IndyCar teams close shops, continue to pay employees during shutdown

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A survey of NTT IndyCar Series teams by NBCSports.com revealed some have closed their shops for at least two weeks, but crewmembers still are being paid during the shutdown.

Meantime, IndyCar officials are working on financial initiatives to help the team during the next two months as the COVID-19 pandemic has left all sports in limbo. Teams have received the first installment of money from its annual Leaders Circle contingency program.

A.J. Foyt Racing was among the first teams to announce they were closing the shop for two weeks earlier this week. Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBCSports.com last Friday that it would investigate a “work from home” policy for its crew.

Dale Coyne Racing team manager Terry Brown confirmed to NBCSports.com as of 5 p.m. Thursday that Coyne decided to keep the shop closed through next week, but all employees are being paid.

“We hope to open back up on March 31, but that all depends on what happens between now and then,” Brown told NBCSports.com.

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IndyCar announced earlier this week that it was instituting a voluntary work for home option for its staff. A small group remains at the office.

Bigger teams such as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport have the resources and backing to make it through this difficult time of uncertainty. But, what about the smaller teams? Those are the teams that have to make the most with the least.

That isn’t their primary concern at the moment. It’s keeping everyone healthy and doing their civic duty to comply with government directives to help stem the rise of the COVID-19 virus.

“We are shut down this week and will anticipate being shut down next week as well and leaving everybody at home,” A.J. Foyt Racing vice president of operations Scott Harner told NBCSports.com. “With the time we have, we were ready to go racing. There were some things we were doing at the shop, but even if we shut down for two weeks, that still leaves us plenty of time to get the things done that we need and get the third car ready for Indy and those things. We are reshuffling things.

“The No. 1 thing is to make sure everybody stays healthy and once we get through this and get on the other side, we will all be ready to race.

“Our team members will be paid regardless of whether we have to shuffle around vacation or whatever that looks like. We’re not going to put guys out of work and not have them be paid. Everybody is still getting paid.”

Harner believes it was absolutely the right thing to do by canceling the season opener at St. Petersburg, Florida, last week. As each day goes by, the number of cases in the United States is rapidly rising as more are being tested.

Even when crewmembers are called back to work in the uncertain future, Harner believes the engineering staff and others should work from home.

“With everybody being a phone call away, and the engineers all based in Indianapolis, as far as I’m concerned, the engineers can all be at home working,” Harner continued. “If there are projects going on with questions, they can come by. But anybody that we can keep at home, we will keep at home.”

IndyCar teams are hoping to start the season at the 104th Indianapolis 500 on May 24.

“It all comes down to how this curve actually goes,” Harner said. “Nobody knows what it is going to do, how it is going to go.

“Shutting everything down in the interim for the next two to four weeks, that is the smartest thing they can do. Shut everything down. Let’s get through this thing. Then we are out of flu season and the weather gets warmer and that may be when things go in our favor.”

If the pandemic is under control by May, the season could start with the Indy 500 – the biggest race of the season, if not the world. That would set up a very interesting dynamic. Teams will be entering the biggest race of the year with little testing and practice with the new aeroscreen in what could be a condensed schedule.

“In a perfect world, testing would be something they want to do,” Harner said. “But outside of that, however we have to go at it, we are all on this ship together. Whatever IndyCar decides to do, that needs to be the approach everybody has.

“You can make the direct comparisons to NASCAR because they start their season with the Super Bowl, and that is what we would be doing. It would be exciting. Everybody will be excited to get back on the racetrack. I think it would add to the excitement of the Indy 500. That would be our first goal and to have 300,000 people in the stands, that would be incredibly exciting.

“Yes, if this had not happened, we would have four races completed and have pit stops and be better off; but it’s going to be the same for everybody. Nobody will have an edge.”

The season has already had canceled or postponed its first four of 17 races. Last Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the April 19 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach have been canceled. The status of the other two races in Alabama and Texas is unclear.

Barber Motorsports officials refunded money to ticket buyers for its April 5 race earlier this week, based on the promoter’s belief that difficult economic times are ahead for Alabama residents. ZOOM Motorsports, the promoter of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, did not want to withhold refunds during a time when the money might be needed for other purposes.

The AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, was set for April 26. COTA has entered a state of “limited use” and laid off employees.

“IndyCar needs to do whatever we can to make these races happen,” Harner said. “I think we could do both Barber and COTA at a different time in the year if everybody is committed. You just extend the season. Whatever that looks like, weather permitting, we just keep working on it until it is done.

“It’s a wait and see thing at this point.”

Harner works out of Foyt’s shop in Indianapolis. The original shop is located in Waller, Texas. The team works out of both locations.

“Our biggest concern is for the health of our communities and our employees, so we are closing the race shops for the time being,” said Larry Foyt, president of A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Inc. “I want to thank our partners and sponsors for their support and understanding during these extraordinary times. Many people will face some difficult challenges in the coming days. A.J. and I wish everyone the best, and we look forward to going racing again when the time is right.”

Team owner Foyt, also remains grounded, and that is difficult for the cantankerous 85-year-old, who is still checking out his ranch on his beloved bulldozer.

Nobody knows how long it will be until life returns to normal.

“There is no starting line and no finish line,” said DCR’s Brown. “We really can’t afford to spread this around the whole crew and the whole sport. That’s why it’s best to shut down for a while.

“It’s a crazy world right now.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.