Hinchcliffe’s Indianapolis 500 nightmare continues

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INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe has lived this nightmare before when he failed to make the field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 in 2018. Most nightmares come to an end, however, as soon as someone wakes up.

In the blink of an eye Saturday, in qualifications for the 103rd Indianapolis 500, the nightmare returned.

Hinchcliffe began his initial qualification attempt at 1:20 p.m. Eastern Time and had just completed a fast lap on the first of four laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But on the second lap, Hinchcliffe’s Honda did a half-spin in Turn 2 and made hard left-side contact with the SAFER Barrier. The car rotated onto its left sidepod as it slid down the track and landed on all four tires before coming to rest on the backstretch.

Hinchcliffe was able to climb out of the car with help from the AMR INDYCAR Safety Team.

Unlike last year, when Hinchcliffe was bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by Conor Daly with 20 minutes remaining in the session, there was time to correct the issue.

Last year, Hinchcliffe attempted to make a second attempt but had a vibration on his next qualification run. After correcting that problem, he was the last car in the inspection line waiting to go out before qualifications ended.

After his crash on Saturday, his Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew quickly prepared a backup Arrow Honda with crewmembers from all three SPM teams pitching in, including teammates Marcus Ericsson and Oriol Servia.

The backup car was ready to roll about 4 p.m., and Hinchcliffe and crew returned to pit lane to the cheers of the fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When team co-owner Ric Schmidt was asked by NBCSports.com if he felt this was “Groundhog Day?,” he replied, “Yep.”

Hinchcliffe’s first attempt was woefully slow and waved off when the four-lap average was 210.745 mph. The second attempt was four-laps at 226.530 mph. The final attempt began at 5:32 p.m. and the four-lap average was 226.956 mph, again too slow to make the field.

The popular driver from Canada gets one more attempt in Sunday’s “Last Row Shootout.” Coverage will begin on NBC at Noon ET.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

He is one of six drivers fighting for the final three positions in the 33-car starting lineup. The others include two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso, IndyCar regulars Max Chilton and Pato O’Ward from Carlin, and part-time drivers Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing and Sage Karam of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

Hinchcliffe must reset his mind and make one final four-lap attempt to make the Indianapolis 500 field for the first time since 2017.

INDYCAR Photo “Honestly, it’s part of our job,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s what we do. It’s not the first time we’ve crashed. Probably won’t be the last. So, you just have to be able to put these things behind you and close the visor tomorrow and do it again.”

Hinchcliffe’s team did an incredible job getting his backup car together and ready to go in just under 3 hours.

“Huge credit to everybody at Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, it was a big effort from the whole team to get that car out there,” Hinchcliffe said. “Everybody from each team – they jumped in and helped.

“It’s a road course car, so it doesn’t have all the extra love on it that the oval cars, the superspeedway cars have, so we weren’t really sure what to expect. We came out, made some changes and found some speed, certainly. Obviously, it wasn’t quite enough today.

“Luckily, we’ve got a chance tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of faith in the crew, everybody at Arrow, everybody at Honda, they’ve done great today to rebound from a pretty bad situation. We just have to put our heads together, find a little speed on it tomorrow and come out and put this thing in the show.”

Hinchcliffe’s accident was a big hit, but he was able to escape the massive impact uninjured. He made a quick trip to the IU Health Infield Care Center where he was examined and released.

“The car was a little bit loose in (Turns) 3 and 4 but in 1 and 2 was solid, so actually I was just preparing to dial a bit of understeer in for the north end of the track,” Hinchcliffe explained. “I don’t know if we caught a gust or the wind changed or what. When it’s windy and it’s gusty and you’re in low downforce for qualifying, unfortunately that’s the risk you run.

“I got to (Turn) 2, and it just sort of suddenly snapped on me. I don’t know if it was a gust of wind or what. Worst-case scenario is doing it again tomorrow.

“We’re prepared. Obviously, this team is … they’re professionals. They know these things can happen. I’m not worried about getting back out. We just don’t know what kind of pace we’re going to have until we get there.”

“It’s pretty much worst-case scenario. It’s pretty much our nightmare. But I have a lot of faith in the Arrow guys. We’ll get one back together, and we’ll get back out there tomorrow.”

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