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Roger Penske: Guarantee full-time IndyCar drivers starting spots in Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Roger Penske has a very simple solution for the predicament the Indianapolis 500 created when one of its most popular drivers, James Hinchcliffe, was bumped from the field during qualifying last weekend.

Teams that run the entire season should be guaranteed spots in the biggest race of the year.

“As I look at it now,” the Hall of Fame team owner said, “with sponsors being so important and the teams building up for Indianapolis, and that really being the hallmark of probably your sponsorship running at Indy, it’s a real tough pill to take if you don’t make the race.”

Indeed, one of the largest tents on the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway carries the logo of Arrow Electronics, the primary sponsor on Hinchcliffe’s car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Hinchcliffe is also one of the faces of IndyCar, not to mention engine supplier Honda and several other sponsors, and commercials featuring him continued to air even after he missed the field.

“I think we need to step back and look at this and be sure that people who commit for a full season know they have a place in the Indy 500,” Penske said, “because the world has changed.”

NASCAR learned long ago the importance of keeping sponsors happy. So while it’s common to have more cars attempt to qualify on a week-to-week basis than could fit in its field, the sanctioning organization implemented a charter system that assures a spot for the full-time teams.

Purists might argue that bump day is a part of the Indy 500 mystique, and that it adds a crucial wrinkle of drama to qualifying weekend. The race against the clock to make the field of 33 can be just as heartbreaking as anything that happens when the green flag drops Memorial Day weekend.

Penske has experienced that heartache, missing out on the field entirely one year.

He understands the importance of keeping bump day alive, and the fact that 35 cars were vying for 33 spots shows the health of the sport. But he also thinks there could be a compromise where perhaps the last 10 or so spots – after the full-time teams get theirs – would be left open for anyone to grab.

“I don’t think anybody would think we’re breaking with tradition,” said Penske, adding that already he’s spoken with Hulman & Company CEO Mark Miles and IndyCar President Jay Frye about potential changes.

“In ’94 we didn’t make the race. I remember walking out of pit lane with 100,000 people qualification day and going back to my garage and it was a real blow,” Penske said. “On the other hand it made us better going forward. This is a place you want to race and you have to be there going in.”

Guaranteed spots isn’t the only idea that has floated through the garage area.

Several drivers mentioned eliminating double points for the Indy 500 – or eliminating points entirely – which would have made the blow to Hinchcliffe’s team a bit more palatable. Others said they wanted a true bump day to return to Indy, where the field is set Saturday with the last few spots available Sunday.

That would also make it more likely for the top teams to survive.

“It’s so exciting to watch, just unbelievable,” 2014 series champ Will Power said. “Very sad for Hinchcliffe. He’s in the championship and it’s a double points race and he doesn’t get to race. But on the other hand, you can’t take all this lightly. There are serious consequences for small mistakes.”

Penske would just prefer the consequences be a bit less serious.

“I feel good about what’s going on with the cars, the technology, the cost,” he said. “I think this is just one thing they’re going to have to tweak.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway can have 10,000 fans for IndyCar races

Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans
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Indianapolis Motor Speedway will have crowds for its NTT IndyCar Series race weekend next month, the first time fans are allowed at the track this year.

The track announced Friday that up to 10,000 fans will be allowed in the grandstands daily from Oct. 1-4. The IndyCar Harvest GP race doubleheader will be held on the track’s road course Oct. 2-3.

IMS has played host to several events this year without fans, including the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23 and a NASCAR-IndyCar weekend July 4-5 that included the Brickyard 400. Plans originally were made to have fans at the Indy 500 before reversing course a few weeks ahead of the race. In a letter last month, Roger Penske vowed that fans would return for the 2021 Indy 500.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS president Doug Boles said in a release. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

Fans will undergo temperature screenings upon entry and also be required to wear face coverings at all times on property. The track said each attendee will receive a mask and bottle of hand sanitizer.

The Friday, Oct. 2 race will be shown at 3:30 p.m. ET on USA, and NBC will broadcast the Saturday, Oct. 3 race at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Here’s the release from Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Sept. 18, 2020 – For the first time in 2020, Indianapolis Motor Speedway will welcome fans to the Racing Capital of the World for the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR weekend. Up to 10,000 spectators can be in the grandstands each day of racing action Oct. 1-4, per approval from the Marion County Public Health Department.

Tickets are available now via IMS.com and will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

The massive facility, which holds more than 300,000 people, will provide two spectator zones with up to 5,000 fans in each. The zones will be located in Turns 1 and 4 of the oval, offering strong sightlines of the road course. Strict health and safety rules will be in place, including the following:

  • Face coverings must be worn throughout the property at all times;
  • All fans will receive temperature screenings before gate entry;
  • Grandstand seats will be marked for distancing;
  • Attendees must use pre-assigned gates and remain in their designated zones.

Global Medical Response, the world leader in compassionate, quality emergency medical and patient relocation services, will be the presenting sponsor of the penultimate weekend of INDYCAR racing this season.

“We can’t wait to see fans come through our gates for the first time in 2020,” IMS President J. Douglas Boles said. “They’ll be greeted by a vastly improved facility, featuring significant upgrades to the spectator experience. We’re also extremely grateful to have a presenting sponsor with the expertise and resources of GMR as we look to implement our detailed and comprehensive health and safety plan.”

The plan, which includes each attendee receiving a mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer upon entering the track, was developed in consultation with state and local health officials.

This event weekend is highlighted by an NTT INDYCAR SERIES doubleheader, with races Friday, Oct. 2 and Saturday, Oct. 3. It will be the penultimate event of the series’ season as the field pursues the champion’s prestigious Astor Challenge Cup to be awarded Sunday, Oct. 25 at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The INDYCAR Harvest GP will pay tribute to a storied IMS event, the Harvest Classic in September 1916. The Harvest Classic was the only racing event held outside of May at IMS from 1911 through 1993. The event featured three races, all won by legendary driver Johnny Aitken.

Fans also will see a host of facility improvements during the event weekend, including more than 30 new LED video boards, refreshed concession stands and restrooms, and 5G wireless connectivity throughout the facility.

The first race will air at 3:30 p.m. (ET) Friday, Oct. 2 on the USA Network. NBC will broadcast the second race at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Saturday, Oct. 3, with WTHR-13 airing the action live in Central Indiana.

Also racing that weekend will be the first pairing of two major sports car series — the Intercontinental GT Challenge Powered by Pirelli and its North American counterpart, GT World Challenge America Powered by AWS. Former Indianapolis 500 pole winner Ryan Briscoe is among the drivers in the Indianapolis 8 Hour event held Sunday, Oct. 4.

The event also will showcase drivers in SRO America’s Pirelli GT4 America, GT Sports Club America and the TC America series.

The full on-track schedule is available at IMS.com.