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Jonathan Bomarito spins, Pipo Derani leads at six-hour mark of Sebring

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Coverage of the 12 Hours of Sebring is currently on NBCSN, the NBC Sports app and NBCSports.com.

After nearly four hours of dry weather, rain returned to Sebring International Raceway. As most often is the case, it returned to part of the track first with Turns 9-13 getting wet and the remainder of the course largely dry.

As half of the the track lost grip, drivers tried to put the decision of whether to pit off as long as possible. Jonathan Bomarito went a lap too far in the No. 55 Mazda Team Joest car. He slid off course and contacted the wall. The No. 55 already had some nose damage and were hoping for a caution. While they did not want to be the car that brought out the caution, the damage was not severe and they were able to continue albeit two laps behind in eighth.

Pipo Derani and the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac maintained the lead with Renger van der Zande assuming second before the pit stops.

The incident saved Joao Barbosa, who chose to stay on slick, dry tires during his most recent pit.

The caution gave everyone chance to make a more informed decision and Barbosa left pit road in second.

Jordan Taylor in the No. 10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac exited in third with Simon Trummer fourth and the only other car on the lead lap (Lap 171).

During this segment, the No. 6 Acura Team Penske entry had a long pit stop at just short of the 4-hour mark. Sitting still for nearly five minutes with electrical gremlins, they also changed the back wing. Juan Pablo Montoya turned the wheel over to Simon Pagenaud with a three-lap deficit.

The 4-hour mark was important for another reason. Points are awarded for the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup; at that point, Felipe Nasr led Olivier Pla by 25 seconds.

At the halfway point, Scott Dixon exited the pits with the lead over Antonio Garcia in the GTLM class. Six of the eight teams that started GTLMs were still on the lead lap. In GTD, Rik Breukers in the No. 11 Grasser Racing Lamborghini led Zacharie Robichon in the No. 9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche, with 11 of 17 entrants still on the lead lap and in contention.

At the 4-hour, 9-minute mark, Bia Figueiredo spun from second. She took the opportunity to come in and make a driver change, handing the No. 57 Meyer Shank Racing Acura (GTD) to Katherine Legge.

One of the biggest incidents of the first half of the race came in the GTD class at the 4-hour, 32-minute mark. Philip Frommenwiler in the No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus car got into the back of his teammate, Frankie Montecalvo, when it appeared that Montecalvo’s No. 12 entry got loose in Turn 14.

“We were running nose to tail, staying very clean,” Montecalvo told NBCSN after climbing from his car for a driver change. “I ended up pushing a little wide getting up on the wet curb. Not sure what happened or how he came into the back of me. It just was a direct hit from behind. I think the water and the wheel spin slowed down my exit speed.”

The No. 12 Lexus got to the 6-hour mark one lap off the pace and 12th in class.

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