IndyCar’s tipping point at St. Pete and what’s ahead for COVID-19 testing

IndyCar
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. –Mark Miles couldn’t point to a single factor that ultimately forced the cancellation of Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but the IndyCar CEO conceded there were many.

“There’s a public health risk any time people are getting together,” Miles said Friday afternoon, speaking to reporters 22 hours after IndyCar and the City of St. Petersburg reversed course on a decision to hold the race without fans. “Since our announcement (at 3 p.m. Thursday) that we were going to race without the crowd, we learned that Disney was shutting down. We saw THE PLAYERS Championship go from their announcement they were going to play a major tournament 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. It’s just the reality that our society right now is discouraging getting people together.”

Miles said an estimated number of 250 people congregating in the IndyCar paddock on a race weekend was “way low” without providing an exact figure.

Before canceling Friday, IndyCar initially condensed the schedule from three to two days Thursday night, a day after race and series officials had indicated no schedule disruptions were expected because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

In a Wednesday interview with RACER, Roger Penske said there were no plans to change “unless instructed by the government and/or health department,” noting that the PGA held a golf tournament last weekend, and Disney World remained open.

The status of both those entities had changed less than 30 hours later, along with The Masters being put on hold.

The cumulative postponements across professional sports effectively marked a collective tipping point for making the call on the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which stood to become the only major sports event in the country Sunday (NASCAR made the call to postpone its race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway at virtually the same time).

Friday’s decision also came a few hours before President Trump declared a national state of emergency. IndyCar executives had a heads up the news likely was coming.

“I think it’s the combination of things from last night and further into (Friday) morning,” Miles said. “I won’t point to any one thing. Really, as I said, 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.”

IndyCar took precautions, requiring essential personnel to complete a four-question health survey before being cleared for admittance by medical personnel.

Teams also had been provided information on fan interaction and were encouraged to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

With the cancellation or postponement of the first four races of the 2020 season through the end of April, the earliest that the NTT IndyCar Series will be back on track is in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Miles was asked by NBCSports.com whether team members and drivers will be tested for COVID-19 before being cleared to compete at the Brickyard.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Miles said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, quite frankly. That’s one of those things we’ll think through when we know when we can get everybody back together, based on what conditions are at the time. I appreciate that question.”

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.