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Racing through Christmas? Where IndyCar now goes from here

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – IndyCar, like all other professional and intercollegiate sports leagues, is seeking the answer to the same question after shutting down for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Where does the sport go from here?

For Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, who is the de-facto CEO of IndyCar, the two-month shutdown is an important time for the series. First and foremost is ensuring the safety of its competitors, crewmembers, partners and fans from contracting the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus.

Beyond that, it’s finding race dates to make up for the loss of the first four races of the season.

Those include Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (canceled), the April 5 Honda Grand Prix at Barber Motorsports Park (postponed), the April 19 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (postponed) and the April 26 AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas (postponed).

It’s Miles’ goal to run as close to the original 17-race schedule as possible.

Unfortunately for St. Petersburg, it won’t be able to secure another date on the calendar because the course is on city streets. The same challenges exist for Long Beach, though race promoter Jim Michaelian is actively working with the City of Long Beach to find a late summer or Fall race date.

“We want to have as full a season as we can,” Miles said. “We want to race in all of our cities. I will say that Long Beach, they’re canceled. I don’t see any opportunity to reschedule later in the year.

“But the bottom line is we just don’t know enough now to know what’s possible when. What we can do is monitor the situation endlessly and to be in a great communication with our promoters and all our officials and to focus on May. From our perspective, our hope, our ambition, our plan is to restart in May and to get in as much of a season as we can.

“I know that our promoters are going to assess their individual situations, as well. We’ll be every day, every hour talking to suppliers, to the paddock, to our sponsors, our broadcasters and our promoters. We’ll put on as big a show as we possibly can this year.”

With the first four races canceled or postponed, the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season now is scheduled to start with the May 9 GMR IndyCar Grand Prix followed by the 104th Indianapolis 500 on May 24.

“I would just say we are absolutely focused on May,” Miles said. “I’m with (IMS President) Doug Boles. We’re all going to go home and keep doing what we do. We’re going to be absolutely ready. That’s with the normal schedule. We will obviously evaluate everything every day by the hour. We’ll make any changes we have to make. But our mindset and our efforts are completely dedicated to being ready to put on a great show throughout May.”

Team owner Michael Shank’s team is in its first full season in IndyCar after running partial schedules the past two seasons. He also runs the Acura NSX effort in IMSA.

The St. Petersburg race was the kickoff of an extended trip to Florida as Shank’s team was competing in IndyCar this weekend, and his IMSA team was preparing for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring next weekend.

Both events have been halted, as well as other races beyond that.

Shank was asked, where does IndyCar go from here?

“I’ve never been here before,” team owner Michael Shank told NBCSports.com. “The sport will be all right; we just don’t need to panic. We need to get through this and get to what the solution is.

“It’s not going to go anywhere. We all need to get through the next 30 to 60 days.”

Shank believes once racing resumed, the sport and the public will make some positive changes.

“What it does is force us to keep everyone safe, healthy and clean,” Shank said. “But what it forces us is to get tight with everything financially. We have to put a chokehold down on the extra spending and keep it at a bare minimum until we see how we are all going to come out of this.

“It could be we race until December on the IndyCar side and the sports car side. Certainly, I think we will look at anything, and everything until we get the number of races up.”

Team Penske driver Will Power is more than willing to drive race cars into the Christmas season, if it means having a full schedule of races.

“I’ll race until December; I don’t care,” Power told NBCSports.com. “I’d like to see us run a few races during the gap for the Olympics. Or, some of the races during that gap.

“All of those questions are what people will be working on these next few weeks. I’m hoping no event gets completely canceled, and it is only postponed. I hope we get to race a full calendar. St. Pete, Barber, Long Beach and COTA. It will be such a disappointment and pity if we don’t get to race at those places.”

Miles cannot start to schedule races during the break for the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to run as planned from July 24-Aug. 9.

“Your hypothetical question included the possibility that the Olympics aren’t happening,” Miles said. “There are just too many variables to anticipate at this point.

“We’ll do whatever is possible to do to create the fullest season.”

Power’s team owner is Roger Penske, the new owner of IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500. Power is confident Penske’s leadership will find solutions.

“With Roger, he is always speaking to the right people and will make the right decisions to help people first and plan accordingly to make the postponed races work,” Power said.

Zach Veach. Photo: IndyCar

At 25, Andretti Autosport driver Zach Veach believes IndyCar drivers and teams should try to stay in the front of the public through social and traditional media. Race fans will be starving for content, and it’s important to remain visible, even if they aren’t racing.

“It’s important for us to keep doing what we have been doing so well,” Veach told NBCSports.com. “That is building the momentum that we have done with the media and get exposure for what we are doing. We didn’t have a lot of testing this winter, but we still were able to generate that momentum. We haven’t been in the cars quite a bit, but we have been able to get that surge behind us and make sure we don’t lose that over the next month.

“All of us are going to be doing whatever we can to keep people engaged to what our lives will be the next month. We are going to go back to training as if the season was planned to start in May instead of this weekend.

“Everyone is disappointed, but we all feel it’s the right call to be made.”

For Penske and Miles, they have to ensure teams, sponsors and partners remain viable during the unexpected shutdown. That will help provide a brighter future after the country is able to endure these dark days of uncertainty because of the coronavirus.

“I think we’re concerned about our whole ecosystem,” Miles said. “Everybody is taking stock in the situation. Everybody will sort and grind through it. I didn’t hear anybody thinking they weren’t going to be in business.

“We will be in very regular touch with them. I think if there’s anything about IndyCar teams, it’s they’ve shown their resilience. They know how to manage. They care about their people. Right now, I think even more than thinking about their businesses, they’re thinking about their employees, keeping them safe, keeping them employed.

“We have real admiration for the team owners. I’m sure they’ll get through it.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”