BARNES: The loneliest race

Image by IndyCar

BARNES: The loneliest race

Insights & Analysis

BARNES: The loneliest race

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Confetti rained across the window of the press box on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway, but fell on empty grandstands.

The Genesys 300 had reached its conclusion, and five-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon was the victor – for the 47th time in his illustrious career.

However, there was no roar, boos or even echoes of conversation. Instead, there was silence as the Chip Ganassi Racing driver pulled into Victory Lane, alone, with only TMS president Eddie Gossage there to greet him. The traditional six-shooters and hat were already equipped as Dixon posed for photos with the Foyt-Rutherford Trophy – the track’s longtime iconic prize named after Texas racing icons A.J. Foyt and Johnny Rutherford.

Usually, there is no time for us, the media, to watch a moment of celebration. More often than not we’re scurrying to pit road the moment the checkered flag falls to pursue stories of the race and push that content out as quickly as possible. However the limitations at the track due to COVID-19 left the five journalists on-site quarantined inside the press box, and allowed for a brief opportunity to capture the unique celebration.

To be honest, I had no expectations going into the day. Sure, it was the official – revised – start of the 2020 IndyCar season, but what would it look like?

In the days leading up to Saturday, my mind could only replay what it was like to be in St. Petersburg back in March when the season was actually supposed to start, and seeing the streets transform from energetic and fun on Thursday, to virtually a ghost town less than 24 hours later.

Fortunately, the eeriness of that experience didn’t translate to Texas. It became a one-day show – travel, practice, qualify, race, go home – for a majority of the drivers and teams. There were screening stations set up across four lanes with people wearing safety protection that limited opportunity for contact.

Everything was in place in order to make the situation as simple and safe as possible. Hell, even NBC Sports upped the ante by broadcasting the race on prime time on NBC, marking the first time since 2013 North America’s premier open-wheel championship was put on an over-the-air network. And fortunately, it paid off as the race averaged 1.285 million viewers – the most for a non-Indy 500 audience since 2016 (Detroit Race 2).

Nothing could really compare, though, to the impact of not having fans in attendance to provide energy to a field of 24 drivers. That part was evident, and everyone was hurting because of it.

Plus, this race was full of unknowns; questions that we had to ask all the way through last week, and that some, if not all, drivers got tired of answering: “What about the lack of practice? What about the temperatures, since it’ll be near 100 degrees? What about the mandated lap limit on the tires? What about the debut of the aeroscreen?”

The common reply was something along the lines of, “It’s the same for everybody.”

The variables were endless, and they were only magnified when cars took to the 1.5-mile superspeedway. While the bottom groove in the corners was a light shade of asphalt, the second lane was dark grey, stained by the effects of the PJ1 TrackBite, an adhesive NASCAR uses at various race tracks on their tour, including Texas. On a side note, if your series has to put an adhesive down on a track surface to improve the quality of racing, it’s probably time to do something about the cars instead of ruining race tracks for everybody else, but that’s a rant for another day.

Dixon currently leads IndyCar’s all-time list for ‘wins celebrated in a socially-distanced Victory Lane’. Image by IndyCar

Although the substance was scrubbed clean in the weeks leading into IndyCar arriving, drivers had concerns that the darker track surface created the potential for it to hold more heat and become slicker and more treacherous. That became increasingly evident after several incidents with multiple drivers throughout the day, including Takuma Sato, who ran across the stained surface as he entered high into Turn 1 and crashed. Unfortunately, with less than two hours between qualifying and the race, his team was unable to make the repairs in time, and there his day ended.

There is one moment that truly stands out from the rest as encapsulating a race that will forever have its own unique place in the history of IndyCar.

On lap 91, Dixon put a move on Josef Newgarden that was simply sensational. After laps of trying to close in and work him over, Dixon pushed to the outside through the tri-oval and arched wide into Turn 1, carrying his momentum past Newgarden and cutting across by inches to take the lead. It was as good a pass as you could ask for, and was a hold-your-breath moment.

But the move happened in silence. There was no crowd to deliver their appreciation or dissatisfaction in reaction to it. That was unquestionably the strangest feeling of the entire experience.

While everything continues the slow process in returning to some semblance of normalcy, there are positives. Whether you enjoyed the race or you didn’t, Texas was an experiment on so many levels. With the aeroscreen, tires, limited track time and so on all being in play, it wasn’t going to be perfect, and it wouldn’t have been fair to expect otherwise.

But there is something to be said for one-day shows, or turning double-header weekends into something similar to back-to-back one-day events. The latter will be attempted at Road America and Iowa during consecutive weekends in July.

“Maybe that’s how we’ll do a lot of our events from now on,” said Dixon. “I’m not sure. I actually kind of enjoyed it. Kind of cool to do doubleheaders like this, which I think we’re going to do in the future this season, which is going to be a lot of fun. I think the unknowns are the most difficult part.”

Perhaps by then the wait will be over and fans will be allowed to finally return to the race track. But for now, the loneliest day for IndyCar belongs to June 6, 2020.

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