PRUETT: Will racing face a COVID-19 driver lockout?

Jamey Price/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Will racing face a COVID-19 driver lockout?

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Will racing face a COVID-19 driver lockout?

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The dates are set, and the tracks are ready for a return to racing. But who will be there to drive the cars, engineer the vehicles, or make race strategy calls?

In the rush to hit the high banks at Texas Motor Speedway, and head into six hours of endurance racing at Watkins Glen, IndyCar and IMSA are among the leading series facing inbound travel issues that could feature some unexpected names filling unexpected vacancies. The Road to Indy, which grooms next-generation talent for IndyCar, is also reliant on a high volume of young drivers from outside the U.S. And like IMSA, SRO Motorsports Group America draws from a diverse global base of participants for its races.

With strict coronavirus-related border crossing limitations in place, travel bans affecting international drivers and crew members could force a few adjustments to the entry list for IndyCar’s June 6 season opener at TMS. And for the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, which has June 26-28 earmarked for its return to action in Upstate New York, a much bigger obstacle is in its way as nearly 40 percent of its participants reside outside the United States.

Factor in the closed borders here and in some of the countries where IndyCar and IMSA’s racers live, and some of the sport’s family members could be missing once the action begins.

“We’ve been in communication with the teams, and [are] glad to assist in any way we can,” IndyCar president Jay Frye told RACER. “We’ve been working on this for a while and communicating our intention to the teams. Everybody that’s out of the country is trying to get in, and we fully expect them to get in. Every day there’s a change and you react to it, and there’s still time; we’re still weeks away from the race and have been in contact with all the government agencies in charge of travel. It’s not a crisis yet.”

Dale Coyne Racing’s Alex Palou is among several IndyCar drivers facing potential travel hurdles. Image by Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

Of the known problems, Dale Coyne Racing rookie Alex Palou has been at home in Spain following the postponement of St. Petersburg in March. And Ed Carpenter Racing rookie Rinus VeeKay is in an identical predicament in Holland. Others, including Marcus Ericsson, Felix Rosenqvist and Takuma Sato, remained stateside after St. Pete.

Some members of the Carlin Racing team, who returned to their primary base in England, and a few of IndyCar’s official suppliers based abroad, face the same inability to land in the U.S. and head for the Texas oval.

Starting with Palou, DCR team manager Terry Brown has been working with the series to find a solution.

“We think we’ll get him back, and are exploring some options,” he said. “IndyCar is working with various government officials. We might have to fly him somewhere and look at a 14-day quarantine before possibly coming here. It’s up in the air right now, though.”

As one of IndyCar’s full-time teams, DCR is obligated to field the Honda-powered car meant for Palou at every round in order to receive its Leaders Circle payments from the series. Former DCR driver and TMS speedster Tristan Vautier could be readied to fill in for Palou if the travel workarounds are unsuccessful.

“We haven’t reached out to anyone, but we’ve spoken internally on candidates and fitment charts on seats and belt and pedals,” Brown said. “It isn’t our wish to put someone else in the car, but it’s our job to prepare for different scenarios.”

The same travel-inspired headaches are also playing out at ECR.

“We do have a little challenge on our hands right now that we’re dealing with,” said team manager Tim Broyles. “There’s a lot of contributing factors to it, but obviously, the times we’re dealing with are unique in themselves, so we’re working pretty diligently to help Rinus to get back in here as soon as possible. Our intent is to run two full-time entries at every scheduled race with a third entry for the 500, and our plans haven’t changed at all.

“We have IndyCar aware of the situation. They have helped us with some resources to reach out to talk about any other options that we might have, any other entities or parties that we can get involved, calling in some favors. I know it’s not just us. There’s a lot of people working through this. It’s really hard to say what’s going to happen. There’s too many scenarios, and as we know, it feels like every day there’s something new that we’re dealing with. But we’ve tapped a lot of resources and are working pretty diligently to find a solution.”

