Detroit in Precarious Position as New Season Opener

Pit stop action during 2019 Detroit Grand Prix

The word “Detroit” doesn’t appear a single time in INDYCAR’s March 26 update on the 2020 schedule for its NTT IndyCar Series, but the rescheduling of the three weekends in Indianapolis that under normal circumstances precede the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix made it clear that the doubleheader in the Motor City became the series’ new season opener.

Despite losing the coveted position as the follow-up to the Indianapolis 500, acquiring the status of — ideally — being the first race of the year is exciting for the Belle Isle event and comes with the unique angle of Roger Penske seeing his first races as INDYCAR’s new owner take place at an event he holds dear.

But the thrill of becoming the new scheduled curtain raiser, as the Canadian Grand Prix on June 12–14 has for Formula One, comes with an unfortunate flip side: it’s also next on the chopping block.

Instead of ramping up social media efforts and attempting to drum up excitement about, as of now, being the season opener, “Detroit Grand Prix officials are continuing to work with local authorities while actively monitoring all information as it relates to the COVID-19 global pandemic,” per a statement from the event on March 26, the same day as INDYCAR’s first schedule adjustment since the March 13 decision to cancel all races through April.

“With mandated restrictions and guidelines affecting the schedule of many upcoming events, Grand Prix organizers are evaluating all options for the May 29–31 event weekend,” it reads. “The primary focus continues to be the health and well-being of the spectators, partners, volunteers, employees and event participants at the Detroit Grand Prix. Officials will update the status of the event as the situation continues to evolve.”

Even fans who despise the layout of the Raceway at Belle Isle Park and the quality of racing there for IndyCar and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship are surely more ready for the “Dual in Detroit” and the 100-minute sports car contest to arrive than they’ve ever been, but something greater than the hopes of fans will determine whether world-class racing will take place in Detroit on the weekend of May 29–31, on a rescheduled date or indeed at all in 2020.

“Effective at 12:01 a.m. on March 24, 2020, for at least the next three weeks, individuals may only leave their home or place of residence under very limited circumstances, and they must adhere to social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when they do so, including remaining at least six feet from people from outside the individual’s household to the extent feasible under the circumstances.”

The contents of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order, directing Michigan businesses not necessary to sustaining or protecting life to close and Michiganders to stay in their homes except for certain reasons, are consistent with the many other shelter-in-place orders in the United States that make dining out, let alone holding motor sports events, impossible.

Ryan Hunter-Reay battles wet Belle Isle IndyCar circuit
The struggle for grip around a wet Belle Isle circuit is minor compared to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. | Credit: Jamie Sheldrick/Spacesuit Media

The Michigan order continues until at least 11:59 p.m. on April 13. It states that Whitmer will decide whether to maintain, intensify or relax its restrictions based on, among other things, data on COVID-19 infections and its rate of spread; the existence of sufficient medical personnel, hospital beds and ventilators to meet anticipated need; the availability of personal protective equipment for the health-care workforce; the state’s capacity to test for COVID-19 cases and isolate infected people; and economic conditions in the state.

The Detroit Free Press called Thursday, March 26 — the same day INDYCAR revealed its updated schedule — the “deadliest day for the nation yet in the novel coronavirus pandemic,” with 851 COVID-19 cases and 15 deaths in the City of Detroit plus 538 cases and 11 deaths elsewhere in Wayne County demonstrating the disease’s impact on the area where the IndyCar season is scheduled to start in 59 days, 18 hours and 50 minutes at the time of writing.

Thursday’s Free Press article made clear that Wayne County ranks among the highest nationally in COVID-19 cases per capita at 79 per 100,000 people. The latest information from shows an increase to 153 cases per 100,000 people in Detroit and its county, just four days later.

While not necessarily a signal of much more than one publication’s editorial calendar, the situation in Detroit is serious enough for the New York Times to have published a feature about the city with a population of 670,000 due to host INDYCAR and IMSA at the end of May.

Michigan ended this past weekend fourth in reported cases across the country but joined Florida in surpassing California already this week. Now ranked third, Michigan has amassed 132 deaths and has 5,486 COVID-19 cases, or 55 per 100,000 people.

For conversation to turn from states swapping positions on a chart few would anticipate seeing during their lifetime to Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon and Will Power jockeying for positions on a racetrack, a major turnaround in the COVID-19 story in Michigan and beyond is necessary.

Guidelines for social distancing were extended yesterday by President Donald Trump and his administration through the end of April, leaving a month between the earliest possible relaxing of shelter-in-place orders and the Detroit race. But with the president adding, “We can expect that by June 1 we will be well on our way to recovery — we think by June 1 a lot of great things will be happening,” the timeline seems to move a month back, potentially ruling out racing going on in Detroit.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, taking into account President Trump’s latest update and the situation in his state, issued a “safer-at-home” order Monday for four South Florida counties lasting through mid-May. Even more serious is the statewide order from Virginia Governor Ralph Northam that “directs all Virginians to stay home except in extremely limited circumstances,” which took effect immediately Monday and lasts until June 10.

