The sudden halt to all sports activity has affected every team, from winners and losers to big teams and small. That also is the case in the NTT IndyCar Series as teams are in the middle of a two-week shutdown because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Last week, NBCSports.com looked at how the smaller teams were being impacted. These are teams such as A.J. Foyt Racing and Dale Coyne Racing. Those operations have smaller budgets and less personnel.
But this health crisis is also impacting IndyCar’s bigger teams, too.
Chip Ganassi owns one of the best teams in the NTT IndyCar Series, and its success brings more resources, more personnel and a larger payroll.
Mike O’Gara is team manager at Chip Ganassi Racing and talked Friday with NBCSports.com about its plan for handling the shutdown and the uncertainty of when the sport (and life) will return to a semblance of normalcy.
“The plan is to open on Monday, March 30 with a limited number of people to continue our Indy 500 prep and go from there,” O’Gara told NBCSports.com. “That, of course, can change, but as of Friday, that is our goal.
“Chip’s No. 1 priority is the safety of the family and employees. We made the call (March 13) to shut down the shop for this week. The team asked everybody to stay home, take care of their families and themselves. We are going to do that again this week, as well.
“Right now, the plan is to be back in the shop on March 30 with some form of crew. We are going to limit the numbers and respect the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in terms of social distancing. We will have the bare minimum in the shop and try to keep pushing forward with whatever race we will have next. Right now, that’s the IndyCar GP and the Indy 500, but that could change in a moment’s time, as you know.
“Our world is changing by the minute right now. But, we’re somewhat safe and sane right now.”
While employees remain home, some are able to work remotely on their computers. Management is in daily contact with the crew. Barry Wanser is another team manager, John Huffman runs the machine shop, Nick Ford is in charge of the carbon shop, and Chris Simmons is the performance director at CGR.
The team has been using video chats and phone calls to remain in contact with all crew members.
“Pushing forward with work is one thing but making sure of all our employees, taking care of their well-being is important right now,” O’Gara explained. “It’s interesting in tough times, we have survived racing through 9/11, and now we are surviving through this. It brings out some interesting sides of people.
“It has shown this week just how much Chip cares for his people. He could have cut all of our pay or made us come to work. Chip hasn’t done that. He has said, ‘Be at home, take care of our families and we’ll worry about the racing when we need to.’ That’s the cool thing about Chip. I’m not sure all team owners share the mentality of that.”
Most importantly, Ganassi (as with other teams) is continuing to pay employees during this unexpected stoppage. But if the season extends into November or even December, vacation time may have to be adjusted to finish up the season.
“Who knows what the end of the season will look like? We’re in the same boat,” O’Gara said. “If we have to race through November, we may have to ask some people to work when they would normally be on vacation. We will worry about that when we have to and pay everyone now and keep everyone as comfortable as we can until we know what the heck is going on.”
CGR managing director Mike Hull has been in contact with IndyCar President Jay Frye throughout this break. According to O’Gara, IndyCar is working with Firestone and track promoters to help teams throughout this process.
“The last official word I received from Mike Hull was we were still going to run the IndyCar GP (on May 9) and the Indy 500 (on May 24) as planned,” O’Gara said. “Nothing to my knowledge has been changed on that.”
Of course, that could change depending on the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a crucial week as more states are issuing “shelter in place” and self-isolation orders. As more citizens get tested, the number of positive cases likely will soar.
If social distancing is effective, that could slow the rate of infection while potential vaccines and medicine can be tested, produced and distributed.
IndyCar remains committed to running as complete a schedule as possible. That could mean more doubleheader weekends or adding a few races to the end of the schedule. None of that has been officially determined as IndyCar continues to review its options.
O’Gara is confident that if there are five-, six- or seven-straight race weekends, the teams can meet the grueling schedule.
What makes IndyCar different from NASCAR and its long stretch of races is teams have a limited number of cars. Each IndyCar “tub” is used on street courses, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways. Most teams have two cars per driver with an extra car or two in the shop for some of the bigger teams.
NASCAR teams often have a car for each race.
“We feel like we can make it happen,” O’Gara said of the increased demand if races are scheduled for many weekends in a row. “Our No. 1 priority is making sure when we can come back racing, that everyone is healthy.
“The big point for us right now is to follow CDC and local governments advice to stay healthy. If we do have to do eight straight weeks of racing, we have to be prepared. We don’t have any extra guys. We have some stay-home people, but when we come to the race track, we are there with the minimum number of people. If any of those guys go down, we are going to be scrambling to find people.
“We are equipped staffing wise, now it is making sure everybody is healthy.”
Chip Ganassi Racing is also looking at the physical and mental well-being of its crewmembers. Chris Snyder is in charge of the team’s workout program at the shop. With team members at home, Snyder has devised a workout program, even if they don’t have weight or workout machines.
“He has challenges, step-number challenges, stretching and other things to keep some normalcy in life,” O’Gara said. “Chris is trying to keep them physically ready to hit the ground running when we can come back to work.
“The other things that we believe is an important tool is helping them with their mental health, as well. He has been sending suggestions and reading and podcasts and audiobooks and YouTube videos on things like relaxation techniques and meditation and mindfulness.
“We feel it is important for the over-the-wall guys to perform well, but also in this crazy time when you are stuck at home for a long time you made need it whether you are going over the wall or not. It’s to help you relax and focus. Chris has been a huge help this week keeping the guys feeling like they are still part of the team, even though they aren’t coming into the shop every day.
“If everyone is getting up in the day and doing the same workout, even if it is in their basement or their spare bedroom, it keeps that sense of teamwork rolling, even though they can’t see each other every day.”
If the season had continued as scheduled without the COVID-19 pandemic, the 104th Indianapolis 500 would have been the sixth race of the season. That would have given teams ample time to figure out the changes to the car with the addition of the aeroscreen.
If the season starts with the Indy 500, teams will have to learn on the fly.
“This week, we have been working hard on what we can still do to try to learn,” O’Gara said. “We have very limited track time with the aeroscreen, especially on the ovals. Teams can’t test, we can’t go to test posts to run our simulations. We can’t even go on the Honda simulator because that has been deemed off-limits right now by IndyCar. It’s a matter of using the data and the knowledge that we have and hopefully, being prepared better than the next guy.
“It does level the playing field for smaller teams like Dale Coyne or Dreyer & Reinbold. They have as much potential of winning that race as we do.
“From that aspect, it will be exciting. Also, the limited amount of track time we will have leading up to that race. The teams with the most open minds and are most nimble are going to be the ones to beat at the end of May at the 500. Hopefully, we are putting ourselves in that position as well, but these small teams are we are racing against are going to be right there, too.”
Chip Ganassi Racing is located on the northwest side of Indianapolis in Pike Township. It is a massive facility that is very clean and organized on a normal basis.
Steps have been taken to make it even cleaner during the shutdown and when crewmembers return to work.
“Gary Rovazzini has been with us for 30 years and is heading up our shop cleanliness program,” O’Gara said. “With everyone out of there, he has had crews come in deep cleaning everything. When we do come to work on March 30, we are working on procedures for crews to come in during shifts and breaks in times to wipe things off. Guys are being required to wash their hands frequently and wear gloves as much as possible. In engineering, we are going to practice social distancing. We have a large shop. We can have a couple guys in each department safely separated from each other. According to the CDC rules, we think we will be in compliance and keep everyone safe.”
It has also given teams a completely new perspective in a very short period of time.
“It’s a crazy time,” O’Gara said. “Just thinking about where we were a week ago, thinking we would be on track at St. Pete to now, thinking about what the best hand sanitizer is to give our guys at the shop.
“It’s a crazy time.”