Motorsports insider Nathan Brown discusses the new schedule for the 2020 IndyCar season. Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS – They don’t call him “The Captain” for taking the easy road. Had Roger Penske lived his auto racing career taking shortcuts, he likely wouldn’t be the man putting the pieces together for another monumental day in his short tenure as the steward of the IndyCar series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Days ago, the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympic games created what looked to be an obvious, gaping hole in NBC’s broadcast schedule to place what all signs seemed to be pointing to: a postponed 2020 Indianapolis 500. The first rendition of the race to be moved outside the month of May in its history.
But Penske cares about two things more than most: people and history. For the 500, both are central, and from his unique vantage point, neither could be ensured, should the Greatest Spectacle in Racing shift to early August. Of course, nothing can be assured in these trying times, given the coronavirus pandemic that has altered so much of American life, but Penske knows best how to create his own insurance policy.
It meant calling in favors, getting countless partners and decision-makers on one page, but no one does that better than Penske, who did not speak to the media Thursday. And now, that means the 104th Indy 500 is set to run Aug. 23: preserving the cornerstones of tradition, schedule and people, just three months farther down the calendar.
“The reality today is we might still have been able to run as scheduled in May,” said Penske Entertainment Corp. CEO Mark Miles on a Thursday media teleconference. “But by rescheduling to late August, we fully expect to be outside the window impacted by the COVID-19 virus. We and our fans still have five months to plan for the event, and we believe our fans will be ready in August.”
Why not earlier?
Miles argued, why take such a risk as rushing into the world’s largest single-day sporting event two weeks sooner when life holds so much uncertainty.
“The further away from today, the better,” he added. “I think that was a key.”
And once the idea of moving secondary races on the calendar was on the table, why not take advantage of another monumental holiday weekend like Labor Day, just two weeks later on the calendar?
“Just like we think our fans have their traditions, their family culture for what they do on Memorial Day weekend, I think there’s a lot of that that happens on Labor Day weekend,” Miles said. “We thought it probably would give our fans more flexibility if we didn’t pick the holiday weekend where they might have their own traditions.
“We just felt this was the best place to land.”
Again, best. Not easiest.
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To land here, Penske, Miles, IMS president Doug Boles and IndyCar president Jay Frye had to move mountains.
With a four-day abbreviated race plan out of the question and running without nearly 300,000 fans lining the 2.5-mile oval not on the table, Aug. 23 was the target. Find the solution, then diagnose and solve the problems.
A partnership with NASCAR may be the biggest and most important factor. For the first time, IndyCar and NASCAR will partner to hold a doubleheader for one weekend at the same racing venue – the same year NASCAR is making its own history by running its Xfinity and Cup series races on the same grounds with different course configurations. In 2020, IndyCar’s GMR Grand Prix, initially scheduled for May 9, will now be the lead-in for the Xfinity road course race on July 4 – a late addition to an already revamped weekend still adjusting to its new place on the stock car calendar. The Brickyard 400 will be on July 5.
For years, fans of both series have clamored for a jam-packed, doubleheader weekend, and in some ways, history may have forced their hands, though Miles and NASCAR officials haven’t been shy in admitting in the past that the subject has been broached.
Making the lead-in to the 500 a two-week window instead of, essentially a three-week one with the two-race program was paramount in helping find the 500’s new 真人百家家乐官网网站home for 2020.
“I think it will move IndyCar fans out here for a weekend they might not have attended in the past,” Miles said.
Additionally, it helped keep the Grand Prix on national television, while giving the lead-up to the 500 even more national broadcast time during qualifications weekend (Aug. 15-16) than even had been previously planned for NBC – already five hours, evolving into more.
“NASCAR has been terrific,” Miles added. “There was just no friction in that conversation at all. It was about ‘How do we work together to make lemonade out of lemons?’
“And NBC, they’re really trying to work through a Gordian knot of sorts. They’ve been helpful with this. … We really looked for a window where we could do the best possible way of replicating the Indianapolis 500 as our fans know it.”
Landing with on-track practice starting Wednesday, Aug. 12, Fast Friday two days later and qualifications holding onto its two-day spot, still with a Carb Day Friday, a parade day and a Sunday race also meant other IMS and IndyCar partners taking a back seat.
It meant Green Savoree Racing Promotions, organizers of the once-thought-canceled season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg also sliding their own races at Mid-Ohio (back one week from Aug. 16 to Aug. 9) and Portland (forward one from Sept. 9 to Sept. 16) to allow room for not only the 500, but other moving parts in August and September.
Less than two weeks ago, they were getting hammered online for not offering full refunds to ticketholders. Now, three-fourths of their fans have been left in disarray. And along with Gateway shifting ahead one week from Aug. 22 to Aug. 30 to open the 500’s slot, the Moto America was asked to move their scheduled race at IMS that same weekend nearly two months later in October.
“And those three promoters literally helped us within about 24 hours,” Boles said. “We thank them for those efforts.
“It tells you about the racing community. Same thing goes for NASCAR. I know Mr. Penske put a call into the folks at NASCAR and asked if we could share a weekend. We got a ‘Yes.’ It just really goes to show in times like this, this is one big industry, not several small folks trying to do their own thing.”
In all, it creates a hectic 17-week stretch with just four weekends not spent on track between late-May and mid-September, if all goes according to plan. Miles believes it will, kicking off the season with the Detroit doubleheader May 30-31 and ending with a St. Pete finale on a yet-to-be-determined date in mid-October.
And in the middle, still, sits the 500, surrounded by a new Midwest swing that multiple drivers and owners across the paddock told IndyStar creates “more energy” and “more excitement” after exiting an extra-long layoff this offseason.
“I really like it, I’m not going to lie,” Graham Rahal said. “It’s got a really good rhythm to it through the summer months. Indy, Ohio, St. Louis, all close for teams with no flights involved.”
Added Tony Kanaan: “You won’t have time to think about it. It’s like, ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom.'”
And getting this out in the open now, rather than a mid-April date that so many had theorized – wanting the series not to rush into anything – now creates more clarity. Owners can now plan for when to put engineers and mechanics back to work. Drivers can adjust their training regimens accordingly. Sponsors can regroup, assess the damage, and see where they stand.
“Now, this is something, at least, we can look forward to and plan for, which is great at this time – to have something to point to,” said Dreyer and Reinbold owner Dennis Reinbold. “I’m gonna still walk down pit land and do my damnedest to win (the 500). They can have it whenever they want to schedule it.
“But you need to have fans, and you need an ‘All Clear’, and I think you just had to do what they did today. It makes sense, and I like it.”
Could things still change? Miles wouldn’t rule it out, but his belief that an Indy 500 run May 24 is still viable shows his stance on Detroit’s prospects just six and seven days later.
But it wasn’t just about ‘May 24’, just like the 500 isn’t about cars running on one single day on the calendar. To preserve it in its entirety, Penske was forced to take risks and beg favors – both with haste.
And now, he’s landed in an almost perfect spot in resetting the clock. It’s 150 days and counting, and don’t think he didn’t know that all along.
“It’s still IMS, and it’s still the format – that’s important,” James Hinchcliffe said. “People fall in love with this race on practice days, on Wednesdays after school or after work, and to be able to still offer that to people, it won’t affect anything too much.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at @By_NathanBrown.