IndyCar cancels opener
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

IndyCar cancels opener; all races through April also canceled

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — IndyCar has canceled its season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. IndyCar released a statement less than one day after taking measures to hold the event without spectators.

IndyCar also canceled or postponed  the next three races through April.

  • Grand Prix of Alabama – Barber Motorsports Park (Apr. 3-5)
  • Grand Prix of Long Beach (Apr. 17-19; was postponed yesterday)
  • IndyCar Challenge – Circuit of the Americas (Apr. 24-26)

Here is the following statement from IndyCar:

“After careful consideration, including regular communication with our event promoters, health officials, and the city administrations in our respective race markets regarding COVID-19, we have made the decision to cancel all NTT INDYCAR Series events through April.

This begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg which was to begin today and run through Sunday, March 15 and continues through the AutoNation INDYCAR Challenge at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas which was to take place April 24-26.

Although we are disappointed to delay the start to this INDYCAR season and will miss our incredible fans who support us each year in St. Petersburg, Birmingham, Long Beach, and Austin, the safety of our fans, participants, staff, partners, and media will always remain our top priority.  We will continue to coordinate with public health experts and government officials as we determine the appropriate plans for resuming our schedule.”

Shortly after issuing the statement, Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles spoke with the media via teleconference to update the situation.

“Obviously this is an incredibly fluid situation,” Miles said. “The entire world is dealing with it. It changes by the hour. The President of the United States is going to make another statement later today (declaring it a National Emergency). We certainly don’t know what’s coming. It just underscores I think the gravity of the situation.

“We are so excited about this season. We remain that. We’re going to race as much as we can race. It was clear to us from overnight and this morning that the right thing to do right now was to suspend our competition, really all on-track activity through April.”

Miles stressed IndyCar will attempt to run “as complete a schedule” as possible, meaning some races that are currently canceled may be held later in the year.

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

However, street course races at St. Petersburg and Long Beach may have a difficult time because they aren’t permanent facilities and have to be constructed every year.

“I will say that Long Beach has said they’re canceled,” Miles said. “We don’t see any opportunity to reschedule later in the year.

“Long Beach could not stage an event because of the California local governmental regulations. We’re in close regular multiple-times-a-day communication with all of our other races, particularly before May. They were finding it increasingly unlikely that they were going to be able to stage races.

“We’re in touch with all of our business partners and couldn’t be more appreciative of the support of NBC and NTT and Firestone and Honda and Chevy. They’re all businesses. They are dealing with the situation themselves both as a business and as an employer and with their customers, including us. So, there’s a lot of empathy and a lot of support.”

Mark Miles (right), Roger Penske (center), Tony George (left) — INDYCAR Photo

As Penske Entertainment CEO, Miles is essentially CEO of IndyCar, the same role he held when it was owned by the Hulman-George Family. Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation own the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.

“Roger Penske and I had a call with all our team owners about 30 minutes ago,” Miles said. “Obviously they want to race, and we want to race. We really hate that we can’t give our fans what they want right now. But there’s a very strong sense of cohesion inside the INDYCAR paddock we’re doing the right things.

“We’re doing what we have to do right now.”

With all racing canceled through the end of April, that means the season won’t start until the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The first race would be the IndyCar Grand Prix on May 9.

“I would just say we are absolutely focused on May,” Miles said. “We’re still in St. Petersburg, Florida. I’m with 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.”

Action at St. Petersburg for IndyCar was set to resume on Saturday morning. The support series teams hit the track early Friday morning, before the entire event was canceled.

When asked what the tipping point was, Miles responded “it’s the combination of things from last night and further into this morning. I won’t point to any one thing.

“What’s happening in the country broadly, we just felt like it was the right thing to do to not allow the opportunity for the racers to go racing here.”

With about 250 team members in the paddock, IndyCar was not over the “sizeable crowd” gathering limit, but there remained a risk that those participants could spread the virus if they have it without realizing it.

“From the participants’ point of view, the drivers and the teams, that was part of our consideration earlier,” Miles said. “But really I think what happened subsequently was the sense that it’s not responsible to ask people to get together.

“You have communities all over the country that are saying they don’t want 250 people, gatherings of 250 people, even for private events. So that’s where we are as a country right now.

“I think our drivers would be at much less risk. But mass gathering social events are being called off.

“There’s a public health risk any time people are getting together. That’s why since our announcement, our prior announcement that we were going to race without the crowd, we learned that Disney was shutting down, we saw THE PLAYERS Championship and Ponte Vedra go from their announcement they were going to play a major tournament for them without a crowd to canceling.

“Really there isn’t a sporting event left that feels comfortable running even without fans. I just think that’s reflective of what’s going on in the country and in the world.”

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