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2020 IndyCar season preview: Take two

2020 IndyCar season preview: Take two
Autos
Back then, the most significant talking points were Roger Penske’s purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and NTT IndyCar Series, and the fact that there were no Canadian racers with a full-season contract that would let them benefit from the expected impending uptick.

It’s stating the obvious to say that the world changed in the blink of an eye. Thanks to COVID-19, the season’s start was delayed by nearly three months, the Month of May at Indianapolis is now the Month of August, and the series won’t be crossing the Canadian border at all in 2020.

The 2020 F1 season has more Canadian content than ever

The meat and potatoes of what’s left of the season are about to get under way – the GMR Grand Prix runs this Saturday at 12:30 PM Eastern as a road course race at Indianapolis, part of the first-ever IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend – so it’s time to pick up where we left off back when the entire IndyCar paddock flew home from its expected mid-March season opener in Florida without ever having turned a wheel.

Technically, this season preview is a little late: the series ran its first race, the Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, on June 7. In a way, it’s ended up for the best because there were some profound unknowns going into that event. Would it be a medical disaster to bring the paddock back together in close proximity? And would it be a procedural disaster to debut the brand new aeroscreens – tall polycarbonate-laminate panels mounted around the cars’ cockpits on titanium frames, designed to mitigate driver head injuries from impact and debris – at a high-speed oval track where they might alter car setups drastically, and all on painfully little practice time?

Fortunately, the worst was averted. In front of empty stands and with masks and physical distancing protocols in place, the 157 laps ran with relatively little incident. If anything, it came across as a cautious reawakening, but that’s understandable given that the race was broadcast in prime time on NBC and a lot was at stake.

Scott Dixon celebrates victory at Texas Motor Speedway. Chris Owens/IndyCar

So, what does all of this tell us, other than that IndyCar’s rulebook is evidently as binding as a phone number scrawled on a cocktail napkin? For one thing, the drivers and teams universally described the impact of the aeroscreen at Texas as minimal, so that’s a very good sign moving forward. And given that it’s been nearly a month since that race and there are no reports of any new coronavirus cases from within the paddock, the initial control measures appear to have been effective. So far, so good.

But this brings us to a more complicated problem: the fans won’t be gone for long.

There won’t be any spectators in the stands for this weekend’s events in Indianapolis, but they will be allowed into Road America for the series double-header on July 11 and 12.

My assessment? Were there not the closed border to contend with, I’d already be packing up the camper. Road courses allow plenty of room for physical distancing as is, and Road America’s 6.5-kilometre, 14-turn layout makes it even roomier than most. I have a relatively low risk tolerance around these sorts of things for the most part, but my concern level is near zero here. And two runs up that legendary hill to the green flag in one weekend? Sign me up. That’s going to be a barn-burner.

But my attitude pulls a squealing J-turn six weeks later for the 104th Indianapolis 500, scheduled for Sunday, August 23. Roger Penske himself has been quoted saying that the 500 won’t run without fans in the stands, and last week the track announced plans to allow attendance at 50 percent capacity.

James Hinchcliffe stops in the pits during the Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 7. Chris Jones/IndyCar

Granted, this year the Snake Pit will be closed, fans older than 65 and in high-risk groups have been advised to stay home, and international borders are likely to remain shut even into August. These factors will reduce some of the usual attendance. But IMS is the largest stadium on the planet, and the track is still estimating that there will be upwards of 150,000 people on the premises that day. That’s 150,000 people using the restrooms, waiting in line for tenderloins, and stumbling out inebriated at the end of the afternoon. If you’ve ever been to Indy, you know how ambitious it is to think this will work.

I love the place. But you couldn’t pay me to be anywhere near IMS this year.

Because the problem is that the people who are going to choose to be in an environment where masks won’t be mandatory and physical distancing will be impossible are the ones who already don’t care a whit about the risks of COVID-19. And that means that the risk to the people around them is that much higher.

My fear is for those who have been going to Indy for 50-plus years and are willing to put it all on the line rather than break their streak. There are more of those people than are being accounted for here, and the fallout could be scary.

I hope I’m wrong.

Back in March, the picture for Canadian racers in IndyCar was pretty bleak.

Oakville, Ont.’s James Hinchcliffe, one of the most recognizable stars in the series, was confirmed for only three races at Andretti Autosport after being unceremoniously turfed at the end of last year as part of the reconstruction of his former team, now known as Arrow McLaren SP Racing.

It just so happens that two of the three races that Hinch was signed on for, Texas and the Indianapolis road course race, are the two openers for the abridged season. The third is the Indianapolis 500. Will he make it to Road America or anywhere else? This is such a weird year that I can’t help but feel anything is possible. But as of now, he’s not scheduled.

James Hinchcliffe chats with Charlie Kimball at Texas Motor Speedway. Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

And then there’s the series rookie, 26-year-old Dalton Kellett of Stouffville, Ont. Kellett lucked out with how the revised schedule fell. He didn’t make it to the opener at Texas, but he was never meant to run there – the No. 14’s oval races are reserved for Tony Kanaan, who’s making a farewell tour of sorts this year with that partial schedule – but the races that remain are largely the ones Kellett was already signed up for. He’ll make his debut at the IMS road course this weekend, then run at Road America, Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, and possibly at the second IMS road course race in early October.

Veteran racer Sebastien Bourdais was originally meant to be in the No. 14 at Portland and St. Petersburg – the latter was rescheduled from being the season opener in March to the season finale at the end of October – but whether that will remain the case is yet to be announced.

An adjusted TV schedule for Canada has not been officially released, but expect most (if not all) races to be run on either NBC or one of the Sportsnet channels available on cable.
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