IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NBC solve a tricky puzzle

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Faced with an incredibly complicated array of moving pieces that would make solving a Rubik’s Cube simple, IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway were able to potentially save a season.

Most importantly, they have found a workable solution to preserving the grandest event in all of racing, the Indianapolis 500.

Instead of Sunday, May 24, the 104th Indianapolis 500 will be held on Aug. 23. Instead of kicking off the month of May at Indy, the GMR Grand Prix of Indianapolis will move from Saturday, May 9 to Saturday, July 4 as a doubleheader with the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

The change in the road course date gives races fans an incredible opportunity for a racing first. An IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader that the industry desires.

It also revived the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. That race was supposed to host the season opener on March 15 but originally was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city of St. Petersburg and Green Savoree Promotions were able to revive the event as the season finale with a date sometime in October.

When the Summer Games in Tokyo were postponed to 2021, that created a huge opportunity to fill a large gap in the schedule.

Roger Penske, the new owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, immediately went to work. Mark Miles, the CEO of Penske Entertainment, and Doug Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was able to solve this complicated puzzle.

By moving the Indianapolis 500 to Aug. 23, it hopefully will be long enough after the pandemic beginning when it is safe for large crowds to gather once again. It also will allow a full two-week schedule of practice sessions and qualifications leading up to the Indy 500.

Carb Day still will be held on the Friday before the race. The concerts for both Friday and Saturday before the race have been canceled.

In order to solve this Rubik’s Cube, Green Savoree Promotions changed the date of the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio from Aug. 16 to Aug. 9. The race at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway has moved from Saturday night, Aug. 22 to Sunday, Aug. 30. Portland International Raceway has moved from Labor Day weekend to Sunday, Sept. 13.

The season will begin on Saturday, May 30 with the first of a doubleheader in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

Credit IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with giving race fans as complete a season as possible.

“I think there have been several keys,” Miles said, responding to a question from “The first was that our priority was to have the 500, to put it at a time far enough out that we have every reason to believe it will be a safe time from the public’s perspective in terms of public health, and to give our fans time to plan so we can count on them to be here in August. That was key.

“Working with NASCAR has already been talked about. They were terrific. There was just no friction in that conversation at all. It was about how do we work together to make lemonade out of lemons.

“NBC has been terrific. All the promoters on the NTT IndyCar Series have been terrific. As he said, I really want to shout out, give a shout out to our friends at Mid-Ohio and Gateway who really helped us. At the same time, I think they have put themselves in a position to be successful. On and on and on.

“I think we should also recognize the way that the IndyCar Series teams, the owners, the drivers, the whole paddock are coming together. Everybody is behind this. Roger and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye conducted a conference call with team owners today. It was terrific. It’s all positivity. Everybody is moving forward trying to figure out how to help each other.”

It didn’t work out for everybody. Officially canceled Thursday were the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and the GMR IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas.

Grand Prix Association of Long Beach president Jim Michaelian did his best to find an autumn date for his street race but couldn’t get all the racing series to line up for that weekend. Barber Motorsports Park and Circuit of the Americas (COTA) are two permanent road courses. Conventional wisdom would indicate both facilities could have changed dates easier than a street course.

But these are unconventional times.

“In the best of circumstances, the most normal circumstances, putting together a series calendar is difficult because you have to consider all the things that matter,” Miles said. “In the case of Long Beach, Jim was really hoping we could find a time, but he wanted to find a date that brought at least a couple series together and worked in their community. There was like one week on the calendar that could have worked for us, and it just didn’t work.

“In the case of Barber, they’re in the middle of a region with Atlanta and Birmingham. They really just didn’t have options, as well. They have other major races, NASCAR races, in that region, as everybody knows.

“We have spoken countless times with those promoters and couldn’t find a time that worked. I think they are disappointed but understand that. They’re kind of resigned to it. They’ll immediately begin working on 2021.”

Miles and Boles had to ensure the history and the tradition of the Indianapolis 500 would remain intact. This is as good a scenario as one could have hoped for during such challenging times.

“The reality today is we might still have been able to run as scheduled in May,” Miles said. “We hope life is back to normal or near normal by then.

“After protecting public health, our priority is absolutely about running the 104th Indianapolis 500 race in 2020. By rescheduling in late August, we fully expect to be outside the window impacted by the COVID-19 virus. We and our fans still have five months to plan for the event. We believe our fans will be ready in August.

“More specifically, the date is in late summer, before NFL regular season games, and before college football really begins. With a number of postponed sporting events being rescheduled in the summer and early fall, it’s very difficult to find three consecutive weekends as we traditionally have in May.

“We’re grateful to all of our partners who worked with us on this. NBC has been incredibly helpful with working on it. We think we’ve landed in a good place.”

Thursday’s announcement is 150 days before the start of the rescheduled 104th Indianapolis 500.

“I’m relieved, along with most of our fans, to know that the Indianapolis 500 is in a spot where it is more sure it will be run this year,” Boles said. “The 500 itself is an event that people look forward to every year, they plan their lives around every year. I know it is an important one.”

While the Indianapolis 500 will be three months later than normal, the GMR Grand Prix of Indianapolis will be moved to July 4, creating the first IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader in history.

“It’s a huge weekend for us,” Miles said. “It’s so important because (the Brickyard) is on its way back. I think this kind of groundbreaking opportunity to bring our Grand Prix and get IndyCars on the track on Saturday just before the Xfinity race is a huge opportunity.

“It will get more IndyCar fans out here for a weekend they might not have attended in the past.”

Miles is already feeling the buzz of potential regarding IndyCar and NASCAR Xfinity on the road course on Saturday and the Cup cars on the oval on Sunday.

“It’s been clear for a long time that both series under the right circumstances thought it could be a good thing for the sport,” he said. “The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority.

“This sort of just created the opportunity to say, helet’s go for it. As has been said, there wasn’t much hesitation.”

Boles, the IMS president, said in order to solve this puzzle, sacrifices and changes had to be made from other tracks and series. MotoAmerica was scheduled to race at IMS on the Aug. 21-23 weekend but agreed to move to the second weekend in October.

“To Gateway and Mid-Ohio for working with us in short order in order for us to land on the weekends that we landed with the Indianapolis 500,” Boles said. “It tells you about the racing community. Same thing goes for NASCAR. I know Mr. Penske put a call into the folks at NASCAR and asked if we could share a weekend. We got a yes.

“It just really goes to show in times like this, this is one big industry, not several small folks trying to do their own thing.”

NBC also played a vital role in helping IndyCar and the Speedway solve this puzzle. Once the Olympics (scheduled for two weeks starting July 24) were postponed, there was a giant opening in the summer TV window.

Every sport in America has had to postpone or cancel its events with some rescheduled to later in the year. Labor Day Weekend was out because NBC also televises the Kentucky Derby, which had been moved to Sept. 4.

By working diligently with NBC and its member tracks, IndyCar was able to solve the puzzle in impressive fashion.

“NBC has been terrific in this,” Miles said. “Such an interesting position. Virtually everything that’s been canceled or postponed so far and is looking to move into the late summer or third or fourth quarters. Everything that they licensed, that they broadcast, is trying to get squeezed into a much shorter period of time.

“They’re really trying to work through a ‘Gordian Knot’ of sorts. They’ve been helpful in this. They’re going to do some other things we’re not going to talk about today to help us promote all this. The rest of the series will have a terrific amount of NBC broadcast coverage in the rest of the year.

“We’re delighted with those results in working with NBC.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

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