INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

IndyCar industry supports delay but wrestles with its consequences

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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 

NHRA ‘C19 Club’: COVID-19 brought them together and back to racing

Photo: Bobby Bennett, CompetitionPlus.com
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Be it a fraternity, social organization or club, some people are just natural joiners. They enjoy being members.

But there’s one club within the NHRA drag racing community that no one intentionally wants to be part of, yet its membership numbers keep growing.

Such is the “C19 Club,” a group of veteran drivers, team members, reporters and PR reps who have battled the COVID-19 virus over the last several months. The number is up to seven members thus far.

And now as the NHRA gets back to racing this weekend in suburban Indianapolis after a 4 ½-month hiatus due to the coronavirus, several of those club members are returning to a dragstrip for the first time since going through what they all term the toughest battle they’ve ever experienced.

Bobby Bennett, publisher/editor of CompetitionPlus.com, one of the most popular web sites in the sport, founded the club after his own fight with the virus.

“I started the club because I realized I wouldn’t be the only one to ever get COVID-19 in the drag racing community,” Bennett said.

But Bennett and others who have fought the virus aren’t just coming back to Indy this weekend to share war stories. Rather, several club members are trying to turn a negative into a positive by either already having donated or plan to donate blood plasma to give antibodies that will hopefully help those currently battling the virus.

Club members have already donated 24 bags of plasma. Bennett alone has donated 16 of those bags, with several infected individuals already having gotten better as a result. Bennett isn’t stopping there, though: he plans to donate four more bags in the next couple of weeks.

Fellow club member Todd Smith, crew chief for Kalitta Motorsports’ Funny Car driver J.R. Todd, as well as Smith’s wife Julie have also donated several bags of plasma, with plans to donate more, too.

Several others, including Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan, are waiting for the green light from their doctors to donate as well.

Several members of the “C19 Club”: From left, Bobby Bennett, Todd and Julie Smith, Ervin “Jock” Allen and Lee Montgomery. Photo courtesy Bobby Bennett.

 

And others are still going through their own battles with the virus, including Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III, who tested positive last week, and longtime reporter/PR rep Lee Montgomery, who is expected to get the all clear this weekend.

“The way I see it, me and Todd Smith and those of us that have been through COVID are among the safest ones to be around in the pits,” Bennett said. “We’ve got the antibodies that we’ve been giving to help save lives.”

Here are some club “members” stories and their thoughts as NHRA resumes this weekend, and in front of paying fans, at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Indiana:

BOBBY BENNETT: Bennett was among the earliest individuals in the country to come down with COVID-19. He believes he picked up the germs on an early February cross-country redeye flight from Los Angeles to Charlotte, North Carolina after attending a race near Bakersfield, Calif.

MORE: Drag racing writer’s scary battle with COVID-19: ‘You’re wishing you’d die’

“That’s the scariest part of it all, getting back on an airplane,” said Bennett, who flew from Charlotte to Indianapolis on Friday. “Don’t let me fool you about this tough, machismo rah rah thing, I still get scared.

“But that’s where my faith comes in. In a span of a couple of weeks, I’ve had my website hacked, my wife’s water pump has gone out on her car, which is an expensive fix, and my hard drive failed on my main computer and just a few other things. So just one thing right after another, but I’m like, you know what, I’ve had COVID, none of these things compare to that.

“COVID taught me that I’m not invincible. But it also showed me how strong I was inside. The whole reason that we created this C19 Club was because when I was laying there, I was absolutely hopeless, I had nobody to compare notes with, nobody to talk to.

“There was a moment where I was so hopeless that suicide entered my mind as a good way out of this deal. If God didn’t do it quick enough, I would take care of the rest. But I thought about how many people it would hurt. At about the same time I was thinking that, my wife stuck her head in the door and said, ‘Don’t you die on me.’ So I’m like, ‘Alright God, I got your message. We’ll fight another day.’

CompetitionPlus.com publisher/editor Bobby Bennett is back at a racetrack for the first time since he battled COVID-19. He has now formed a club for those who have also battled coronavirus. Photo courtesy Bobby Bennett.

“That’s why I’m going to this race. At one time I said I’m not going to another race until they have a cure for this. But when I started donating and giving plasma to victims and helping others, then I realized just how important it is for me to return to a life of normalcy.”

Bennett has gotten much of his semblance of life back, but like the other club members, is still feeling the virus’ impact. He has to carry two types of inhalers and migraine medicine with him at all times in the event he has a breathing issue or brain-splitting headache, which are two of the post-virus aftereffects.

“You just learn to pace yourself,” Bennett said. “I mean, yeah, I may be showing COVID that it ain’t going to kill me, but it is still throwing a pretty good punch that lasts well after the disease has been declared negative in your body.”

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CORY MCCLENATHAN: The veteran Top Fuel driver is coming out of retirement at this weekend’s event and next weekend’s race – both at the same suburban Indianapolis track – to complete what he terms “unfinished business.”

But McClenathan also has unfinished business with COVID-19. While he has never officially received a positive test result, McClenathan’s doctor is convinced his patient had the disease – in fact, he may have been one of the first people in the U.S. to have it.

McClenathan underwent an antibody test this past Monday and came back negative. He plans on joining Bennett and others in donating plasma in the next few weeks.

Cory McClenahan has some unfinished business this weekend and next. Photo courtesy Cory McClenathan.

McClenathan first started feeling ill in late November and was sick through almost the entire month of December.

“That’s when they just were starting to figure out, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem here’ (with the onset of COVID-19),” McClenathan told NBC Sports. “I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You’ve got a bad upper respiratory issue going on.’ Well, come to find out that was one of the huge things that everybody was seeing along with the headaches, how they come and go every couple hours.

“You’d have a temperature and then two hours later, you wouldn’t. I had every single thing. I was at home by myself, thinking, ‘Man, I’m 57 years old, it’s a flu.’ I was at the point where I was crawling up and down my stairs because I’d get the spins and that blackout feeling.

“When they finally started saying, ‘Hey, this thing called COVID,’ they sent me right out to do a blood test. It came back negative but my doctor said, ‘You can’t go off of that. Those tests are only 55% accurate.’

“My doctor said, ‘You had it. There’s no doubt. The only thing I’d like to do is get you tested’ so I could give plasma, give blood, to try to help other people.

“I basically stayed away from my whole family for well over a month. My mom is going to be 80 soon. So I just I stayed away from her until I got to the point where I could drive and feel good. I’m still having trouble breathing, still struggling with workouts and stuff like that. I just am having such a hard time getting back to where I feel like I’m stronger.

“I’ve never been that sick in my life. It just takes you to your knees. It takes away the taste of food. I ate because I knew I needed it but literally nothing tastes like it’s supposed to be. So I think my biggest fear is when you have this and if you’re older like me, it really kind of does some damage to the inside your body that doesn’t let it come back.

“So I’m wondering, am I 100% right now? No, I don’t think so. Can I get there? Yes, I’ve made big strides in the last couple of weeks working out with a mask on, doing some pretty hard cardio walking and running to see what exactly is going on. I keep a blood oxygen sensor with me just to make sure I’m still within range.

“My doctor said, ‘You had every single factor that had come out. I’m going on the premise that you had it because I saw you back then. And I see you now and you’re making a good comeback, but it’s slow.’ It’s almost like it infects the inside of your body to the point of how do I recover fully?”

McClenathan recovered from his symptoms but still suffers some lingering effects such as shortness of breath and stamina.

“There’s parts of the day where I gotta stop and go, man, I gotta take a breather,” McClenathan said.

One thing that will help significantly while McClenathan drives his 330-mph Top Fuel dragster this weekend and next is his car has a canopy covering, rather than an open cockpit. That canopy allows cool air to be blown into the cockpit as well as McClenathan’s helmet to not only keep him cool, but also to keep a steady stream of air blowing to help his breathing.

“I’m 57 not 25 or 36, but at the same time this is an evil thing,” McClenathan said of COVID-19. “I know the naysayers say the facemask doesn’t help or other things don’t help, but I’ll do anything not to get this again or not to infect somebody else.”

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Todd Smith, crew chief for Funny Car driver JR Todd: Smith and wife Julie live in one of the hot beds of the coronavirus, South Florida.

Todd Smith tested positive on April 21 and self-quarantined at home.

“I had 8 of 10 symptoms,” Smith told NBC Sports. “While waiting for the test results at home for 4-5 days, every day I had a high fever, body aches, vomiting, diarrhea, all this bad stuff. Then I got up to go to the bathroom one morning and blacked out because my blood pressure was so low from being so sick. I fell face first into the kitchen floor, the tile floor, and shattered my nose and my eye socket.”

Todd and Julie Smith. Photo courtesy Todd and Julie Smith.

Smith was hospitalized for four days and should have stayed there. But doctors sent him home, only to have him return a few days after being discharged – and in much, much worse shape.

“I went back to the hospital and was in for 19 days, including in Intensive Care for several days” Smith said. “I was on the brink of having to be put on ventilator. I was on 100 percent oxygen.

“The treated me with hydroxychloroquine shortly after I was admitted to the hospital, but I still ran a fever between 102 and 104 for several days, took round-the-clock Tylenol and was delirious. While I’m over the virus now, it was really rough. It took me close to another month after I was discharged the second time to gradually get back to being healthy.”

