Thick, hot air hung over the 640-acre parcel of land occupied by Road America as the green flag waved to signal the start of the REV Group Grand Prix’s first session. Considerably warmer than the forecast for the remainder of the weekend, Friday afternoon’s 45-minute practice was normal in more ways than the summer Wisconsin heat — it represents the NTT IndyCar Series’ ongoing return to normalcy.
Indications that IndyCar’s annual trip to Elkhart Lake would be more “regular” than other races stretch as far back as last year, when the 4-mile track welcomed fans without an attendance limitation but with COVID-19 restrictions like social distancing and masking in place. There were other signs of the pandemic apparent in 2020, as well: the race weekend moved from June to July and converted from a single race to a doubleheader event, as were many races on the IndyCar schedule to accommodate event cancelations earlier in the year.
Now, less than 12 months later, many of the quirks have been removed from what has become a signature event on the IndyCar calendar since the series’ return in 2016. Evidence abounds, but a good place to start is Road America itself, which confirmed via a May 26 press release that the paddock would be open to all fans free of charge, just like the good old days. The same policy will apply to August’s IMSA race.
The weekend schedule also reflects a change year over year. Rather than two races crammed into a single weekend, this year’s 55-lap run to the checkered flag is a standalone race. And, rather than the new normal of compressing race weekends into two days, like last weekend’s doubleheader was, this year’s race almost returns to the three-day schedule of old. If the number of on-track sessions is considered, the weekend is nearly on par with its pre-coronavirus predecessors.
Three practices spread over Friday and Saturday, three rounds of knockout qualifying on Saturday afternoon and a Sunday morning warm-up followed by the race itself is the format many would consider to be the standard for IndyCar, and it’s been absent from the series for a while. Variations have been attempted, including the aforementioned compression to two days. Many reasons have been and are given for such alterations, chief among them the cost reductions that go along with needing one less night in a hotel and one less day of travel away from teams’ home bases.
The 2021 edition of the REV Group Grand Prix comes close to replicating the old standard, with practices on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning and three rounds of knockout qualifying on Saturday afternoon. In a twist, rather than having a morning warm-up on Sunday before the race, the 30-minute session — now called “final practice” — is scheduled for late on Saturday, resulting in a weekend that’s short one practice compared to previous years but brings back some spread-out track time, giving drivers and their teams valuable hours to analyze data and implement meaningful changes.
The prospect of going back to a traditional three-day race weekend received universal praise from the fastest three drivers in Friday’s Practice 1.
“As for a racing driver and fans, it would be better to have the Friday, Saturday, Sunday back again,” said Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, second-fastest in practice.
A tight schedule that leaves little time between sessions isn’t as optimal.
“The problem with that, like we had at Detroit, if you miss on anything on the first session, you’re really on the back foot all weekend,” Hunter-Reay continued.
Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden concurred with Hunter-Reay’s assessment, and also spoke up for three drivers not present at the post-practice press conference.
“I want to go back to the regular schedule,” said Newgarden. “I know all my teammates do, too.”
Romain Grosjean, who admitted that being fastest in the first practice of a race weekend is something he never likes to do, lacks the IndyCar history of Hunter-Reay and Newgarden, so the weekend schedule talk was foreign to him. After Hunter-Reay conveniently explained what regular schedule means — “two practices on Friday, one practice Saturday morning, qualifying Saturday afternoon, race on Sunday” — the former Formula One pilot immediately saw the benefits.
“I like that,” said Grosjean. “It gets boring Friday morning. You don’t know what to do.”
Drivers having something to do on Friday mornings is one thing, but providing a cohesive, full and varied schedule is critical to the fan experience. While Road America never has a problem getting cars on track — Friday’s schedule had almost constant activity from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — only one of the Friday sessions featured IndyCar, the weekend’s headline series. That’s not stated to denigrate the support series; they’re always a key component of any road and street race weekend, and an element that oval tracks like Texas Motor Speedway often lack. Yet, it’s still the case that most fans are at the track to see Indy cars, with everything else serving as a nice additional bonus.
Reverting to Hunter-Reay’s characterization of a regular race weekend, even if it excludes a Sunday morning warm-up, will ensure that three-day events like those at Road America have Indy cars on track from beginning to end, incentivizing fans to go all in with more than just race-day tickets. The added advantages of free paddock access and all the other amenities provided by Road America and other tracks only sweeten the deal.
While pre-COVID and post-COVID aren’t yet the same thing, progress is being made. Reestablishing Friday through Sunday as the ideal IndyCar race weekend could be a step on the path to normalcy that also includes open paddocks, unrestricted access and the chance for fans to experience the drivers and race cars of IndyCar.
Ben was hooked after witnessing Dario Franchitti's victory at the 2009 Iowa Corn Indy 250 and began providing media coverage from IndyCar events in 2015. If IndyCar is on track, he can be found live-tweeting and updating The Apex's Race Reports from his iPad Pro.