IndyCar’s return to Richmond Raceway is scheduled for June 27 — just over two weeks after the earliest date the new Virginia order could be relaxed. But beyond being too close for comfort in that regard, Governor Northam’s order could be the first of other longer-lasting ones with the potential to wreak further havoc on IndyCar’s already barely recognizable 2020 calendar.

Crowd during 2019 Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle
The Detroit Grand Prix attracted its largest Sunday attendance since 2014 with approximately 40,000 on the final day of the 2019 event. | Credit: Andy Clary/Spacesuit Media

Ranked 23rd with 1,020 currently confirmed COVID-19 cases, Virginia may soon be seen as the catalyst for guidelines extending the widespread pause in the country toward the start of summer, when the second half of the IndyCar season was meant to be getting started.

Michigan has roughly 5,500 more cases than Virginia and the epicenter of its crisis is Detroit, precisely where hundreds of essential personnel plus more than 100,000 fans would pack the temporary Belle Isle circuit under ideal circumstances in two months. It seems unlikely.

Based on the axing of sporting events and other mass gatherings over the last several weeks, it’s best to temper expectations; the situation remains evidently serious enough around the world, in the United States, in Michigan and in Detroit that going ahead with the Grand Prix would defy the patterns of decisions that have impacted our lives so greatly since roughly the time the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was meant to start the IndyCar season two weeks ago.

The aforementioned new orders in Florida and Virginia — which were followed by new restrictions from other states — point to more of the same and less of an impending return of normalcy. And, like the indirect impact the Virginia order that stretches into June could have, the cancelation of this year’s North American International Auto Show in June indicates that the end of May is likely too soon for major events to start again in Detroit — and elsewhere, for that matter.

Yet, reason for hope does exist.

Dr. Neil Ferguson led the Imperial College study in the United Kingdom that sparked the current social distancing measures there and in the United States and suggested March 25 that deaths from the disease in his country are unlikely to exceed 20,000 — down from the study’s initial projection of more than 500,000. The 25-fold reduction suggests that the sweeping travel guidelines, which went into effect less than half a week before Ferguson’s update, are extremely effective.

Applying the factor-of-25 reduction to the Imperial model’s initial estimate of 2.2 million deaths in the United States returns the number 80,000. That brings expectations down much closer to the estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that 38,000,000–54,000,000 seasonal flu cases have led to 24,000–62,000 deaths between Oct. 1, 2019 and March 21, 2020.

While the virus that causes COVID-19 is new and not yet faced with a vaccine, no IndyCar race has ever been halted due to the seasonal flu which, per the exact same source so many are turning to for information during the ongoing pandemic, is predicted to have a nearly equivalent impact to the coronavirus — and does every year.

IndyCar drivers practice for 2019 Detroit race
If Virginia’s new order is followed by similar ones in other states, INDYCAR could be looking at a season opener on the road course in Indianapolis — not the street circuit in Detroit. | Credit: Jamie Sheldrick/Spacesuit Media

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, brought the latest information from Ferguson to the United States’ March 26 update, stating, “There’s enough data now with the real experience of the coronavirus on the ground to really make these predictions much more sound.”

Both Birx and fellow Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci have recently predicted 100,000–200,000 fatalities, which exceeds the 80,000 estimate but may be manageable enough to put America — and IndyCar — back in motion by the end of May.

Regardless, the Detroit Grand Prix is in a vulnerable position as the next in line for cancelation. Orders from other states, the cancelation of the Detroit Auto Show and the seemingly dire situation in Michigan introduce pressure that could lead to the next update from the event and INDYCAR confirming its unsurprising removal from the schedule.

If it’s not a total cancelation and “We’ll see you in 2021,” the fate of this year’s Detroit event could be similar to St. Petersburg’s, which is expected to be rescheduled for the fall.

Both venues are temporary street circuits but one occupies part of an airport and some city streets while the other renders a popular part of an island essentially impassable for non-race fans. One seems unanimously adored by city leaders, the other faces routine opposition. If chilly temperatures late in the year aren’t enough to keep an IndyCar race away from Detroit in 2020, disagreements between the public, local government and event promoter could do the trick.

“We will be ready to unleash this energy and enthusiasm when June 2021 rolls around to produce the absolute best show and experience ever,” said NAIAS Chairman Doug North when the auto show in Detroit was canceled, due mainly to its venue being repurposed into a temporary hospital.

Eight months will elapse between IndyCar’s 2019 finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the Detroit Grand Prix date. The wait for energy and enthusiasm to be released on the racetrack might last longer than that.

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