The fact that IndyCar was able to maintain two races and three weekends on national television after losing the month of May is a testament to NBC, a couple of the promoters on the NTT Series circuit, Roger Penske’s clout and the Indianapolis 500’s reputation.
Assuming normal life resumes in a few months after coronavirus has run its course, sports figures to resume its place in our daily routine. And I don’t think Mark Miles, Jay Frye, Penske, IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway could have asked for a better hand.
Having its annual showcase wiped out because of the pandemic isn’t just as simple as rescheduling a race weekend for IMS. There’s practice, qualifying, Carb Day, Legends Day and the 104th Indianapolis 500, plus the road course race that kicks off everything. But not only was Penske & Company hoping to replace three weeks of action in this scrambled scenario, Indy was up against the National Hockey League, the PGA tour and NASCAR, as they all were vying for a primo spot in the openings left by the cancellation of the Summer Olympics (mid-July to mid-August).
Of course, as much as many of us love Indy, it’s not the ratings gorilla it use to be, and the NTT IndyCar Series doesn’t draw viewers like the Stanley Cup playoffs, a weekly NASCAR show or any golf tourney that includes Tiger Woods. So Jon Miller, the president of sports programming for NBC, had the thankless job of trying to fit all these sports in a slot they all coveted, in a landscape that only has so many hours of network space.
And, as NBC has done since becoming IndyCar’s only TV partner in 2019, it treated IndyCar with great respect, and Miller may have made things even better than anyone could have hoped. Not only did he get Indy qualifying on NBC Aug. 15-16 and the Indy 500 on Aug. 23, he paired a couple of box office duds in a way that could ultimately rescue the beleaguered Brickyard 400.
Instead of playing to a couple thousand people on July 4th, NASCAR’s Xfinity series will now share the road course with IndyCar in what could be a damn entertaining doubleheader. Not only should it bring out a decent crowd, it also gives Frye/NBC/NASCAR the doubleheader that’s been discussed the past couple years.
So the Indianapolis 500 continues to have back-to-back weekends of national exposure, IndyCar has a shot at making some new fans on July 4th (especially if Jimmie Johnson makes his IndyCar debut) and maybe there’s a little life for the Sickyard 400 if Fernando Alonso straps on a stock car (OK I made that up).
“We’ve been in a constant huddle for the last 14 days and I wanted to be sure we could get far enough ahead of all this (coronavirus) that we could have a proper weekend,” said Penske on Thursday evening after calling all the team owners earlier in the day. “We had to make some tough decisions, and a lot of people helped us and have worked hard to come up with this schedule.
“We’re 150 days out, and I needed to know where I can go, and this is a big one off my back. And give a slap on the back to NBC and NASCAR. This could be a new combination for the future.”
Added Miles: “I like it, and I think we’re in good shape. The fans have five months to make plans, and we’re not up against college or pro football yet. NBC was terrific to work with, just like our promoters, and NASCAR. It was really difficult to find three weekends with all these cancellations, but we’ve got more live TV now than we had last May.”
In order to pull off this unlikely schedule, IndyCar had to get Mid-Ohio, Gateway and Portland to change dates. Originally set for August 14-16, promoters Kim Green and Kevin Savoree agreed to move the iconic road course up a week (Aug. 7-9) from its original slot and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Ill., dropped back from Aug. 21-22 to Aug. 29-30. Portland goes back a week from Sept. 6 to Sept. 13.
It could be risky for Gateway, since it’s going from its usual Saturday night date to a Sunday afternoon show, but the way Chris Blair & Company promote it may not hurt anything – especially coming off the Indy 500. And it’s also an easy drive over and back in the same day.
If Detroit’s doubleheader gets to open the season, IndyCar will have lost only Long Beach, COTA and Barber – and Jim Michaelian had Halloween weekend in play with the convention center, but couldn’t connect all the dots.
Green and Savoree looked dead in the water after their St. Pete opener was scratched, but now it’s back on to close out 2020 – likely in early October. So if IndyCar somehow pulls off 14 races, it will be more than anyone could have imagined a few days ago.