PRUETT: Texas, IndyCar and the question of timing

Scott LePage/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Texas, IndyCar and the question of timing

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Texas, IndyCar and the question of timing

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The state of Texas is preparing to open its doors to motor racing, and the NTT IndyCar Series can’t wait to take Governor Greg Abbott up on his offer.

The open-wheel series is currently exploring its options to keep its amended season debut intact on June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway, and the latest plan involves shortening the show to a single-day event without spectators.

It’s an odd thing to consider right now. Why the rush to race in little over a month? Especially as the coronavirus continues its deadly march throughout the country, and while there’s no credible data to suggest the risks of contracting COVID-19 will be an afterthought less than 40 days from now? Financial survival is the answer.

A few teams were fortunate to receive funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, and the series has been kind enough to distribute the first Leaders Circle checks to its full-time entrants, but we aren’t talking about waves of cash overflowing from their collective bank accounts. Based on the wealth and benevolence of select owners, some teams are in better shape than others, but for the vast majority, budgetary concerns are mounting as the coronavirus shutdown nears its third month.

The need for more income, and to settle the nerves of many sponsors who who’ve sent money and gotten little in return, grows in parallel with each new day of inactivity.

While it’s kept the drivers engaged with the hard-core fans, IndyCar’s Esports efforts haven’t attracted mainstream TV audiences. Lumen Images/iRacing

There were hopes that after NASCAR recorded more than 1 million viewers for its first iRacing event broadcast on FOX Sports 1, IndyCar would find a similar TV audience to tap into for its iRacing exploits, but it simply hasn’t happened. Promising initial numbers on live streaming viewers for Round 1 of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Watkins Glen International were followed by more traditional Nielsen broadcast measurement numbers when those events moved to NBCSN from Round 2 onwards; 165,000 viewers were recorded at Barber Motorsports Park. And with a humbling sum of 120,000 viewers or so tuning in of late, an urgency to get back to real racing, and generate healthier Nielsen numbers to deliver greater sponsor value, has been building.

IndyCar, like most racing series, is monitoring the various shelter-at-home orders in the states where its events are held, and social distancing decrees, and travel limitations, and searching for opportunities to put on a show and help their teams satisfy those sponsors and paying drivers. In many cases, the permissions do not currently exist to race elsewhere on the revised IndyCar calendar, so the focus has been on Texas Motor Speedway and Governor Abbott’s welcoming invitation.

One idea floated by TMS was to have NASCAR take Sunday June 7 for its Cup Series, giving fans a fascinating doubleheader. As RACER’s Kelly Crandall and Robin Miller have written, the concept has plenty of merits, but it appears a plan by NASCAR to restart its season by staying local — skipping tracks where flights and long travel is needed — will scratch the back-to-back weekend in Texas. The TV money brought by NASCAR was also cited as the financial mechanism that would make holding a fan-free event possible.

Minus the NASCAR money to cover its loss in ticket sales, it’s highly unlikely TMS would pay IndyCar’s sanction fee and run the event at a significant financial loss. In short, if IndyCar wants to race in Texas, a friendly proposition needs to be made where breaking even, at minimum, is possible.

Altogether, going racing, calming sponsors and generating income for the paddock through new sponsor and driver payments is behind the pressure-packed efforts to get to Texas on June 6. Doing so with the safety of all involved in mind is another major aspect to consider.

Of the various avenues being pursued by IndyCar, one leading possibility involves using the same COVID-19 health checklist implemented at St. Pete, along with the use of temperature scanners to check for those with fevers, gathering the screened teams in a central location in Indianapolis, transporting them to the airport in sterilized buses, and moving them directly onto sterilized chartered planes bound for an airstrip one mile away from the Texan oval located on the outskirts of Dallas-Fort Worth. The same quarantine-like process would be used for moving teams out of Texas and back to the central Indiana rallying point.

Could keeping the drivers and teams in a sterile bubble before a fan-free, one-day event be a solution for Texas? Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

The proposed Texas schedule would see IndyCar crews granted access to garages in the morning to set up, and then move through practice, qualifying, and the nighttime race before packing up and departing. Slightly astray from the single-day plan, teams would move their transporters into place the evening of June 5, and await the garages being opened shortly after sunrise to unload and get started on a busy day.

There are holes in the screening process, of course, with the knowledge that people who’ve contracted the coronavirus can be asymptomatic, and show no signs of a fever or breathing problems, and spread the virus to others, and have those symptoms strike at any time.

Taking a basic swing at the math, IndyCar should have at least 24 cars at Texas, which means nearly 500 people will be in close proximity in the garages and on pit lane. Factor in the series’ officials, technical team, pit lane oversight crew, medical, managerial, safety team, and race control numbers, plus the TMS staff and volunteers, and a sizable congregation of people will share the same general space on June 6.

“I don’t think destroying the sport or the economy for the potential of a health risk is worth it,” team owner Bobby Rahal said Wednesday afternoon. “There’s a lot of knowledge on how we should operate, and even if they allowed us to have spectators, after the Texas governor said maybe we could have 25 percent of the normal crowd there, I think if everyone’s smart, and does their best with social distancing, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t.

“As a team standpoint, we’re on top of it with our people and won’t let anybody go if they’re feeling sick. I think it’s important to make it happen for us as teams, and for the fans who want to watch racing. Even if it’s only on TV. You can’t let this virus control your life in total. I think you have to take all the precautions and go enjoy the sport.

“Our sponsors all want to get on with it, and they are being patient that the races will happen, but want to get going. They will have to adjust, and maybe not have as many of their people in attendance or being entertained. I think the calendar that has been put together, presuming it all happens, will have people satisfied. I hope we can go to Texas. And having Indy in August isn’t May, but we still have the 500. And a doubleheader at Laguna Seca? Who doesn’t love that?”

And that’s where we’ll leave this topic. It’s weighing the value of business survival versus social distancing. It’s contemplating the loss of sponsors and decreased stability in a fragile sport versus flattening the curve and the health risks posed to the participants and their families.

It’s a rock and a very hard place.

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