So, it should come as no surprise that the auto-racing community has inserted itself into the coronavirus fight with the intensity of a qualifying run at Indianapolis. It’s a fight that demands speed, innovative thinking, manufacturing know-how and an impatience for anything that does not fuel the aforementioned.
“We all know the stories about how everyone pitched in and helped during World War II, the only other time that racing stopped,” said Mario Andretti, who came to America as an Italian-speaking teen after his family was displaced by that war. “So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that racers want to jump in and help again.”
There is a scene in the Academy Award-winning film “Ford v. Ferrari” in which Ford Motor Company chairman Henry Ford II, aka The Deuce, calls auto racer Carroll Shelby, the head of his still-new sports car division, over the window of his Dearborn, Michigan, office. Ford points to a factory across the street and says to Shelby, “You see that little building over there? During World War II, three of out of every five bombers came off that line. You think Roosevelt beat Hitler? Think again. This isn’t the first time Ford Motors has gone to war …”
These days, those assembly lines are once again on the front lines. But this time, the enemy isn’t driving divisions of tanks or marching in lines under easy-to-spot red flags. Today’s villain, the coronavirus pandemic, is a silent, invisible killer. And when the current leaders of America’s auto manufacturers and race teams look out their windows onto the floors of their factories and race shops, machines that normally produce cars and the parts that make them go are instead cranking out ventilators, facemasks and, more importantly, hope.
On Wednesday, Ford delivered its 2 millionth face shield, and the company’s social media timelines were covered up in thank-you posts ranging from West Coast hospitals to the NYPD. Ford expects to produce at least 50,000 ventilators by July 4. General Motors also has lines assembling facemasks and expects to have its ventilator production up to a rate of 10,000 per month.
It’s still racing, only it’s a competition of another kind, as estimates of the number of ventilators needed by summer to help coronavirus patients have risen to nearly 1 million. GM and Ford’s NASCAR racing rival, Toyota, also is joining in on the production of both items, while Fiat Chrysler NV has already long been embroiled in the COVID-19 fight in Fiat’s home, converting engine plants to ventilator parts manufacturing in virus-devastated Italy.
The same auto-engineering minds that dreamed up your car and your favorite racer’s car first deconstructed the ventilators, literally spreading parts out over a conference room table, to figure out how best to simplify their construction for mass assembly. As soon as those determinations were made, multiple factories that had been shuttered by the virus lockdown in March were turning their lights back on in April. At Ford’s Rawsonville plant alone, three shifts of 500 paid volunteers will be on the ventilator lines.
Their work comes even as bad news arrives, news that only underlines the need for what they are doing. Tuesday night, Ford confirmed the seventh coronavirus-related death of one of its auto workers. Those deaths and every diagnosis are tracked by the United Auto Workers, the announcements of fallen coworkers read by the other members of that union as they continue to produce masks and machinery.
The factories that built cars and then built bombers and then built cars again, iws now making respirators and masks until they can go back to making cars.
Meanwhile, the racetracks where those automakers and racers usually spend their weekends pushing their machines to the limit have instead been pushing street cars through donation lines and drive-through, coronavirus-testing lines.
Charlotte Motor Speedway and its zMax Dragway would normally be in high-preparation mode, gearing up for the late-April NHRA Four-Wide Nationals and late May’s NASCAR All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600. Instead, the tracks have been silent, but their parking lots have not.
For weeks, street cars have been lining up beneath the shadow of the drag strip’s tower to be tested by healthcare workers to see if they have contracted COVID-19. At the entrance to the oval track is a drop-off site for Esther’s Heart, a local charity that provides food to area children. Volunteers are limited to 10 or fewer and spread out into individual work areas.
“We went on and did both!” a local Concord, North Carolina, resident shouted from her minivan as she left the zMax Dragway on Wednesday. Neither she nor her husband wanted to give their names, citing medical confidentiality. “We dropped off a bunch of food at the big track and then got tested at the dragstrip. It only took a few minutes, and we never got out of the car at either one. We’ll find out tomorrow if we have it or not. And hopefully, tomorrow some kids will get that food we just dropped off.”
When Charlotte Motor Speedway started the testing lane on March 24, it was America’s first major sporting venue to become a COVID-19 testing site. In the weeks since, that number has exploded. Virginia’s Martinsville Speedway started hosting testing for local residents on Wednesday, and Daytona International Speedway in Florida and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama are both slated to begin Friday. From Atlanta and Bristol, Tennessee, to Las Vegas and Texas, racetracks have held blood drives to shore up the needs for the virus fight.
The most famous racetrack in the world, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, will be silent in May for the only non-World War-related reason. It is now slated to host a NASCAR/IndyCar doubleheader July Fourth weekend and the Indy 500 on Aug. 23. But IMS has just helped launch an e-learning fund to support local schools as they have been forced to transition to at-home schooling during the virus lockdown.
There is still noise to be heard in the race shops of Indianapolis and beyond. In nearby Brownsburg, Indiana, home to many NHRA teams, drag racing powerhouse Don Schumacher Racing has had its 3D printers running full time to produce medical masks. The same is happening at other shops, including NASCAR’s R&D Center and Hendrick Motorsports, both located around the corner from the testing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Other teams have donated boxes of facemasks, usually worn by mechanics to protect their lungs at the shop, to local organizations that need them while the racing season has been parked. Drivers are raising money through their foundations, sponsors are doing the same and even local bullring short tracks are digging through their storage units for any supplies that might be useful in the fight.
Sitting only a few blocks from Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the North American headquarters of Dallara, IndyCar’s chassis supplier. Inside, CNC machines are instead slicing up giant sheets of fabric to produce cloth face masks and gowns for medical facilities. Those blades are designed to cut much tougher sheets of carbon fiber to help build race cars, so they go through cloth with ease, producing enough material to make hundreds of gowns and masks in no time.
Every day, Dallara USA CEO Stefano DePonti checks in with his boss, Gian Paolo Dallara, 4,600 miles away in Varano de’ Melegari, Italy. Talking each day about manufacturing is nothing new. But these days, they are discussing the creation of medical supplies — the U.S. office cutting cloth for local hospitals, the Italian headquarters busy working on ventilators. Dallara himself has designed a simple mouthpiece that anyone with access to a 3D printer can make and add to a snorkel mask to create a non-invasive respirator. But DePonti and Dallara are also having the same conversation everyone on the planet is having in 2020: They ask about family and friends, and they wonder aloud when this might all finally be over.
Perhaps their efforts, and the efforts of all their automotive and motorsports colleagues, might help that day come sooner than later.
DePonti, a son of Italy’s “Motor Valley,” became emotional when he talked about the virus’ plight, the one that first crippled his home country and now has his current home nation stuck at home.
“It would be nice if we only did this one day and they said, ‘Stop now. It’s over!’ But we will do this as long as it helps. Everyone should do whatever they can as long as it helps.”