IndyCar industry supports delay but wrestles with its consequences

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – IndyCar team owner Michael Shank was sitting in the lobby of a hotel doing an interview with NBCSports.com when he got “the call.”

Shortly after answering it, the crestfallen look on Shank’s face gave away the answer without hearing the voice on the other end.

The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg had been canceled. IndyCar officials then announced the first four races of the season would not be held. Some may be rescheduled, but that remains to be seen.

For team owners, the announcement was something they didn’t want to hear, but they realized was the appropriate call.

“It’s super unfortunate and I’m really bummed, but understanding the whole world is stopping this week,” Shank told NBCSports.com. “We’ll go back and regroup this week. We aren’t going to do the Barber test, either. It’s all off. We are all heading home.

“I’m bummed, but it’s the world right now.”

Team Penske driver Will Power has prepared for the season opener for months. He works out on a regular basis and recently has taken up karting to sharpen his racing skills.

The 2014 NTT IndyCar Series champion was attempting to win his third Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Instead, he will wait for another two months before starting the season.

Should the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak be under control, the season could open with the May 9 GMR IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The second race would be the 104th Indianapolis 500 on May 24.

“I’m very disappointed we couldn’t race, but you have to put the safety of the public first,” Power told NBCSports.com. “We can’t risk spreading the coronavirus. IndyCar had a lot of meetings with health officials and local government and the promoter, they came to the decision they think is right, right now.”

Will Power — Photo by Getty Images

Power was one of several NTT IndyCar Series drivers that brought the family down in their lavish motorhomes parked at the site of the race. Power has a young son, Beau, along with his wife, Liz, and his mother-in-law.

“I was a little worried for my mother-in-law,” Power admitted. “She’s almost 70. It sounds like it is much worse for people over 60. I’m really hoping with all these cancellations in sporting events and large gatherings, they can get on top of this real quick, and everyone can move on with life. It’s put a halt on everything right now.”

Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was ready to go for the start of his 20th season in IndyCar. Now he must wait until May at the earliest.

“I think for the drivers and the teams, it’s really out of our hands to be honest, Dixon said. “Ultimately, we’re competitors, and we all want to go out and race, especially after a long offseason. You want to get out there and see what you have.

“I think it’s frustrating for a lot of people because there are so many unknowns. You don’t know when it’s going to be OK to do anything. From promoters to sponsors to team owners … when does this whole thing work itself out? We know right now we’re not racing this month, but will it go further than that? That’s the hardest part.

“The biggest thing is that everyone tries to remain healthy and safe. IndyCar made the right call.”

Zach Veach of Andretti Autosport is one of the younger veterans in IndyCar. The 25-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio, is beginning his third season with the team and was confident of showing improvement in 2020.

“It’s a bit crazy, but I fully understand what the decision had to be made,” Veach told NBCSports.com about the cancellations. “We are very lucky to be part of IndyCar during this generation because we have made so many good calls with the aeroscreen and everything else. When this virus started turning into what it is, organizations like the NFL and MLB making decisions, we definitely made the right call.

“Even though it’s not the call we wanted to be made, it was the call that needed to be made.”

When Power, Veach and Dixon all arrived at St. Petersburg, they were prepared to race in front of an enthusiastic crowd on a bright, sunny day with Tampa Bay as a backdrop. On Thursday, the decision was made to hold the race without spectators.

Finally, on Friday, the race was canceled completely.

“Five days ago, we had no worry about St. Petersburg, and it escalated to where it is now,” Veach said. “For us, we understand there are a lot of people. We just want to get through this as best we can.

“We understand there are a lot of people involved in this and we want to get through this as quickly as we can. Just preparing for the season to start, there is a lot involved for the drivers, mechanics and engineers. To be within seconds of starting the season, and then get told to go home. It’s a little weird.

“We’re going to go home, regroup and try to do this all over again in a couple of months.”

According to IndyCar team owner Bryan Herta, the father of Colton Herta, the events of the past 24 hours are eerily reminiscent to the CART teams in Germany during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

For the drivers, they will return to working out and trying to stay sharp. For team owners such as Shank, they are going to feel a major hit in their budgets.

Michael Shank — INDYCAR Photo

“It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars for my team to get to the race,” Shank said, counting the cost of personnel, travel expenses, the car itself and other equipment. “We have 19 people here including the driver and support staff, everybody from myself to PR and support staff. We are all here sitting.

“We’ve been working with hotel partners a lot and most of them have been very good about understanding and not holding us to the costs. Our team flies Southwest, but the West Coast trip was on Delta, and they aren’t going to give our money back. That’s a big loss for us. We have to write off $7,000 or $8,000 in flights.”

Teams also sell sponsorship based on the number of events they will be competing. The more races, the more sponsorship.

Although IndyCar officials remain committed to running a complete schedule in 2020 and moving postponed events moved to another date, Shank admitted the sponsorship situation will ultimately have to be addressed.

“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” Shank said. “I don’t think we will in the near-term until we see what IndyCar and the world does. I think we need to get these events in later in the year. We should make up the events or get close to the number of races on our schedule.

“I’m fortunate that AutoNation and SiriusXM are fantastic partners. I have not gotten any weirdness from them.

“We have obligations. We committed to a 17-race series for a sponsor, we committed to certain events. That is what we sold them and eventually have to come through with that.

“It’s going to be tough. We have a lot to do to keep people involved and entertained, but what options do we have? We have to wait it out as everyone else is doing. For teams, there isn’t much we can do to prepare.

“We are basically in the offseason for the next month and a half until May rolls around.

“I think if we can get everyone calmed down, it’s going to take a little bit, and get some real good direction from the folks at IndyCar, we can make this happen later.

“But it is definitely a weird moment in time in 26 years of racing.”

Mike Hull is the managing director at Chip Ganassi Racing and is in charge of the three-car effort for drivers Scott Dixon, Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson.

“We wholeheartedly support the decision IndyCar has made,” Hull told NBCSports.com. “They made the right decision. I think they have done the right proactive thing. As a company, we don’t know the seriousness of the problem, but we see everybody is doing the right thing in our country in the United States. More importantly and more to the point, for us it’s all about our people and the people that work for us.

“They come first for us. Our position is this is what is going on here.

“It will run its course, and then we will go racing.”

Mike Hull — IndyCar Photo

Before that, however, there will be much work that can be completed back at the team’s race show in Indianapolis.

“We will continue to work,” Hull said. “I don’t know what we will do the next couple of weeks. We will get everyone home safely, then determine who can work from home and who needs to be in the building. Then, we will support our people through this situation. We have great partners that support our team, including our manufacturer, Honda.

“We have a massive laundry list of things we can work on. In a way, it might be a blessing because we can get a lot done this period of time provided, we take the conservative approach to the virus potential. That is what we are going to do.”

This was supposed to be the first race of IndyCar’s new era as Roger Penske has taken over ownership of the series. There was plenty of anticipation and excitement over the start of a new season.

Once racing returns in 60 days or so, will the fans share that same type of excitement they felt for 2020?

“I’m not worried about that,” Hull said. “The fans are going to be as hungry when we start racing again as they are today. That goes hand-in-hand with the teams. We are eager to go racing and when we go racing, our fans will embrace us, even with this delay.

“We are going to be fine.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”