Josef Newgarden kicks off IndyCar season with St. Petersburg win

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Josef Newgarden’s gamble on a second stint of alternate ‘red’ tires paid off, as he drove away from the field to win the IndyCar season opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg. It is Newgarden’s 11th career victory and extends a winning streak to five consecutive years.

Newgarden, who went to sticker ‘reds’ on a stop at Lap 56, led 60 laps and took the lead for the final time on Lap 81 of 110.

“We were literally talking about it right before the race, Tim (Cindric, team strategist) and me were – trying to decide whether to go new or used reds [at the start], and we made the call at the last minute to go used,” Newgarden said on NBCSN after the race. “We’ll have that advantage if we needed it, and we used it. It just worked out perfectly.”

Newgarden had to survive traffic in the closing laps and it took a while to get around Marco Andretti. That allowed Scott Dixon to close within 2.5 seconds with laps running off the clock, but once clear of traffic, he was able to maintain his advantage.

“It was killing me,” Newgarden said. “It was definitely manufacturers playing good guys with each other. It was really tough. I just didn’t want to see people in front of me. I just wanted to keep running my laps. … Everyone was kind enough. It was still hard, but everyone was kind enough.”

Andretti and second-place Scott Dixon both race Hondas.

Dixon’s battle for second was hampered by the loss of his water bottle.

“It was definitely a tough race,” Dixon said. “We never really had any downtime. … It was pretty physical with no fluids.”

Dixon also noted the traffic that allowed him to get a run on Newgarden.

“It’s hard in those situations. You know the lapped traffic is trying to stay on the lead lap; they’re off strategy a little bit. I think it was Marco that was racing him pretty hard there at the end.”

Drivers from the front two rows dominated the race with polesitter Will Power taking the early lead before giving it over to rookie Felix Rosenqvist. Dixon and Newgarden also stayed among the top four for the entire race with the exception of pit stop sequences.

Power finished third.

In his first IndyCar race, Rosenqvist led 31 laps and finished fourth.

The battle for third and fourth came in the pits and while leaving them.

“I think there was a bit more in it,” Rosenqvist said. “Some of the pit stops didn’t really go as planned,” Rosenqvist said. “It was a good enough package to win the race. Just some small things didn;t really go our way, but I’m really happy.”

Power pitted on Lap 50. Rosenqvist pitted two laps later and was a little slower. When he exited the pits, Power nipped him at the exit and forced Rosenqvist to get hard on the brakes and almost spin.

Alexander Rossi rounded out the top five.

Click here for complete results

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Rookies Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci scored top-10s in the first race of the season, finishing eighth and ninth respectively. … Jack Harvey scored his first top 10 in a 10-race IndyCar career. … Simon Pagenaud overcame a 13th-place qualification effort to finish seventh.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Sebastien Bourdais’ bid for three consecutive St. Petersburg wins came to an end on Lap 13 with an engine failure; he finished last in 24th. … Ryan Hunter-Reay blew on Lap 20 while running seventh; the issue dropped him to 23rd. … Ed Jones went hard into the wall on Lap 26 and then Matheus Leist clipped his right rear tire; both drivers retired with crash damage, finishing 21st and 22nd respectively. … Marcus Ericsson pitted with engine problems just short of the halfway mark.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I got a run on (James Hinchcliffe) and I just caught the wall on Turn 9, which turned the car straight on into the outside wall. It sucks for the team after a joke of a qualifying session yesterday.” – Ed Jones on NBCSN after he retired from contact.

WHAT’S NEXT: IndyCar heads to Austin, Texas for the inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas on March 24.

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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