In a time of unprecedented uncertainty about the future, Roger Penske and his team were looking for solutions, not complaints.
Penske and the management of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway came up with workable solutions to save both the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series season.
Thursday’s announcement the Indianapolis 500 would be moved from Memorial Day Sunday (May 24) to Aug. 23 was a bold and decisive move to protect and ensure the world’s greatest race will be held this season. The change was made because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that worsens daily.
Businesses have closed, citizens are under stay-at-home orders and, much worse, those infected by the hideous virus are dying at a staggering percentage. Looking at these stark figures, there was simply no way a crowd between 200,000 to 300,000 spectators would be allowed to gather in one location at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in just eight weeks.
By moving the Indy 500 into late August, starting the season in Detroit on May 30 and extending it into October with the potential revival of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, it improves the odds that IndyCar can run a near-complete season.
“I feel better about it,” driver Graham Rahal told NBCSports.com. “I think there is good direction and good leadership with what we are doing. We have a couple of months, which sucks, but we are hoping it all settles down. I’m hopeful that it will.
“If you look at the coronavirus issue and the spread, 300,000 people in May was going to be a tall task. Delaying that for a few months certainly is a better place. I’m excited by it.”
IndyCar CEO Mark Miles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles and IndyCar President Jay Frye worked closely with Penske and his team to find workable solutions.
One will be the first IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader in history on July 4. That is when the IndyCar Series will compete in the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix and the NASCAR Xfinity Series will compete in the Pennzoil 150 on the IMS road course on the same day. The Brickyard 400 NASCAR Cup race is set for July 5 on the oval.
“I really like what I see out of the schedule,” Rahal said. “Love the NASCAR/IndyCar Doubleheader on July 4 weekend. I know the fan club has gotten excited about that and how they are going to come to Indy in July now. I like Mid-Ohio leading into the Indy 500, and I like Gateway coming out of the 500. That is great for Chris Blair and Curtis Francois and that whole staff. And I really like seeing St. Pete still on there. I hope that is not a fluke. I hope they can lock in a date and make that happen.
“In essence, it’s a new schedule. It’s a tall order to make all of that happen. In all, I would say, tip of the cap as well to all of the promoters that made this possible. They could have stuck with their dates and made life more difficult, but thanks to Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, three of their dates have changed. Mid-Ohio, Portland and St. Pete. Curtis and Chris pushed back a week for Gateway.
“I think the promoters did a great job making this happen with IndyCar as well.”
Rahal gave high praise to Penske, Miles, Boles, Frye and the rest of the staff with making all the pieces fit in a new schedule.
“We are very fortunate to have the ownership and leadership we have today,” Rahal said. “Who knows how different this would have been if it had happened last year? I’m not throwing anybody under the bus, but Roger Penske is an incredibly organized problem-solver. A guy that finds solutions and leads companies to a successful future. He’s been thrown to the wolves this year, not only with IndyCar and IMS, but all of his businesses.”
Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner Scott Dixon believes race day at the Indianapolis 500 will feel the same to a driver in August as it would have been in May. Once the helmet is on, and the visor is flipped down, they have a singular focus – to win.
“It’s going to be good, man,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I can’t wait.
“I’m just excited they pushed it enough that it’s almost a guarantee it will be somewhat normal. If they had stuck with the May date, it would have been super iffy. At that point, you would have had people that don’t want to go because they don’t want to sit that close to people. This gives them enough space and enough time to understand the situation and everybody will have a clearer mind at that point.
“It’s strange, but to the drivers and the teams, it’s still the biggest race of the year. I think it’s good. Nothing is normal these days. I think what IndyCar and IMS did was probably the best of the situations.”
Reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske will have the unique distinction of being the longest defending Indy 500 winner except 1941 winners Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose (relief driver) and Dario Resta in 1916.
There was no Indy 500 in 1917 and 1918 because of “The Great War” (later renamed World War I). There was also no race at Indianapolis from 1942-45 because of World War, II.
The 104th Indianapolis 500 is the first time the race has been held outside of May. The 1986 Indianapolis 500 was rained out on both its regular race date and Memorial Day Monday. It was held the following Saturday, May 31, 1986.
“I’m glad we have been able to find a date for the biggest race in the world,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com. “I’m glad we are going to be able to run it safely. The health of people was the main focus here. I’m glad it was announced because it will take away a lot of stress from the teams and fans on expectations. It’s awesome to see the way IndyCar has rescheduled the whole year.
“The approach will be the same, but different temperatures might change the car and the way it is going to handle in the heat of August in Indianapolis. It’s going to be a different race for different reasons, but in May we have had some hot Indianapolis 500s and some colder ones. We will adapt.”
Would the traditional bottle of milk presented to the winner in Victory Lane taste as good in August as it does in May?
“It might be a little warmer, but the goal is to still try it,” Pagenaud said. “I’m excited to try to get a second crown. At this point, I want to go racing and experience another year like I just experienced. I’m ready to go racing and I know the whole team is ready to go. It’s pretty awesome news.”
Team Penske President Tim Cindric has worked for Roger Penske since the end of the 1999 season. Cindric has a deep understanding of how Penske is able to find solutions to difficult tasks, such as saving the season.
“In times like this is where his leadership skills are shown,” Cindric told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing to be around him to a certain extent to see how he takes things that are so complex and simplifies the tasks and gets people to work together to find a solution. With everything that is announced, it shows that he expects to get things done and have people around him to work towards solutions.
“That is how you move forward.
“He has seen a lot in his life, but he has never seen anything like this. I don’t think anybody else has, either. We are all navigating new territory. His leadership takes another level during times like this.”
Cindric also praised Miles, Frye and Boles for working collectively with Penske and track promoters and NBC to find a solution to the current situation.
“You have to hand it to Mark and Doug and that whole group to not only come out and postpone the Indy 500, a huge thing in itself, but to come out with a full schedule,” Cindric continued. “The promoters moved their schedules around to where we can have the Indy 500, that’s a big undertaking to have a complete plan. All of those moving parts, to get the TV to coordinate their schedules is a big deal. It gives us something to plan around. In these times, anything that we can try and do to plan is important.
“Unfortunately for the teams, from a business aspect, it becomes more difficult. Usually, the month of May, when that is over, there is an influx of cash from the teams from the purse. Now, that moves from May to August. From a business perspective, it is tougher, but I would rather know that now than three weeks from now.”
Mike Hull is the managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing. He believes true leadership comes in the most difficult of times and called the tone “very, very positive” in team meetings with IndyCar.
“IndyCar has a new director, Hull told NBCSports.com. “They are now looking at ways to solve problems in a different manner than they ever have before. That intervention is going to pay large dividends for IndyCar racing going forward and this is a good example of that.
“Never give up. Find an alternative way to do it and get everybody engaged in the process to make it successful. That is what goes on now in that office.
“Hopefully, we are going to be able to start the season at Detroit. That depends on where we are going to be in the United States with where the virus is at that point. That is a critical element moving forward.”
When it comes to legends, there is no bigger name at the Indianapolis Speedway than AJ Foyt. The first man to win the Indy 500 four times as a driver is a hero to the fans. At 85, he continues to field two full-time entries in the NTT IndyCar Series.
“Running the Indianapolis 500 in August is something I never experienced before but all I can say is it will still be the Indy 500,” Foyt said. “I never thought we’d see it like this, but all of the sports field has been affected, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, Le Mans, so we’re not the only ones affected by this—we’re just one of them. I’m just glad that we will be able to race. INDYCAR is trying to do the best they can for the fans and the competitors, so I give them a lot of credit.
“It’s a shame Roger [Penske] has to go through this in his first year of owning Indianapolis Motor Speedway but you couldn’t have a better man in charge.”
Another racing legend is 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones. At 86, Jones is the oldest living winner of the biggest race in the world.
“Wow, I’m sorry they had to move the Indianapolis 500 till August,” Jones said. “If anyone can adapt to changes and make an August Indy 500 work, it’s Roger Penske. This is the right thing to do for the fans, teams and drivers.
“We all know Indy is about traditions. I’m glad they’ll still have a qualifying weekend and race weekend. We all look forward to the Indy 500 each year. We just have to wait a little longer this time.”
And of course, there is three-time winner Bobby Unser, known affectionately as “Uncle Bobby.”
In this time of darkness and uncertainty, let’s all enjoy the insight of IndyCar’s “Uncle Bobby.”
“That’s a shame that the Indianapolis 500 had to be moved to August but it’s for the safety of everyone and something that had to be done,” Unser said. “I’ll tell you this – no matter what day or month or time they run the Indy 500, it’s the greatest race on the whole Planet Earth. We’ll just have it in August this time, and it will still be super, super good.”