DiZinno: Alonso’s arrival is 101st Indy 500’s magic bullet

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Much the same as in December when I got the Facebook message from my colleague Luke Smith that said simply “Rosberg’s retired!” I had to a double take this morning when I saw the “Mate, you’re not going to believe what happened!!” message.

Fernando Alonso. Running the Indianapolis 500. This year.

Really? Seriously? Yes.

Details of how the out-of-left-field deal came to be reality emerged a bit during conference calls with Alonso, Michael Andretti and Zak Brown today. Taking a long story and condensing it, Honda had an 18th engine lease available for this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil that wasn’t filled, it was later determined Andretti Autosport would be the best fit, and Stefan Wilson had the inside line on the seat.

But just in the first two Formula 1 race weekends, Alonso and Brown had some meals, the two-time World Champion decided he wanted to run Indy and mountains moved between various parties to make it happen. Wilson, ironically, gets better PR value out of being the sidelined driver this race than he probably would have had he got the seat. Alonso was always going to be a bigger story and Wilson, much like his late brother Justin, is the bigger man for stepping aside as part of the process. It’s a hope he will be rewarded properly in the long run.

It matters not who was first in reporting the news when the news is this big, except for those who need the glory of saying so.

What matters instead is that the story is in fact real, not a belated April Fool’s prank, and that suddenly a race that didn’t have a magic story line has one.

Frankly the big question for the 101st Indianapolis 500 was going to be what was the big thing the race needed. Last year’s 100th running was always going to have the extra hoopla and drama associated with it. That the race was sold out and had a dramatic finish featuring a rookie’s unheralded shot at glory didn’t hurt, either, and Alexander Rossi has more than proven a worthy champion.

Without a new car though (that comes in 2018), or a big-name star driver though, the race fails to extrapolate much beyond its standard sphere of influence – this is to say in Indianapolis and Indiana locally, to the core fan base of the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the one-off extra fans that come to watch this race either on television or on site.

Alonso at Indy though? That’s as Earth-shattering as it gets in the motorsports world. It’s on par with Nigel Mansell’s arrival in 1993 and the first occasion for a younger generation of a driver from Formula 1 actively leaving their day job for a shot at the single biggest race in terms of a one-day spectator total.

If Indy didn’t matter in the world sphere, Alonso wouldn’t have come. Period, point blank. And how he does will dominate the headlines beyond us usual web minions who cover the series full-time.

“I think the interest is very clear. It’s one of the best races in the world,” Alonso said during a teleconference today. “It’s very prestigious. If you want to be considered the best, you have to drive all type of cars. So after successfully winning F1 championships, I think the opportunity to race in Indy 500, then one day in the future in Le Mans, that dream of the Triple Crown is very attractive, together with McLaren and Zak.”

Zak Brown knows a thing or two about marketing; JMI was his baby and he needs a way to turn opinions back the way of positive press given the current struggles his new baby, McLaren, is having in Formula 1. And what better way to do so than with a stunner like this, which was remarkably kept quiet?

“I had a desire for McLaren to come back to Indianapolis,” said the American, who understands the magnitude of his brand. “It is a great part of our history. But we didn’t think the timing would be right to try to put together the effort.

“We started flirting with Fernando on the topic and he started flirting back. In Australia, we had breakfast with Honda, and he stated his desire to race triple crown of Monaco, Indy and Le Mans. He said I’d love to race with Honda at Indianapolis 500. We didn’t know the timeline. He had a real desire to race there.

“But we spoke the Monday after Australia. Hey you mentioned you wanted to do Indy… he said very. Let’s talk at China dinner. You thinking this year? Was it doable? He was very serious.

“We had dinner Friday in China and I laid it out in the table, he wants to do it, we think we could make it happen. He told me Saturday morning after sleeping on it ‘I want to do it.’

“We signed it last night from the airport, and here we are announcing it. We could not be more excited to run the McLaren Honda Andretti entry with Fernando Alonso. It’s an incredible day of motorsports.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi driver of the Andretti Herta Autosport Dallara Honda leads a pack of cars on his way to winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Andretti Autosport has six entries on its own, all of whom already had incredible stories anyway before today’s news.

To wit:

  • Rossi, surprisingly, goes for a repeat of last year.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay seeks his second ‘500, after losing last year thanks to contact with his teammate in the pits.
  • Takuma Sato has been stealthily good at the Speedway, despite a lack of results. Few forget his daring, if failed, attempt trying to pass Dario Franchitti.
  • Marco Andretti, going to break that eternal Andretti curse, nearly 50 years on from Mario’s famous 1969 win.
  • Jack Harvey, a talented rookie making his debut with Mike Shank, a popular team owner, making his Indy debut.

And now they add Alonso to this? If the old axiom of “a rising tide lifts all boats” is true, then all five of those other entries will be buoyed by the prospects of having one of the greatest drivers of his generation now needing to draw on them to help his debut, while all getting the extra PR value out of it.

Alonso racing Scott Dixon, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya? That means he’s going up against seven IndyCar series champions.

And he’ll be competing against at least six other Indianapolis 500 winners in Dixon, Kanaan, Montoya, Rossi, Hunter-Reay and Helio Castroneves (seven if Buddy Lazier makes the race).

Plus, from a rookie-of-the-year standpoint, suddenly the trio of previously confirmed rookies in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires graduates Harvey, Ed Jones and Zach Veach can say if they win rookie-of-the-year honors, they beat Fernando Alonso to do so.

It’s hard to see this as anything other than a massive positive for a race where one extra driver can make a big difference.

And for Alonso, it’s a masterstroke in terms of writing a chapter of his career where he knows he’s going into a big challenge, is taking it with open arms, and has the support of his team, his engine manufacturer, and one of the most famous last names in motorsport all at his side.

We don’t know where he’ll finish in May, but in terms of an announcement, Alonso, McLaren, Honda, Andretti and Indianapolis have already won.

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida