The Race Weekend That Wasn’t

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By the time we got word on Friday morning that the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg had been cancelled, I was disappointed but not surprised. We had seen changes by the hour over the previous couple of days, so I no longer felt comfortable making any predictions about anything.

When I awoke Friday morning to the news that The Player’s Championship golf tournament was cancelled after playing a round on Thursday in front of no spectators, I figured it was only a matter of time before the final two holdouts on the weekend’s sports calendar – IndyCar and NASCAR – followed suit.

I was very busy at work on Friday morning, and had no time to check social media. I’m on a frequent three-way group text with a couple of IndyCar friends who are more tuned in than I am during the day. Around 10:30 Friday morning, I got a text from one saying “Now NASCAR is cancelled. Just a matter of time…”. Nine minutes later, the other friend texted the disappointing news that not only was St. Petersburg cancelled, all of IndyCar was cancelled through April.

While I was not surprised at all by the cancellation of yesterday’s race, I was a little caught off guard by the second part – that the three April races for the NTT IndyCar Series had also been cancelled. We had already learned that Long Beach was being cancelled by the local government. COTA had been looking doubtful, but there were developments early last week that brightened that race’s outlook. Barber had never seemed that much in doubt. It was three weeks away and most things were being put on hiatus through the end of March. So, I was thinking it may still be a possibility if things had settled down by then.

I have not written about the novel coronavirus at all. I am not an epidemiologist nor an infectious disease specialist; and I am not qualified to publicly denounce any actions or inactions that have been taken. I’ve had my own personal opinions that I have verbalized with close friends; but they were just that – opinions. I know enough about IndyCar to be dangerous and spout off a few opinions, but a viral outbreak is totally out of my wheelhouse. I figured I’d better stick to IndyCar. After what has transpired over the last few days, my opinions have softened a little.

My intention right now is to make this my one and only post here regarding COVID-19 and my thoughts about it. You don’t come here to read my thoughts on anything but IndyCar racing. There are lots of other places that will be glad to fill you with facts, as well as non-facts about the novel coronavirus. I will admit that my knowledge on this matter is almost non-existent. My opinions on it should be taken about as seriously as Justin Bieber’s opinions on North Korea or Donovan McNabb’s views on race car drivers as athletes. The only difference is I actually know my opinion is meaningless.

But since this virus has crept into our little bubble of IndyCar racing and affected the first four races, I would be sticking my head in the sand if I didn’t acknowledge it. Hopefully, this will be the last time I’ll have to write about it. If I do have to write about it again, that means more of the season has been affected – and that includes the Indianapolis 500. That also means we have bigger problems than losing more races.

My initial thought over the past couple of weeks was that this was way over-blown and social media was literally causing a panic of worldwide proportions. I shook my head in disbelief when the NCAA first announced that tournament games, which were scheduled to start this week, would be played in front of no spectators. When conference tournaments followed suit after one day of playing in front of fans, I thought things couldn’t get any crazier. Then the cancellations of all tournaments came.

I was convinced that no one was thinking rationally and that everyone was bowing to mass hysteria over something that was no more dangerous than influenza. I still think the general public is acting irrationally. I mean, can anyone explain the hoarding of toilet paper? Watching the hysteria further strengthened my opinion that people were losing their minds over nothing. Then I had a conversation over the weekend that shed some light over some of the decisions being made, and I have changed my mind…just a little bit.

I happen to be good friends with my personal physician, and I talked to him over the weekend. Not only is he extremely level-headed, he is an excellent physician and also happens to be one of the Titans team doctors. I mention that fact to point out that he is a sports fan and not just following the medical guidelines. I respect his medical judgment and trust him immensely. Inevitably the topic of COVID-19 came up in our conversation.

I asked him his take on the events of the past week. His opinion was that cancelling sporting events where large masses of people gather is a good thing and this was not sports caving in to public outcry. He stressed that although the coronavirus is not new, COVID-19 was a mutated strain that we still don’t know that much about. He went on to say that the problem with large gatherings isn’t that people will be sneezing all over each other (which is just downright disgusting to even visualize); but that infected people, that have no idea that they’ve been infected, will touch handrails, door handles, armrests, and things of that nature. After non-infected people touch these same items, they will then inevitably put their hands to their mouth, their eyes and their nose.

My physician/friend described COVID-19 as being "a very sticky virus” meaning it is highly contagious. If active, it can live for at least twelve hours on metal door handles and such. That and the fact that there is still so much unknown about this particular strain of the coronavirus made him think that the various cancellations of large gatherings right now was not a bad thing – even though he is an avid college basketball fan, specifically the Kentucky Wildcats – until health officials can get a better handle on things.

