MILLER: Uncharted territory

Image by Levitt/LAT

MILLER: Uncharted territory

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: Uncharted territory


From 1932 to 2015, there was a syndicated cartoon in newspapers everywhere called ‘Grin and Bear It’. I’m thinking we need to bring that title back as the moniker for the current state of IndyCar racing, because right now that’s about all we can do.

In the past few days I’ve received more than 100 emails from fans who were either livid about ticket refunds, worried about the Indianapolis 500, hopeful the first four races can be rescheduled, depressed the season won’t start until May, or understanding about the unprecedented shutdown of our country.

I’ve talked to Roger Penske and Mark Miles a few times, spent 30 minutes on the phone with Jim Michaelian of Long Beach and Kevin Savoree of St. Petersburg, and exchanged emails with our IndyCar director Terry Lingner about possibilities for NBCSN during the next several weeks.

But the reality is that it’s a national nightmare that nobody could have foreseen, and nobody truly knows what to do because of all the uncertainty. Nothing, not SARS, Ebola or swine flu, has ever panicked the American public like coronavirus (COVID-19), and it’s wreaking havoc on people, schools, businesses and daily life.

We could weather this storm and be back to normal in a few weeks, or be relegated to home confinement and very little human contact for much longer.

Obviously, auto racing and virtually all other professional sports are in a holding pattern and people are already having withdrawal, because sports is such a big part of life’s entertainment. And there’s been plenty of speculation, misinformation, anger and gloom and doom about IndyCar’s future.

Let’s look at the major questions being asked. The hottest topic: can these first four races be rescheduled for later in the year? And the answer appears to be maybe three of them, only one, or none of the four. There is a big difference between ‘postponed’ and ‘canceled’, and that created instant confusion.

One thing we know for sure is that St. Pete is history for 2020. It’s a street race that needs the annual cooperation of the city, airport, businesses and residents to pull it off. It’s an imposition for the townspeople to put up with the blocked streets and crazy traffic once a year, let alone asking for another major disruption in a few months.

The logistics involved in rescheduling a street race are almost insurmountable. But Long Beach’s value to the local economy might be its lifeline for a fall date. Image by Cantrell/LAT

“Of course I wish we could reschedule it, but it’s just not practical,” said Savoree, who, along with Kim Green, co-promotes Toronto, Portland and Mid-Ohio. “You have to shut down the city again, go through the FAA to try and close the airport, all the documentation, and reach out to all our volunteers to see if they’d be around in the fall. Plus it’s hurricane season, and you would be up against the Rays (MLB). I know everyone is mad and so are we, but what can you do? This is unchartered territory for all of us.”

The second-longest running race on the IndyCar schedule faces the same challenges, but Long Beach isn’t dead yet – it’s postponed while Michaelian and the city’s fathers try and save it with a fall date. It won’t be easy, and closing off major streets in the seaside community is a major pain in the ass, but the bottom line could be the bottom line.

IndyCar’s footprint started in 1984 after Formula 1 woke up this dingy downtown and during the past 35 years the race has changed the landscape and made it a four-day money tree for the local merchants.

“With all the conventions being canceled in the past few days, the race is even more important to the economy and that’s why the city is trying to work with us on another date,” said Michaelian. “If we could figure out how to do it when IndyCar and IMSA are in Laguna in September, that would be great.”

As permanent road courses, Barber and COTA have it somewhat easier because all they have to do is find another suitable date. Now that’s not easy, nor is it economical, and calls to Barber and COTA to ask about those possibilities have yet to be returned, but their press releases said the races were canceled, so maybe there’s no room for negotiations.

Obviously there is a huge hole in the schedule between mid-July and mid-August (while NBC and NBCSN are televising the Summer Olympics) and COTA hosts F1’s USGP in October and MotoGP in November, so that summer gap might be the only option. Barber has a big Superbikes weekend in September and annual vintage show in October, so it could also be a candidate during that summer break, except that’s excessively hot. Ditto for Austin. So maybe they will simply stay canceled.

On paper, it seems easier to reschedule an event on a permanent course like Barber, but factors like weather and date clashes create new complications. Image by LePage/LAT

In the flurry and fury of the fate of the first four races, several paying customers were outraged they will not be given a refund by St. Pete. Instead, their money will be applied to next year’s race, or one of the other three Green Savoree Racing Promotion events. I’ll admit, when I heard there was no refund I got pissed off until I looked at the back of my Indy 500 tickets where it said in big, bold letters: NO REFUNDS. Not having bought a race ticket in 50 years, I wasn’t familiar with the standard policy.

“It’s the same for policies for the NASCAR race at Homestead, 12 Hours of Sebring, Indianapolis and music festivals like Ultra in Miami and South by Southwest in Austin,” said Savoree. “Of course some people are going to be upset, but we were just along for the ride in this one, and I hope people will come back next year. I guess there’s no perfect answer, but there’s never been anything like this either.”

COTA also has the same policy, and it’s spelled out:

“You are not entitled to a refund, replacement ticket and/or other event admission material or to payment for any damages of any kind for any reason from COTA or IndyCar, including without limitation cancellation, shortening or other alteration of the event.”

Barber is the only venue allowing fans a refund, which might indicate there is no chance of a race in 2020.

Savoree and Michaelian couldn’t estimate the financial damage of this unnatural disaster other than to say it is substantial, and now both are scrambling to disassemble grandstands, take down fences and store their walls to get the city streets back open.

Of course, the latest bombshell came Monday when the CDC suggested postponing of events involving more than 50 people over the next eight weeks, because that would wipe out the Indy GP and qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway put out a statement it would do its part to protect public health while still putting on the 104th Indy 500 on May 24.

Some fans have been clamoring for the IMS road course race to end the season, and they may finally get their wish. Unless, of course, it’s the Indy 500. That’s how crazy this all could turn out.