There is no argument that Roger Penske saved the farm, the season, IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 with his commitment, checkbook and clairvoyance in the year of the pandemic.
But without Road America, Gateway and Mid-Ohio, the series may well have been Texas, the Indy 500 and 10 races on the IMS road course.
Eddie Gossage took one for the team and got things started in June with no fans after the first eight races were either canceled or postponed, and then Penske and IndyCar’s Jay Frye had to get creative. Teams were looking at giving back big chunks of sponsorship money if there weren’t at least 14 races but it certainly wasn’t an appetizing menu for the remaining tracks on the IndyCar schedule with all the COVID-19 gloom and doom, restrictions and paranoia.
If the thought of staging a race with a very limited amount of paying customers wasn’t distressing enough, then how about making them doubleheaders?
“It was 100 percent of both sides doing whatever they needed to do to make it possible, and it was everyone looking out for the health of our sport,” said Curtis Francois, owner of World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, who lost his usual Saturday night date and hosted a pair of Saturday/Sunday afternoon shows.
“We all had to pitch in and take risks – there were no guarantees with COVID, but I think it was a testament to our team and IndyCar and we pulled it off in a fashion that made everyone proud,” said Mike Kertscher, president and general manager of Road America, whose mid-June date became a twin bill in July and the initial outdoor show in the Midwest.
Kevin Savoree and partner Kim Green were dealt the worst hand of everyone. Their season opener at St. Pete in March was shelved the day practice was supposed to begin, Toronto never had a prayer in July because of the border shutdown and Portland in September was doomed by legislation. And for a long time, Mid-Ohio was in serious doubt.
“I can’t tell you how many times Kim and I told each other our races were never going to happen, because every time we thought things were headed in the right direction, something else would happen and it always seemed like things were going the wrong way,” said Savoree, whose team not only pulled off a doubleheader at Mid-Ohio but also hosted the season finale at St. Pete late last month. “We persevered, just like our country has, and it was the most rewarding thing this company has ever been through.”
With all the uncertainty, Penske & Company knew they could get an extra race at Iowa since it was a track rental anyway, but how do you get tracks to add races when they’re already looking at a losing proposition?
“We were sitting around a table, two days after Toronto’s cancellation, and I asked Roger, ‘what are you doing with that date?’” said Kertscher, whose scenic four-mile road course in Wisconsin was able to accommodate the best crowds of 2020. “He didn’t have an answer and I kinda wanted that date, so the idea of two races was born talking through some things. Things went from hopelessness to hope with the season and getting that first event off the ground brought in fans.
“I think it helped the series and it also helped people, they were provided with some hope. I tell you how many fans came up and thanked me, and that was so satisfying.”
Francois said IndyCar asked about a doubleheader and he said, “sure, we’ll do our part,” while Savoree’s response was: “IndyCar needed a doubleheader and we were cool with that.”
While all three tracks were allowed limited attendance, they all had good title sponsors and that was key.
“It would have been very tough without the REV Group,” replied Kertscher when asked if the Wisconsin company that manufacturers specialty vehicles was necessary to holding the races. “Ticket sales were limited, hospitality was down and we couldn’t do things we were used to doing from 8 am to 5 pm.”
Green Savoree Promotions have longtime associations with their title sponsors at Mid-Ohio and St. Pete.
“Honda and Firestone were unequivocal in their support and partnership and unwavering in their commitment, and every conversation ended with doing it the right, safe way,” said Savoree. “We don’t make it without them.”
Long Beach and Toyota had the best and longest partnership in IndyCar history, but Bommarito Auto Group has given Francois and WWT Speedway the ability to bring an oval track into this world and keep it breathing.
“John (Bommarito) is a good friend and a great sponsor with an awesome passion for IndyCar and the perfect partner,” said Francois. “Four years ago he wasn’t a race guy, and now he’s all in. Thankfully we had him this year, because we had to dig deep and put all those assets to work, and without a great title sponsor (the doubleheader) would have been almost impossible.”
It’s safe to say all three got some kind of a reduced sanction fee or break for taking on an extra race, but the bottom line had to be bright red with the lack of fans and hospitality.
“Ugh,” is how Savoree responded to question of financial losses. “You still have overhead and storage areas and payroll, but we didn’t cut anyone’s pay. We used the government loans to pay our guys and keep going. When the governor of Ohio gave us the green light to have limited fans, he said that one bite of an apple is better than no apple at all, and I felt like all the officials cared and wanted to get it right.”
Kertscher, who is adding NASCAR’s Cup series in 2021, said Road America might have actually gained some new fans.
“We were happy with the crowds and saw a lot of new people, so if we engaged some fans, that’s exciting,” he said. “If they had a great experience and come back it’s even better, and I’d have to say it was a good season for us. We’ll have four days worth of content next year, and there’s something to be said for non-stop action and the opportunity to stay on site.”
Francois looks at IndyCar as a long-term investment that overcame a track full of ruts in 2020.
“I look at things through a 10-year lens,” he said. “IndyCar has made tremendous progress since 2012, and consistency is the most important thing for us – under the lights with date equity. Our sponsorship is set and now all we need is perfect weather next August. Some years aren’t pretty, but everyone pulled together in a very challenging time, and I just hope we’re not having this conversation a year from now.”
The St. Pete finale was a good example of how 2020 went down. The city council didn’t give final approval to Green/Savoree until Oct. 1, and they raced Oct. 25 after putting up the course in 28 days (it usually takes 40) and getting a nice assist from St. Pete that allowed substantial pieces of the grandstands and suites to remain in place during the summer. The distance was shortened to give NBC a two-hour window.
“In our meeting with IndyCar on Sunday morning, we said a short race is not going be good for us or the fans, and Kim said we want a promoter’s yellow,” recalled Savoree with a chuckle. “The IndyCar guys are like, ‘no that’s not gonna happen’ and then our race had a little bit of everything. Dixon was going for it, Newgarden charged to the front after Rossi and Power were leading and crashed, and guys were mixing it up all afternoon. It turned out to be a hell of a show.”
Much like the crazy, ever-changing NTT IndyCar series of 2020. The opening Harvest GP at IMS may have been the best road race of the past 40 years, Road America had a late duel for the win on Saturday, Gateway’s opener was full of good racing, Mid-Ohio featured lots of hard racing both days and St. Pete had a nice mix of drama and overtaking. And in four months, it all starts again.
“We’ll start building the track on February 8, and it will be here before you know it,” said Savoree. “And come what may, we’ll deal with it, just like everyone did this year.”