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 

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