Nothing is Carved in Stone These Days

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If this current pandemic world we are all living in has taught us nothing else, it has taught us all to be flexible. It didn’t take very long either. If you had told me back in February that the Final Four would be cancelled and the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500 would be postponed for several months – I would have thought you to be certifiably nuts.

But within the span of a few days – all the sports were shut down indefinitely. This is probably not a badge of honor that they like to admit to, but IndyCar was pretty much the last holdout. On the morning of Friday the 13th of March, just a couple of hours before the first practice was scheduled to start for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, IndyCar finally pulled the plug on not only the season-opener but also all the races in April. This only after NASCAR announced they would not race that weekend at Atlanta. The IndyCar season would now start with the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis, with the Indianapolis 500 two weeks later. What is the old saying about the best laid plans?

That was the day that I realized we were living in the bizzarro world and that I should not be surprised by anything that happened. Soon, restaurants began shutting down and many people were sent home – some paid, some not. We were very lucky in our household – Susan was told to stay home, but continued to be fully paid. I was considered essential, so I still went in to work every day. No paychecks were missed in our home. Thirty-eight million other Americans were not so lucky.

I don’t remember the exact date, but a few weeks went by before we heard that the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix would be moved to July 4, to run on the Brickyard 400 weekend, while the Indianapolis 500 would maintain most of its two-week schedule by moving to August 23. Gateway had been moved to the afternoon of Sunday Aug 30, and Portland moved back a week. The IndyCar season was now set to start with the double-header at Belle Isle in Detroit.

It doesn’t seem that Belle Isle lasted very long as the season-opener. With the track-build looming and heavy restrictions in the state of Michigan, the decision was made to cancel Belle Isle and not even bother to re-schedule. Counting Barber, Long Beach and COTA, that was four venues and five races scratched. However, second races were added as double-headers at Iowa and Laguna Seca.

With Belle Isle lopped off as the season-opener, next up was Texas. Most fans didn’t give it a chance of running, or any other race in June. The general consensus was that the GMR Grand Prix was the most likely season-opener. We had booked our flights to the Rev Group Grand Prix at Road America back in January before all of this started. In mid-May, our flight was cancelled so we decided to drive if Road America actually happened.

When Texas was confirmed with no fans, I felt better about things. We had not planned to attend that race, so I was excited it would still happen in some capacity. When the Wisconsin State Supreme Court struck down the governor’s restrictions a couple of weeks ago, I took it as a strong sign that Road America could happen, with fans. But after listening to last week’s Trackside, I wasn’t so sure.

They brought up a good point, which should have served as an indicator of what was to come. Although it was legal to have fans present at Road America, was it the right thing to do? The translation of that was “what would be the reaction from sponsors?”

It all comes down to that. It has to. Sponsorship is the life’s blood of racing. Anyone involved with racing that doesn’t run any idea past a sponsor is not being prudent. How did it work out for James Hinchcliffe, when he posed for the ESPN The Magazine layout last fall?

I am suspecting that IndyCar and Road America strongly considered allowing fans for the June 21 weekend. But I have an idea that it was run by key sponsors that were probably uncomfortable being the first sports entity to allow fans.

As much as I’ve been pounding the drum for the last two months about getting back to work, getting back to racing and getting back to normal – I understand the hesitation. Let someone else be the first to have fans. Being the first could give the perception that IndyCar is being reckless or desperate – or both.

Most casual fans don’t understand the difference between the business models that IndyCar and NASCAR have with their tracks. NASCAR tracks share in the TV revenue, while IndyCar tracks do not. IndyCar tracks are dependent on tickets sales, suite sales, camping, parking, concessions, etc. A race with no fans is not out of the question for NASCAR. It is with IndyCar. I don’t pretend to know what arrangement has been made to run Texas without fans, but I can promise you – it is a one-time deal.

Timing is everything. Probably about the same time that IndyCar was trying to decide whether or not to take the plunge and be the first sport to allow fans at Road America; it was announced that the Honda Indy Toronto would most likely be cancelled. Race promoters are hopeful for another date later on, but it won’t be July 12, due to restrictions in Canada. That opened the door for Road America to be moved into the Toronto slot.

So if you’re keeping score through all of this, Road America moves three weeks back from June 21 to July 12 – giving the virus another three weeks to be mitigated and giving some other sport or event the opportunity to be the first with fans. The GMR Grand Prix may be the first, due to the size of IMS and the number of fans that usually attend. If there’s any venue that is conducive to social distancing, it is the road course at IMS. There are no woods or trees – just a lot of space to spread out. I’m not sure what they do about the grandstand seating, but selling fewer tickets and/or monitoring the stands of Race Day will probably suffice. But based on these signs spotted around IMS last week, they are already planning for fans on the premises.

Covid

We found out about Road America moving to July last Wednesday afternoon. That night, we learned that Richmond had suffered the same fate as Belle Isle, Barber and several others. It was being cancelled and would not reappear on the 2020 IndyCar schedule. If you go back and read my predictions about what would and would not run, I always said that Richmond would most likely not run. Like Michigan, Virginia had a governor that was very restrictive and didn’t seem willing to budge on anything, even as other states are well into their reopening phases. Last Wednesday night, we learned that my prediction came true.

I fear for the west coast races. I don’t think Portland or the two races at Laguna Seca will happen. Perhaps that leaves an opening in September for Toronto, but who knows?

With Richmond gone and Road America moved to July, there is quite a void now in June. The Genesys 300 is scheduled to run on June 6 with no fans. The next race scheduled is the Grand Prix at Indianapolis on July 4. That’s essentially a month between the first and second race. I know it’s probably too late, but I wonder if Texas could be moved back to late June (possibly the Richmond date of June 27) to where they could accommodate some fans and also possibly allow for more practice time for the four rookies in the field as well as test out the new aero screen for the first time. I’d be willing to wait a few more weeks for all of that, but like I said – it’s probably too late to change all of the June 6 arrangements. Plus, the Texas race got a shot in the arm this past weekend, when it was announced that it was moving from NBCSN to Big NBC. Having the race on the big network during prime time on a Saturday night could lead to huge exposure, with so few live sporting events to choose from.

To someone like me, this whole thing of shifting schedules has been tough. I don’t like winging things. To the dismay of my wife Susan, I like to make a plan and then stick to the plan. She loves spontaneity, but I think that spontaneity is way overrated. Once I plan to do something, I don’t like those plans being changed. Susan calls that being rigid. I call it being dependable.

So you can imagine how much I don’t like this. Four weekends away, they moved Road America – a race we always go to. But worse than having race dates changed, is the unknown. Will such and such race happen on this new date, or will it ended up being cancelled like so many others have? Will Road America suffer the same fate as Barber? Will The Indianapolis 500 run in August and if so, with or without fans? These are questions we’ve never ever had to ask ourselves before and for someone like me who is a planner – it’s just a little unsettling. More than anything, I’ve learned how to be flexible throughout all of this.

George Phillips

14 Responses to “Nothing is Carved in Stone These Days”

  1. I read that IMS is not going to allow infield access on the July 4 weekend races. That seems like the wrong decision to me, rather than let us all spread out in the massive infield they’re going to herd us all into the grandstands where we can cough on each other. And good luck making everyone wear masks, they might wear it to get in the gate but many will remove it once in the facility (if I go I will wear one).

    • I’ve heard that it is the 500 that will not have infield access – no General Admission, no Snake Pit. That makes more sense. I am almost certain they are planning on infield access for the Grand Prix. That’s the only way they could do it. – GP

  2. I do not think you can have spectators at a road course unless social distancing rules (6′ apart) are suspended . There are certain spots at each road course that are very crowded,how would any facility be able to enforce social distancing. I have not been to RA in years but even though it has a lot of room to roam there are certain turns that are always crowded , same with Mid Ohio and even the infield at IMS. IMS could sell seats in the stands 6′ apart but again how does a facility enforce that people stay in the seat?

    Only N95 grade masks have a chance to prevent inhalation of the virus , The masks most people are wearing provide no protection from inhalation of the virus. The mask you wear in theory prevents you from spreading the virus with your exhalation but I don’t think there is any firm science to support that . What about eye protection ,we hear next to nothing on that.

    How will the 500 run unless social distancing is suspended , who is going to be made to give up their seats and how will they be chosen if required to sit 6 feet apart.

    I want to see IndyCar run , I have tickets to the 500 and Mid Ohio but in my opinion nothing is set in stone and we will have to watch the summer play out day by day

    • Big Mac Says:

      I must disagree with the claim that “only N95 masks have a chance to prevent inhalation of the virus.” On one hand, that’s too strong a claim. They’re called N95 masks because they block 95% of pathogens, not 100%, so they actually don’t prevent inhalation of the virus. But by blocking the vast majority of the virus, they keep the viral load down, and as a result, protect the wearer from acquiring the disease.

      With that in mind, regular cotton masks also won’t prevent inhalation of the virus, but again, that’s not the objective. The objective is to reduce inhalation of the virus. In this case, it’s hard to say just how effective they are, but there’s reason to believe that the effect is significant, even if they’re not nearly as effective as N95 masks.

      For anyone who’s interested, this article is a good summary: https://elemental.medium.com/the-science-and-politics-of-masks-in-the-covid-19-pandemic-8d5a63f6a20c

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I don’t envy any pro sports schedule makers who will have to navigate the always different and ever-changing state-by-state COVID-19 regulations and restrictions (or lack thereof).

    I am grateful that the Texas race is scheduled and, after NASCAR’s fan-less races have gone off well enough, almost certain to happen.

  4. Mark Wick Says:

    Having been at IMS for the 500 in various capacities, including Safety patrol for three years, for more than 40 races, and at one Brickyard 400 and one F1 race, I can say with absolute certainty, there is absolutely no way to let any fans in and maintain anything even remotely close to social distancing.

    It will be interesting, if the Texas race is run, what the TV numbers are. Everyone involved in the decision to move the race to NBC has a rating number in mind they want to see. If the ratings fall below that number, especially if well below that number, that could be the end of the series.
    If those ratings numbers are exceeded, that could be a big boost to the series, at least for getting more races run this year without fans.

    I live in Washington state so I get a lot of info from Oregon. I will be astounded if that race is allowed to happen.

    • Bruce B Says:

      The sky is falling! The sky is falling!! If still under Tony George in charge I may be inclined to agree. I don’t think Mr Roger Penske is going to let it collapse without a big fight. In your 40 years at IMS reporting, safety crew, hawking tenderloins, etc I’m sure you remember Mr Penske. 👍

      • Mark Wick Says:

        Roger Penske can do what few others can, and he will do all he can, but no one on earth can control the actions of the people who will go to the 500. Not allowing any alcoholic drinks to be taken in, and not allowing sales of alcoholic drinks would help in two ways. Fewer people would go to the race and those who do would be more likely to follow rules.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Interesting perspective.

      Think about the age range of those that attend the 500.

      Of that age range would one guess that the over 40 plus or 50 plus age consist of the majority of spectator attendees?

      The 40 and over ages are the ones who would agree to wear masks, if that were the requirement.

      I read today that there will be no snake pit. The age group attending the event perhaps or most likely had a bearing on its cancellation.

      So we are not necessarily the “beach crowd” or in this case snake pit crowd oblivious to following rules but rather we are realistic of the consequences from medical experts if rules recommended by medical professions are not implemented and required to be followed.

      Just think of it as another addendum to the INDY Car rule book for all to follow………… Pretty logical isn’t it?

      Let the others and their why comply with the rules attitude or the rules do not apply to me attitude become just another statistic on the national/international virus scoreboard.

    • billytheskink Says:

      While I wouldn’t pin the series’ continued existence on the Texas rating, I very much agree that all parties involved have a ratings number in mind that they expect to draw on network NBC. It will certainly be an interesting number to look for when it comes out.

      NBC typically draws between 2 and 3 million viewers on summer Saturday nights in recent years. The last (only?) IndyCar primetime network race, the 2013 Texas race, drew 1.4 million viewers. I’m sure the series and NBC are hopeful for the former numbers and expecting to at least match the latter numbers.

  5. Hopefully this sets a precedent that the season opener should always be shown on network TV

  6. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
    which sport will absorb the legal liability and
    sponsorship suspicion by being first with fans
    in the stands? or, will they all play “chicken”
    waiting for the “other guy” to go first?

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