I can’t count how many times I’ve been to a sporting event, and I go use the restroom and wash my hands afterwards. Although my hands are clean, I usually don’t take the paper towel with me to open the door to get out (and that’s assuming there are still paper towels in there), so I’ve contacted all of those hands before me that maybe went unwashed. Then I go get a hot dog on my way back to my seat. I may put my hands on the counter that everyone else has touched. I’ll also handle money which is generally considered filthy. Then I’ll go back to my seat and eat my hot dog. To make matters worse, I may or may not lick mustard off of my fingers – thereby licking all of the germs from the restroom door handle, the counter and the money – all after washing my hands in the restroom. I feel ill after just typing that scenario.

After my doctor agreed with how experts were handling this, he went on to discuss how insane the public was treating this. Like many people, he blamed the media for being irresponsible in their sensationalistic reporting on the matter in the never-ending battle for clicks and ratings. Whether or not that is true for traditional news media is a matter of debate – but if you browse through social media, there is no denying it. Probably the most truthful Facebook post regarding the coronavirus is seen below (Courtesy of RacingMediaOnline’s Eric Schwarzkopf).

Toy Story

Never in my life have I seen such mass hysteria and panic. It was because of this lack of rational thinking, that I initially thought everything we’ve seen in the past week was an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction. Up until my conversation with my doctor this past weekend, I was convinced that the coronavirus was nothing but a bunch of hype that had gone way out of control. The hoarding of toilet paper and food is inexplicable, but the hoarding of soap is downright selfish and short-sighted. If others are not able to wash their hands because you own all the soap, are you really helping the situation? Some have said the situation we are facing is very much like 9/11. I disagree. I felt like 9/11 brought out the best in people. This is bringing out the worst.

Regarding the St. Petersburg race, I had people asking me late in the week if it would run. With confidence, I said yes it would because Roger Penske is not one to cave in to mass hysteria. Personally, I saw little danger in running the race with no spectators, but then again – what do I know?

But after the PGA’s Players Championship cancelled their tournament near St. Augustine, Florida and NASCAR decided to cancel their race at Atlanta; IndyCar would have looked like the lone bad world citizen that wasn’t adhering to the same rules everyone else was. It would have put sponsors in a bad light to be singled out and it would have been a very bad look overall. I’m not sure IndyCar would have advanced the spread of COVID-19 by running the race, but the series would have been in the public cross-hairs for being the only sanctioning body to not take the perceived necessary precautions that the other major sports were.

With the NCAA, NBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball, Formula One, NASCAR, Formula-e, IMSA all cancelling their events and IndyCar running theirs – the perception would have been that IndyCar was so minor league that they weren’t in the same class with the major sports entities, had they run. So as disappointed as I am to not be discussing a race from yesterday – I support the decision to not run. It also pains me to not be going to Barber in April, but I get it. Most seem to think we are dealing with about six to eight more weeks to contain the spread of the virus and flatten the curve (a term I’ve heard way too much in the past week).

That puts us into early May. China and South Korea have dramatically slowed down the spread of the novel coronavirus in the past few weeks. They aren’t back to normal by any stretch, but the spread has slowed down. Italy is the hot spot in the world right now, and there are different theories as to why that has happened. Some say that we have gotten an early jump on this virus in the US and we will benefit from some of the early steps taken – like cancelling big sporting events and large gatherings. Others complain that we are way behind where we should be and we haven’t done nearly enough. Unfortunately, both sides probably have political motives behind their claims. The extremists on either side will never turn down an opportunity to politicize a crisis.

But I do think we have had enough time to be a little more prepared than some of the Asian countries, and I agree with most of the steps that have been taken, even though I don’t like them. I will miss March Madness, even though my Tennessee Vols were most likely not headed there. And cancelling the first four races of the IndyCar season is something that I never thought possible, even a week ago.

So what about the Month of May? Will the spread of this virus be contained by then? Practice for the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course begins May 8, which is fifty-three days away. As I write this, I see that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended to cancel any event of more than fifty people over the next eight weeks. That puts us one day past the Grand Prix. The Brickyard 400 may attract less than fifty people, but not the Grand Prix. If you are an IndyCar fan who just had your long offseason extended, that sounds like an eternity. But it’s going to take this thing a lot longer to go away than it did for it to appear. A week ago, I would have laughed at the idea that the Indianapolis 500 would be postponed due to the coronavirus. I’m no longer laughing. We saw last week that if March Madness is cancelled, nothing is too sacred. Hopefully, things will start clearing up before then and things can start to get back to normal before May 8. So far, the CDC is only recommending these events be called off. Stay tuned on that one.

