INDIANAPOLIS — Seven weeks ago from this exact moment, the anticipation was growing higher and higher for the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season. The Aeroscreen was set to make its debut on the streets of St. Pete while the level of competition was certainly going to be as fierce as its ever been. After six long months away, IndyCar was back.
If all went to plan, we would have wrapped up the fourth race of the season last weekend and staring down the Month of May here in Indy. As the skies are starting to clear to more sunshine days and temperatures finally getting more seasonal, we should be overcome with joy right now. Christmas was a month away.
Instead, we’ve yet to see a an IndyCar race run and for the first time since 1945, we’re not going to see anything at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next month.
It’s a weird time.
Seven weeks ago this Friday, 49 days to be exact, IndyCar decided that they couldn’t race the season opener in Florida due to COVID-19. That decision then was the right one and one that sent the racing world into a level of uncertainty. As of early this week, more than 1-million people are known to have been infected by the coronavirus just here in the United States alone to go along with 57,000 deaths.
Moving forward like normal would have caused those numbers to skyrocket even higher if we didn’t have social distancing procedures in place. The stay-at-home orders and not playing sports worked. It really did.
Now, we’re starting to be able to climb out of this. States are wanting to reopen and have plans to do so in the coming days and weeks to come. The economies, locally and federally, have taken a tremendous hit and are the driving force behind this. The sporting world is going to play a key role the economies getting restarted and if IndyCar is hoping to have part of that pie, they need to make some changes to accommodate. Going status quo like we would have seven weeks ago, well that’s not even in the consideration. IndyCar has to adapt which they are already doing.
While we’ve had a couple of different scenarios on getting the season started, the series announced the most recent update a few weeks ago. The season, which has seen its first eight races postponed or canceled, is now supposed to start on Saturday, June 6 at the Texas Motor Speedway.
That come after races the at Barber Motorsports Park, Circuit of the Americas, Long Beach and Belle Isle being canceled now. Despite that, a third race was added to IMS in October while Iowa and Laguna Seca will run doubleheader weekends to make up for the five combined loss races.
While the newest schedule is nice and all, I have a feeling that even the newest version is going to have some changes on it as well.
Yes, the states are looking to reopen to business again soon. Georgia has already done so while Indiana is supposed to follow suit on Friday of this week. Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida are already working on doing the same — albeit all of them reopening with some restrictions in place.
Most of the states are willing to host sporting events but they said that if they’re going to do so, it’s going to have to happen without any fans in the stands. That would be another large adjustment, one that could derail IndyCar’s plans.
Think about it, the coronavirus isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Yes, cases have dropped and the curve is trending down. But, there’s not a vaccine available and no way we can know for sure who has the novelvirus or not during race weekends.
Tracks want to have restrictions in place that include temperature checks, but there’s several known cases of those that are asymptomatic. People could enter the gates with COVID-19 but exhibit no symptoms at all. They’d then infect everyone they come across. How is that safe? How do we know who’s had the coronavirus yet or not and are they at risk to get it again?
I get why restaurants and stores and other business can open because they can minimize exposure by limiting customers inside of them. Racing can’t do that.
Most major racing leagues will see crowds well over 20k. You can’t give anyone a real coronavirus test that comes in. You can’t be sure that those fans don’t touch anything while on site at the grounds. You can’t be sure that those fans that come to the grounds, a lot from out of state, won’t get the virus and take it back to their respective states and start the spread again there.
That’s why sporting events with fans in the stands aren’t going to happen any time soon, if at all in 2020. That’s a fact. If you hold a ticket to a sporting event for a future game or race this season, don’t expect much hope of using it.
So, in order to conduct business in sports, you’re going to have to do so in front of TV cameras only. That’s easier said than done unfortunately.
IndyCar, doesn’t have a very large TV deal in place. Yes, NBC Sports is paying the series a good amount of money to air their live events, but it’s unfortunately not enough for IndyCar to pay race tracks for hosting. In fact, race tracks have to pay IndyCar an undisclosed amount of money as a sanctioning fee for the series to show up. The tracks are in the hole for the sanctioning fee as well as paying for upkeep, employees, weekend help including manning parking lots and concession stands before anyone comes through the doors. Well, if you take away the fans, you take away the main resource that tracks to make money off. No, you don’t need to pay for folks to work parking lots or concession stands, but you need to pay for people in place for general maintenance, for health and safety and what not. You’re not getting any money other than sponsorship in return.
So, in order for IndyCar to make this work to their best benefit, they need NASCAR.
NASCAR shares a TV provider with IndyCar (NBC Sports). They also share a number of tracks (Texas, Richmond, Indianapolis in Cup, Road America, