View from the ground: Austin fans’ take on new engines, fewer teams, and no Rossi

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AUSTIN – With a day’s worth of practice in the books, it was interesting to gauge some reactions of fans on the ground here in Austin regarding the change in the engine formula and the reduction of the two teams that have gone into administration.

Much has changed in a year’s time since the 2013 United States Grand Prix. The reaction was about as you’d expect, a mix of excitement, intrigue and disappointment.

Start first with a San Antonio native named Michael making his first trip to a Grand Prix, but a veteran fan of the sports car weekends here featuring the FIA World Endurance Championship and IMSA series the last two years.

“I immediately noticed they’re immensely less loud than the WEC hybrids, Audi and Porsche,” he told me on the outside of the esses, at Turn 3. “The change doesn’t bother me because I had nothing to compare it to. The big thing to witness here is the change of direction.”

While positive – and bullish – about seeing the speed of an F1 car on site, he did express regret over the demise of Caterham and Marussia, which seemed a frequent sentiment. He added he was “crushed” that Alexander Rossi was unable to make his Grand Prix race debut, denied for the third time this season.

While Michael’s a new fan, local fan Greg has been to Grands Prix as far back as 1970 at Silverstone, and additionally to Montreal.

He said it was a bit strange to have earplugs with him and not be able to use them. But the bright side of the engine change, he said, was that it showcases the cutting edge technology that remains F1’s hallmark.

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Photo: Tony DiZinno

This being Halloween, there were due to be a few costumes on the grounds, and so while waiting in line for a bit of local Austin food flavor I happened upon two 20-something-year-old fans named Daniel and Kyle dressed as Mario and Luigi. Given the team reduction this weekend, it was perhaps a surprise these two weren’t added to the grid given the open slots…

Alas, they spoke highly of the engine change, noting how much they enjoyed hearing the turbo spool and the different engine notes. But like others, they were gutted to hear Rossi wouldn’t be on the grid.

Lastly as I headed near Turn 9 and on the run down to Turns 10 and 11 – after starting my jaunt coming across the bridge at Turn 3 – I saw a flag in full living color that read “Kimi is the Iceman.”

Turns out the sign was handmade by another 20-something named Jesse, who had only just moved to Austin in the last several weeks and was bringing the sign out of a seven-year hiatus.

He was nicely able to compare and contrast Austin to his only previous U.S. Grand Prix – the finale at Indianapolis in 2007 – and spoke highly of how much more involved Austin is as a city.

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Photo: Tony DiZinno

“I made up a Kimi is the Iceman flag at Indy 07 – just a massive fan,” he said. “It’s my first GP since. In Indy it didn’t feel as though there was a proper USGP vibe, here, everyone is aware of it.”

He and I also chatted about the demise of the smaller teams, noting how drivers like his favorite – Raikkonen – and Fernando Alonso may not have moved into their current slots at Ferrari without talent spotters like a Peter Sauber or Giancarlo Minardi discovering them at age 21 and 19, respectively.

“The U.S. is realizing the magnitude of losing two teams, and if it would have been three it would have been a crisis,” he said. “This has to be a wakeup call.”

There was also this five-pack of folks – a mix of Englishmen and Americans – who I saw but weren’t able to talk to too much.

What was refreshing about all of this, though, was that although the crowd appeared a bit smaller from last year (more on that to come in a separate trackside perspective piece later this afternoon), the passion, fervor and enthusiasm for F1 endures.

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Photo: Tony DiZinno

Sometimes, you get a bit blasé when you’re primarily bouncing between the paddock and the media center at an event. You occasionally forget the people who really make this thing work, and that’s the fans – and for them, long may this race continue.

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Even with half the purse and no fans, Indy 500 still has major team value

Indy 500 purse fans
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Even with reportedly half the purse and no fans in attendance, NTT IndyCar Series driver-owner Ed Carpenter believes it remains “absolutely critical” to hold the 104th Indy 500.

“Far and away it’s what makes and breaks our season as teams,” the Ed Carpenter Racing namesake told reporters during a Zoom media availability last week. “It’s the most important event to our partners. It 100 percent sucks not having fans there and not even being able to have the experience with our partners in full being there. But it’s necessary.

“We’ve got to look at all the hard decisions now of what we have to do to be in a position to have fans in 2021. It’s critical for the health of the teams that we have this race to make sure we have teams back here next year. That sounds a little dramatic, but that’s the reality.

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“We live in not only a very volatile world right now, but our industry and motorsport in general, it’s not an easy business to operate. When you lose your marquee event, it’s a lot different than looking at losing Portland on the schedule or Barber. They’re in totally different atmospheres as far as the importance to us and our partners.”

Robin Miller reported on RACER.com that IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske told team owners last week the purse for the postponed Indianapolis 500 was slashed from $15 to $7.5 million. Miller reported holding the Aug. 23 race (1 p.m. ET, NBC) would be a $20 million hit to the bottom line.

Carpenter still is supportive of Penske’s “outstanding job” of leading the series through the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Even with a 50 percent purse reduction, the Indy 500 remains the linchpin of teams’ economic viability.

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The schedule has taken many hits with the cancellation of races at Barber Motorsports Park, Circuit of the Americas, Detroit, Portland International Raceway, Laguna Seca and Toronto, and another race weekend doubleheader at Mid-Ohio has been indefinitely postponed.

That leaves the 2020 slate at 12 confirmed races of an original 17, which has raised questions about how many races teams need to fulfill sponsor obligations.

“It’s a moving target,” said Carpenter, who announced the U.S. Space Force as a new sponsor for the Indy 500. “I think we’ve been pretty blessed as a team with the level of commitment of our partners and their understanding of COVID-19 and the impact on our schedule, our contracts.

“All of it is out of our control, out of the series’ control, the promoter’s control. At the end of the day is there a firm number (of races) I can give? No. But definitely every one that we lose, it does make it harder to continue having those conversations.

I think everyone’s as confident as you can be right now with what we have in front of us with what’s remaining on the schedule. Things are so fluid, it changes day-to-day, let alone week-to-week. We just have to take it as it comes. Right now the focus is on the 500 and maximizing this month to the best we possibly can given the situation.”

That’ll be hard this month for Carpenter, who grew up in Indianapolis and is the stepson of Tony George, whose family owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway for decades.

Having spent a lifetime around the Brickyard, Carpenter will feel the ache of missing fans as he races in his 17th Indy 500.

Ed Carpenter, shown racing his No. 20 Dallara-Chevrolet at Iowa Speedway last month, led a race-high 65 laps and finished second in the 2018 Indy 500 (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“Over that time you develop relationships that are centered around standing outside of your garage in Gasoline Alley,” he said. “It stinks, it sucks that we don’t get to share that passion we all have that is the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately it’s the reality we’re in right now.

I think this is the best that we can do unfortunately. Without a doubt it’s going to be a different environment. You’re going to be missing the sounds and a lot of the sights and colors. For sure I’ve thought about it. It’s going to be a different morning, different lead-in to the race. After 16 of them, you have a cadence and anticipation for the buildup. That’s all going to be different this year.

“I’m confident it’s not going to affect the type of show we put on or the excitement and how aggressive we are fighting for an Indy 500 win. It’s still going to mean the same thing. We’re just not going to have our fans to celebrate with after the fact. But it’s going to be historic.”