Personally, I fear for our economy more than I fear catching this disease. If I do catch it, which is entirely possible – I’d like to think that I’m in good enough shape to get through it with nothing more than feeling bad for a few days. But being in my early sixties, I’m in the wrong demographic. Fortunately, I’m in good health and my doctor assured me that I’m at a very low risk of dying from it. But my mother is ninety-five. She’s in good health and still drives everywhere, but contracting COVID-19 could be a death sentence for her. She’s probably reading this right now and cringing, but she’s aware of her risks and she is staying home right now much more than she normally would. Right now, it’s good that she still lives alone and not in any type of assisted living where she is at the mercy of the other residents, their guests and their germs.

The economy is another thing. The SEC tournament was held in Nashville last week. As it turned out, only two games were played – both on Wednesday night. The remainder of the tournament was cancelled on Thursday morning. Hotels, bars and restaurants took a beating over the loss of projected revenue – and that was just for one weekend. The Nashville Predators play in the same Bridgestone Arena, and many of those same hotels, bars and restaurants base their entire existence on Predator games. That’s a scenario repeated in different metropolitan areas all over the country that have NBA, NHL or MLB franchises. While the sports-free weekend was surreal this past weekend, there is much more to be affected than sports.

Businesses across the country are closing until further notice. Many of them will not be able to sustain themselves through the loss of revenue and they will never reopen. Susan, my wife, spends her weekends working part-time in a high-end Nashville bakery that caters to the Nashville blue-bloods as well as the many celebrities that live here. One of her cakes actually made People magazine last year when they covered the wedding for Amy Grant’s daughter. She is currently working on the planning of a cake for the daughter of a well-known country music star, who will remain anonymous. The wedding was planned for May, but they were told Saturday that the wedding venue will be closed through May and the wedding has been re-scheduled for July.

Schools, churches and large business have been shut down nationwide and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I’ve been told to be on standby this week, because our offices may be closed at a moment’s notice. It’s times like these when you realize how fragile a seemingly strong economy can be. What seemed like a trivial little virus on the other side of the world less than two months ago, has spread here and has crippled our economy in less than a week. How long can we go like this? I know I shouldn’t be thinking in terms of dollars and cents and should only be thinking about the health of my fellow humans – but being the shallow and self-centered thinker that I am, I can’t help but think about it.

Are we going too far? I’ve heard many say that it’s better to overreact than underreact, but I’m not so sure. Some say that if these measures save one life, it’s worth it. At the risk of sounding cold-hearted, that’s not necessarily true. I read a good argument to this statement over the weekend that basically said if we lowered the speed limit to 10 mph, almost no one would ever die in a car accident. However, our economy would falter because it would take everyone forever to get anywhere. Therefore speed limits are 55-75 mph and 40,000 people die each year in car accidents. It’s a risk society is willing to take for the good of the economy. Too cold-hearted? Sorry, but it’s true.

I think we, as a people, are right in trying to contain this virus right now. If that means even sacrificing the 2020 Indianapolis 500, I’m wiling to do it if we can contain it and eventually eradicate it. After all, our grandparents and great-grandparents went four years without the Indianapolis 500 due to World War II. But am I willing to sacrifice our economy and live the remainder of my life in fear, inside the four walls of my house and never venture out except to forage for food (and toilet paper)? No. That’s not much of a life, if you ask me.

There are some that say we are headed toward the end of civilization as we know it and that martial law is the next step. They claim our freedoms will be taken away "temporarily", but will never be returned. I’d like to say that’s a little far-fetched, but a week ago I never thought all sports would suddenly shut down indefinitely. Maybe I’m naïve, but I tend to think cooler heads and rational thinking will eventually prevail and we will get back to normal sooner than later.

So there’s my rambling diatribe on the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 or whatever you want to call it. I hope to not mention it again except by how it has affected IndyCar. I think there are a lot of people out there losing their minds over this, thinking that we are on the verge of the zombie apocalypse – but I do think there is more to it than treating it as if it’s nothing more than the common cold. My physician friend gave me the most level-headed perspective I’ve heard. He just said to respect the fact that this is a very contagious disease, act responsibly, take the necessary precautions, wash your hands and keep living your life. That’s exactly what I plan to do. I’ll add one more bit to his advice…maintain your sense of humor throughout the next few weeks. You’re going to need it.

I’ll get back to writing about IndyCar racing on Wednesday. Stay well, everyone!

George Phillips

15 Responses to “The Race Weekend That Wasn’t”

  1. Yes, we’ve cancelled our trip to the 500 and the US for May/June and expect to do it in ’21. Even if Indy took place [which I doubt now], we just don’t want to spend 3 weeks touring with everywhere closed. We’re not [presently] scared of this and would actively try and support local businesses during times of hardship like we did after 9/11 but we simply can’t travel at the moment as our Foreign Office has banned all but ‘essential’ travel to the US thereby nullifying our travel insurance if we did [or could] go. British Airways are going to cancel 75% of flights today so it’s academic anyway really. Anyway, thanks for the post George, you two keep safe and that tenderloin will have to wait another year!

    • Trevor , sorry for cancellation of your travel plans. If you have tickets to the 500 that will,go unused and as I need two perhaps we can assist one another. If George would be so kind to provide you my email in a private message and you are interested please contact me

  2. I think the Grand Prix of Indy is gone. But the 500 remains 50-50. I do think the efforts have been too extreme, and unnecessary damage done to our economy and to the lives of the people. With one caveat. If, as rumored, this is a disease manufactured in a chinese biological weapons lab and it is not natural, then perhaps not.

  3. George, did you ask your doctor why there was no panic such as this when we lived through the Swine Flu under our previous president which infected 60 MILLION U.S. citizens and killed over 12,000 of us? Nothing was canceled, life went on as usual but today we’ve seen what, 40 or so deaths from this after two months of exposure and all hell is breaking loose? Oh, and our president is being called every vile name one can think of because of the way he has responded to this manufactured emergency? That flu was an extremely contagious virus (not a disease) as well, so what gives? Why this one? Why now?

    • SkipinSC Says:

      Amen, Phil!

    • Why this one? Because the contagion rates don’t follow those of swine flu. If you do nothing else, please read the following piece about the sheer numbers that we’re dealing with here (and while this was written a few days ago and was updated yesterday and the day before, the numbers continue to track exponentially, with more than double the number of cases by the end of the day yesterday vs last Friday):

      View at Medium.com

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    The Indy 2020 Indy 500 will take place ….. But perhaps not in May.

    Lest we forget.

    Do not underestimate the flexibility and creativeness of the “Unfair Advantage.”

    As they say: “Stay tuned.”

  5. Hopefully this is all cleared up by May

  6. Good take George, reassuring as well. We will overcome this and what may be the most interesting is how people evolve from it. We may find that sports are not important to us any longer. My hope is that people can return to their life a bit during the down time, enjoy your families, TALK to them! Playing games with kids, enjoying a little bit of calm. Hopefully we all find new passions and a new zest for life, as well as a renewed optimism for sports, concerts, etc, when we do get these things back!

  7. Thanks George. I am trying to find my sense of humor. Had a telling visit to the local Krogers (Ralph’s here) where there was absolutely nothing in the meat department, no eggs or lunch meats. The only produce was parsley and a few tangerines. Don’t even ask about paper products and bottled water. At least we don’t live in Flint, so I can live without water bottles. I am hoping this will die down soon. My mother was a hoarder when things were on sale. So I image she is up there laughing at me.

    We are missing our racing in IC and F1 (and other sports just not as much as racing), but are finding time to just visit and enjoy the small things in life. I think I am going to start reading the racing books I have collected and never read. Hope you all keep well.

  8. Looks like this is going to be the longest off-season ever. It’s weird. Take care and stay healthy.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    There are more important things in this world than racing, but… this is a racing site, so I will vent. This is my racing calendar so far this year…

    Cancelled:
    World of Outlaws in Kilgore, TX
    Indycar at COTA

    Likely to be Cancelled:
    NASCAR at Texas
    NHRA in Baytown, TX

    In Jeopardy:
    World of Outlaws in Mesquite, TX
    Indycar at Texas

    I had plans to attend all of these and tickets purchased for most. Perspective aside, this is not fun. Perspective considered, the cancellations are a proper response… and this is sill not fun.

    • Hear, hear to all of the above, Billy. As for my own calendar, I feel like Indy is very much in jeopardy (or at least will be delayed to later in the year), but I’m hoping I’ll manage to get down to TMS to say hello to you again this year. Fingers crossed.

  10. since you mentioned WWII and grandparents,
    the polio panics and quarantines around that time
    come to mind.
    quote:
    The 1916 epidemic caused widespread panic and thousands fled the city to nearby mountain resorts; movie theaters were closed, meetings were canceled, public gatherings were almost nonexistent, and children were warned not to drink from water fountains, and told to avoid amusement parks, swimming pools, and beaches.[15] From 1916 onward, a polio epidemic appeared each summer in at least one part of the country, with the most serious occurring in the 1940s and 1950s.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_polio

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