IndyCar industry supports delay but wrestles with its consequences

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – IndyCar team owner Michael Shank was sitting in the lobby of a hotel doing an interview with 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 “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 “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 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 “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 

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment

DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500