The ability to plug VeeKay into his Chevy-powered ECR ride would be a welcome relief for the Dutchman and his team, but like DCR, fashioning a backup plan is necessary if he’s forced to watch Texas from home. The easiest answer would come in the form of ECR road course driver Conor Daly, who will share Ed Carpenter’s car this season.

Expanding Conor Daly’s limited role could be one option for ECR in clearing travel hurdles. Image by Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

With no ovals on his schedule, barring the Indy 500 in the third ECR entry, Daly was given permission to fill in on the remaining ovals with Carlin Racing, whose U.K.-based driver Max Chilton is concentrating on road and street courses in his Chevy entry. Depending on how the VeeKay situation develops, Daly could be asked to stick with ECR to sub for his young teammate at the first oval.

“Well, there’s a lot of scenarios going on and obviously that’d be the first place we turn if it comes to that and just see if it is a possibility,” Broyles said. “At the same time, we don’t want to put somebody else in a bad situation last minute. Everybody knows what’s going on, and we hope to get closer to the race and have good news with Rinus. We’re not worried about it. We’re just going to show up and race, and he’ll be ready to go. He’s been doing all the prep work. Obviously, we went there and had a good test with him, and he’s been involved and engaged with the engineers through all this time that we’ve been off.”

Moving beyond Texas, the first road course race of the year for IndyCar takes place two weeks later at Road America, where Chilton is scheduled to make his season debut. Depending on what they find leading into Texas, and whether the inbound travel ban is modified, the Briton, and the same group trying to reach Round 1, could be sidelined for multiple events.

If such a scenario comes to pass, some of the veterans with limited schedules – Sebastien Bourdais and Tony Kanaan, for example – could be drafted in to help in the absence of those stuck on the outside looking in.

“It’s hard to sit here today and say, ‘Do we know what’s going to happen?’ The answer is no,” Broyles said. “Obviously, we hope that we can get through these hurdles and Rinus can get back over here in time to be here for Texas and the remaining races in the season. But we’ve just got to let some of the things play out and offer the assistance that we can, where we can.

“We have to be prepared for anything. Obviously, myself and Ed [Carpenter] have had this discussion, and we’ll continue to have those discussions. We’re engaged with what’s going on, and a few things have to play out that are out of our control.”

If the IndyCar season gets under way with at least two of its full-time drivers missing from the grid due to extenuating circumstances, questions regarding equal opportunities to earn championship points could be raised. Although it would be unlikely for two rookies to vie for the IndyCar title in 2020, Palou and VeeKay will chase Rookie of the Year honors, and from a team perspective, both will need to secure solid finishes in the championship standings to ensure their entries receive the $1 million Leaders Circle contracts for 2021.

Would the series consider changes to its points structure – allowing each entry to drop its worst finish, or something similar – to prevent missing drivers from starting with a sizable points deficit? These questions, and more, are receiving attention as IndyCar contemplates the potential effects of the travel ban.

“The new normal is, nothing’s normal,” Frye said. “It’s an interesting question. Nothings off the table. You’d never say never on something like that.”

Before worrying about things like social distancing, IMSA teams have to get their international field of drivers to the racetracks. Image by Richard Dole/Motorsport Images

If the specter of missing a few drivers is complicated for IndyCar, IMSA could be forced to delay the resumption of its season until travel restrictions are removed altogether. Losing eight to 12 percent of the IndyCar field in the opening rounds would be classified as a mere inconvenience compared to the large swaths of IMSA drivers and crews left behind in Europe and Asia.

Reports on Wednesday suggest new measures for the existing travel ban, which is up for renewal next week, could complicate matters.

“The Trump administration is moving to extend its virus border restrictions indefinitely, using the government’s broad public health authorities to severely limit immigration across its land borders until officials decide that there is no more danger of infection to Americans,” according to the New York Times. “The new order would require CDC officials to review the dangers posed by the virus every 30 days.”

Governors can green-light motor racing and series can announce their intentions to put on a show, but for those who rely on our international brothers and sisters to make the show – the full show, at least – possible to enjoy, some significant things will need to change before Texas on June 6, Watkins Glen on June 26, and whatever else might be in border-related jeopardy.

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