Coronavirus IndyCar St. Pete
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IndyCar opener at St. Petersburg closed to fans but will continue

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – The 2020 IndyCar season will begin as scheduled Sunday, but it will be affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman told reporters Thursday that two people in the area have been diagnosed with COVID-19. As a result, the city will close the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to general admission spectators, and season opener could be delayed.

In a 3 p.m. news conference, the mayor announced that the race will occur Sunday as scheduled.

Mayor Kriseman spoke to a group of civic leaders and NTT IndyCar Series drivers at the annual Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Media Brunch at the Vinoy Hotel Thursday morning. He stressed this a “fluid situation.”

The mayor said there have been two people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the St. Petersburg area.

“We had one person that tested positive during Bike Week and another that was at a national conference at the Emergency Services Conference that was across the Bay (in Tampa),” Mayor Kriseman told NBCSports.com after his remarks.

Just one day earlier, Mayor Kriseman spoke with race promoter Kevin Savoree to express the race was still a “go.” IndyCar distributed instructions to teams on how drivers should handle fan interaction and also canceled an autograph session.

But 24 hours later, as the crisis continued to evolve, the Mayor, Savoree and IndyCar were trying to determine the next steps.

“I strongly believe life must carry on as best as we are able, but the reality is during this global pandemic, this doesn’t appear possible,” Mayor Kriseman told the crowd at Thursday’s brunch. “I want to express my disappointment and where we are at today in this decision. I love this event. Those of you who know me, know how passionate I am about this race and what the IndyCar race has on the city.

“We will make an announcement later today about the race moving forward.”

Mayor Rick Kriseman — Photo by Bruce Martin

The mayor also announced the city extended its contract with Green Savoree Promotions to host the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for five more years.

“That’s a big deal,” Kriseman said. “Although, we are dealing with this, this year, we look forward and are excited to the race taking place for five years and hopefully a lot longer than that.

“The drivers are all about getting behind the wheel and putting on a great show for the fans and sponsors. We appreciate everyone at IndyCar for working with us as this decision is being made.

“Stay tuned. We will make additional announcements later today. We look forward to an amazing race next year.”

Upon returning to the race course, Andretti Autosport drivers Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay were leaving with other members of the team’s public relations staff.

Rossi shrugged his shoulders and said, “What are you going to do?” as they continued to walk to their cars.

An IndyCar team official told NBCSports.com that IndyCar officials were asking the teams to submit a lineup of “essential crewmembers” if the race was able to continue in front of an extremely limited crowd.

Before Mayor Kriseman’s announcement, NBCSports.com spoke with defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden about the excitement level entering the season-opening contest.

“It’s always a fantastic, welcoming kickoff,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “We love the town of St. Pete. They have a great community and make it feel like a big deal. The season-opener is important. We want to have a great race for the series; but also want a good race to set you up for the championship.

“I love the atmosphere here. You are hibernating for six months and to get back to racing is important.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994