But Smith still has residual effects.

“I lost over 35 pounds and I’m still dealing with the broken nose and having a problem with breathing,” he said. “We’re still not sure if I have permanent damage to my lungs.”

While her husband was in isolation at the hospital, Julie Smith also came down with the virus. Fortunately, her case wasn’t as bad and she didn’t require hospitalization.

Todd Smith resumed working on Todd’s car over a month ago, but did much of the work remotely or via only occasional trips back to Kalitta Motorsports’ headquarters near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“I’m just flying back and forth,” he said. “I come back (to Florida), chill out for about 3-4 days, get some rest, recoup and then go back and do it again,” Smith said. “The doctors just told me to be cautious.”

One of the biggest risks the 57-year-old Smith and all others that have tested positive for the virus and have returned to the race track this weekend is being around nitromethane fumes.

“Nitro,” as it’s called, is a highly combustible fuel that powers Funny Cars and Top Fuel dragsters. The fumes are extremely strong and acrid and present breathing complexities in general, but even more so for those who have breathing issues already or who, like Smith, McClenathan and others, have had their lungs compromised by the virus.

“That was one of the things I was thinking about in the hospital,” Smith said. “Like, okay, this stuff never really bothered me, but it might now because different things are kind of affecting me at this point that never did before like allergy stuff. So, I’m gonna find out how much it will affect me this weekend.

“I’ve got some precautions of keeping my mask on and when we warm the cars up in the pits, we always wear a mask. We’ve been doing that for years to try to protect ourselves from the fumes. Once you get on the starting line, it is what it is, so I’m gonna wear my mask and cross my fingers and go out there like John Wayne and try to make it happen.”

Smith anticipates donating plasma in the next week or so, perhaps after next weekend’s return to Indianapolis. He feels a need to do so.

“This is big and bad and serious and it affected all of us pretty bad,” Smith said. “I received plasma when I was in my second trip to the hospital.

“I personally felt like it made a difference with me, so I knew even then I’m like, ‘Man, I gotta pay it forward because people are donating this stuff and they have lived through it and have the right antibodies and all that kind of stuff. It was like, yeah, I’ve gotta do this.”

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LEE MONTGOMERY: The 53-year-old veteran motorsports writer and PR person will not be in Indianapolis this weekend, as he’s just finished recovering from his own bout with coronavirus.

Like Smith and McClenathan, the North Carolina resident is looking forward to when he can donate plasma, but is also trying to be part of contact tracing studies to help determine how the virus is spread.

Lee Montgomery is just getting over a battle with COVID-19. Photo courtesy Lee Montgomery.

“We were joking and laughing about (the C19 Club) and there’s a little bit of a competition going on between us about who’s gonna donate the most (plasma),” Montgomery said with a chuckle. “I think Bobby’s got a bit of a head start so that’s a little unfair. Using drag racing terms, he’s got the hole shot on us.

“So we’re gonna have to work real hard to catch up to him. As soon as I’m clear, I’m gonna start looking around and see what I can do to help.”

Montgomery first experienced symptoms on June 18, went to his doctor on June 23 and received results that he was positive for COVID-19 on June 26.

“I didn’t really think I had COVID the first time I went to a doctor,” Montgomery said. “I’m one of the fortunate ones. I guess that I had a mild case and it’s gone away, so I’m glad about that.

“But I honestly am a little worried about long-term effects. What does this do to my stomach acid and digestive system? I don’t know. Nobody knows yet.

“Look, it’s a serious global health crisis and if you don’t take it seriously, if you don’t think it’s no big deal, I don’t know where your head is, I honestly don’t. My mother’s in her 80s and I was around her within a week before I tested and so I was really, really worried about her. What if she had contacted the symptoms? That would have been horrible. So wear your mask. It’s really not that complicated.”

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Bennett is pitching those in his group to further show their support to help others by coming up with perhaps a jacket or shirt ring or some other item to not only tout their “membership” in the club, but also to help raise funds for research.

Montgomery, though, has another idea, he said with a chuckle: “I think an appropriate example would be maybe a roll of toilet paper. Put an NHRA logo on it.”

There are two other members of the C19 Club that we’ll feature in both a tragic and heartwarming story in the coming days that is one of the most touching displays of people helping people infected with the virus that involves veteran NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson and his chief technician, Ervin “Jock” Allen.

“We didn’t have much choice but to let COVID kick our butts,” Bennett said. “But it’s not gonna kick our butts the rest of our lives.

“And standing up is our own way of fighting back, like ‘you don’t own me. You might have affected the way that I live my life in certain areas, but you will not own me.’”

Follow @JerryBonkowski