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

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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 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.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”