‘You just worry all the time’: IndyCar drivers strive to avoid COVID-19

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For Simon Pagenaud, assessing risks is natural while behind the wheel of his No. 22 Dallara-Chevrolet. It’s inherent to virtually every decision he makes at more than 200 mph.

But in the era of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, assessing risks has become an obtrusive part of daily life in order for the defending Indianapolis 500 winner to ensure he continues racing in the NTT IndyCar Series this season.

“You’ve got to be careful about everything you do,” Pagenaud said Tuesday during a Zoom media conference. “I wash my hands too many times a day. When you really think about it, everything you touch is a risk. Every movement you make with your hands across your face is a risk, and it brings a lot of anxiety, because you just worry about it all the time. Racing being everything in my life.”

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The Team Penske driver said he and his wife, Hailey, mostly have remained in isolation at home since mid-March, just after IndyCar’s originally scheduled season opener in St. Petersburg was postponed (eventually to the season finale in October).

Though Pagenaud has left the house for job obligations (namely, simulator testing, an NBC shoot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May and the June 6 race at Texas Motor Speedway), he has placed heavy restrictions on his social life and used “extreme caution” to protect the profession that he loves and is central to his life.

“It’s difficult because we have friends we want to go see, but then you’re wearing a mask, and I’m the one that has to be extra cautious and explain I’m racing in two weeks, and I can’t contract the virus because I want to be able to race.

Simon Pagenaud waits to be interviewed after finishing second in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“So we haven’t been able to go back to the restaurants because we don’t want to take that risk. I love going to the restaurant, it’s part of who I am, and I can’t quite do it. You could do it, but it’s risky, and those are things you have to think about. It’s been big adjustments. I think as we go through times, obviously life is going to be different for everybody, and for us, if we want to keep racing and make sure that we are allowed to race, we’ll have to make some big efforts and dedicate everything to racing.”

Pagenaud isn’t alone in being overly careful about his interactions. Joey Logano, Team Penske’s No. 22 counterpart in the NASCAR Cup Series, recently said he treats everyone as a potential carrier of COVID-19. Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing also recently disclosed they had had shop employees test positive for the coronavirus.

Mindful of five IndyCar races over 14 days (starting with Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis and followed by weekend doubleheaders at Road America and Iowa Speedway), Team Penske’s Will Power said he hasn’t been to a restaurant and bought exercise equipment so he can work out at his home in Troutman, North Carolina (where gyms remain closed).

“I’ve been to the go-kart track by myself in my garage,” Power said. “And when I have to do a simulator day, they’re pretty strict on the precautions they take. Everyone’s at least 6 feet apart with gloves and masks.

“So yeah, I’m doing everything possible to make sure that I stay healthy, because it would be a real disaster to come down with the COVID and miss a few races because they’re pretty stacked close together during the season.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly said he also has been vigilant about avoiding extraneous contact with the outside world.

“For sure,” said Daly, who is running a full season for the first time since 2017 while splitting time between Carlin and Ed Carpenter Racing. “In the end, you’ve got to think what is your main goal in life? Well, mine is to try to be a racing car driver for as long as possible, and right now I’ve got the best opportunity I’ve had in years for my career, so for sure thinking about that every day. Whoever you interact with, how you do it.

“It’s tough because after so many months sitting at home and doing what we had to do, I definitely want to be social. I want to see people I haven’t seen in forever. I want to obviously interact with our fans as well when we have fans back at races, but in the end, I won’t be of use to my team if I can’t drive the race car. So I’ve got to think about that, and we want to make sure we’re taking care of not only ourselves but our team members, our fans, everyone that we could potentially interact with in the next few months.”

Conor Daly was sporting a distinctive mask while out of the car before the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway (Chris Jones/IndyCar).