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.”

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