Pandemic-Affected Season Rekindles Inventive Spirit

Indy cars race on IMS road course

The coronavirus scourge that continues to rage around the world has prompted stay-at-home guidance from the federal government, urging Americans to remain in their homes and causing much of the United States economy to grind to a halt, including motor sports.

Though the situation remains fluid, the decisions made by INDYCAR leadership to contend with the current circumstances may pay dividends once the pandemic has run its course and a sense of normalcy returns.

Faced with the unenviable reality of public gatherings — the very lifeblood of a racing series that stages events throughout North America — being verboten, the actions taken by Penske Entertainment Corp. President and CEO Mark Miles and his team in concert with Roger Penske’s new company have an air of creativity and experimentation not seen since Randy Bernard was crazy enough to pave the way for standing starts, double-file restarts and doubleheader weekends.

The introduction of all three led to much debate, consternation and controversy. Bernard’s firing in October 2012 left most of the changes he shepherded to live and die after his tenure with only Detroit’s dual races surviving. Even if Bernard’s results weren’t spectacular and long lived, the spirit of trying something new was admirable. It’s that spirit that has been forcibly reawakened in today’s INDYCAR.

A clear manifestation of INDYCAR’s newfound inventiveness is its sudden embrace of an esports component, a much-talked-about but never-before-implemented virtual adjunct to the NTT IndyCar Series’ on-track product. The creation of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge, dubbed “inaugural” by the sanctioning body, marked a first step into the world of series-backed sim racing featuring real drivers in virtual cars that match the ones they would’ve been driving at Watkins Glen International, the location of the first event.

While the move to add esports to its cadre of offerings is commendable and will undoubtedly serve as a steppingstone to future digital endeavors, the rushed nature of its introduction and the limitations it was saddled with at its outset can’t be ignored.

Notably, INDYCAR wasn’t the first series to stage an official professional esports event in 2020 having been beaten to the punch by both IMSA’s Sebring SuperSaturday on March 21 and the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series that debuted March 22.

NASCAR’s weekly effort is set to extend as long as regular competition is suspended in accordance with CDC guidelines while IMSA recently formalized the six-race IMSA iRacing Pro Series which will continue April 16 at a virtual representation of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. While being late to the party can’t be undone, INDYCAR and its partners have quickly worked to rectify other limitations, reflecting the sanctioning body’s rekindled adventurous spirit.

Standing start for IndyCar race at Toronto
A standing start at a doubleheader race outside of Detroit — the combination of two initiatives that have faded into IndyCar’s recent history. | Credit: Chris Jones/INDYCAR

When the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge debuted March 28 at fan-selected Watkins Glen, the event was available on streaming services only. While esports and streaming are a natural fit, the choice to go all-in on digital delivery artificially limited the audience by restricting it to only the most devoted fans: those savvy enough to know the event was occurring by following the series on social media and through other means who were also interested enough in watching a virtual race to tune in via, YouTube, Facebook or Twitch.

Rather than relying solely on digital natives, NASCAR launched its esports series with television coverage provided by FS1. The return of names like Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski to television garnered 903,000 viewers according to Nielsen Media Research, prompting FOX Sports to commit to the remainder of the virtual series by airing the simulated races on both FOX and FS1. Conversely, INDYCAR’s online-only live view count was much lower and, when combined with repeat viewings in the hours following the checkered flag, had reached two-thirds of NASCAR’s live viewership by March 29.

NBC Sports, INDYCAR’s exclusive domestic television partner, quickly rectified the oversight by airing the series’ second virtual race on NBCSN. While viewership numbers have not yet been released by NBC Sports, it stands to reason that the combined number across both cable and streaming will be higher than the combined viewership number released for the first round.

Beyond solving for the lack of television coverage, INDYCAR also adjusted the rules for the series’ second round. By adding a mandatory caution to the event — mirroring a tactic common in NASCAR events but somewhat foreign to IndyCar’s concept of authenticity — it hoped to bunch up the 29-car field and make the second half of the race more entertaining by opening up the opportunity to attempt various strategies.

Like the aforementioned standing starts and double-file restarts, the efficacy of the added competition element can be debated, but it reasserts the notion that INDYCAR is willing to experiment and suggests that further adjustments might be made in time for the third round at Michigan International Speedway.

Even with the considerable effort INDYCAR has put into its online endeavors, it hasn’t lost focus on returning to — actual — racing. Schedule updates have been released weekly since the initial March 13 cancellation of racing events through the end of April. Subsequent changes included the rescheduling of the traditional month of May activities at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the cancellation of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, promoting Texas Motor Speedway to the position of provisional season opener.

While canceling events and moving the Indianapolis 500 from its traditional May date for the first time since 1911 aren’t exactly positive developments, INDYCAR’s efforts to remediate the loss of the first three months of the 2020 season provide more evidence that innovative thinking is once again occurring at the corner of 16th and Georgetown.

Indy cars on IMS pit lane for 2019 INDYCAR Grand Prix
Held for half a decade in May, IndyCar’s contest on the road course in Indianapolis is scheduled to occur twice in 2020 and could perhaps be moved permanently for 2021 and beyond. | Credit: Andy Clary/Spacesuit Media

Even though it’s been made clear that Barber Motorsports Park, Circuit of The Americas, the Long Beach street circuit and the Raceway at Belle Isle Park won’t return to the schedule until 2021, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg remains penciled in not at the start of the season but as the finale. Should the event be rescheduled, it will have the unique distinction of closing this season and opening the next, reassuming the position it held in 2009 and consecutively from 2011 to 2019.

As one of several races to have its date changed this year due to the unprecedented upheaval caused by the coronavirus, St. Petersburg becomes part of the collection of revisions that hint at date equity’s reduced priority relative to ensuring there’s room on a compact schedule for as many races as possible.

Finding new places on the calendar for standalone events is just one aspect of INDYCAR’s unavoidable reshaping of the schedule, however.

Like adopting an esports component, the prospect of linking up with NASCAR’s top series at a shared event made the rounds among fans and pundits long before it became a reality. With the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course forced to vacate its typical date two weeks before the Indy 500, its new spot on July 4 places it the day before NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 at IMS, delivering an INDYCAR-NASCAR one-two punch that might have otherwise taken years to negotiate.

Beyond pleasing fans clamoring for a twin bill, the shift from May to July likely also satiates purists who never accepted a second May IndyCar race at IMS. Even for those who bought into the Grand Prix as being a new tradition in Indianapolis, it’s possible that a successful Independence Day weekend for both series will introduce a desire for the reactionary rescheduling of the road course race to become a new tradition.

Either by permanently repositioning the open-wheel race as a compliment to its stock car counterpart or, at the very least, proving that a shared event is beneficial for all parties involved and opening the door for more combined weekends in the future, the potential for something new to be born out of the COVID-19 pandemic is palpable.

Penske Acura DPi on Long Beach Grand Prix racetrack
NASCAR, IMSA and INDYCAR have been forced into creativity to deal with COVID-19. Might Roger Penske’s Acura DPi cars soon share racetracks beyond Long Beach and Detroit with IndyCar after eyes are opened to new twin-bill possibilities? | Credit: Jamie Sheldrick/Spacesuit Media

Making friends with NASCAR — and perhaps others — isn’t the only about-face that INDYCAR has made as it attempts to come as close to retaining a 17-race schedule as possible. Since the beginning of Miles’ era, the messaging around when the IndyCar season should end has been fairly consistent: a longer season is desired, but it will be achieved by starting earlier rather than ending later.

In 2015, Miles suggested that running 20 races from the weekend after the Super Bowl though Labor Day was the goal. While no race since then has been scheduled any earlier than March 8, there has been some wiggle room applied to ending by Labor Day. In 2014 and 2015, the final race took place on Aug. 30 prior to the holiday but in the following years the season finale was moved after Labor Day, with the latest being Sept. 22 in 2019.

The conventional wisdom around sticking to a September end date is that it reduces competition for attention with both college and professional football. With 2020 start dates of Aug. 29 and Sept. 10 respectively, IndyCar’s season finale as originally scheduled would have already fallen within football season, making the excuse for not having later races tenuous at best.

The return of IndyCar racing to October — last seen in 2013 at Auto Club Speedway — is assured this year thanks to the newly added INDYCAR Harvest Grand Prix. Set to take place Oct. 3 on the IMS road course, the new event pushes the season past September and pays homage to the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, a three-race event with a 100-mile feature that counted toward that year’s championship. Held Sept. 9, 1916, it was the only racing conducted at the iconic venue outside of May from 1911 through 1993, thus making the new iteration a fitting tribute.

Scheduling a second road course event at the Penske Entertainment-owned venue makes sense and also opens up more possibilities for the future of both IndyCar road races in Indianapolis and the schedule itself. Many of the the same purists who decried the Grand Prix’s May date suggested it would fit better as a season finale, since it would both preserve the sanctity of the “500” while allowing the series to crown its champion on home turf.

While it’s too early to know if the fall road race will serve as this season’s curtain call considering St. Petersburg is still searching for a date, a hypothetical 2021 schedule with IndyCar’s IMS road race ending the season becomes more of a possibility if this year’s fall event proves successful.

Combined with the July 4 event and the road race’s more conventional May time slot, the series could have a big decision to make when it comes to crafting the actual 2021 schedule: keep the race where it’s been in May, continue the link-up with NASCAR in July or make it the new season finale.

Whatever happens with the road course race, INDYCAR’s leadership will have the unique opportunity to assess the impact of the changes it’s been forced to make and determine which ones are candidates for future seasons. Like the standing starts and double-file restarts Bernard is remembered for championing, maybe virtual events, shared weekends with NASCAR and racing into October will be quickly abandoned.

Or perhaps, like the recently announced doubleheader weekends at Iowa Speedway and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca that use the same strategy to increase the number of races that Bernard employed in planning the 2013 season, INDYCAR’s creative responses to the harsh realities of a global pandemic will stand the test of time and add to the already rich history of North American open-wheel racing.

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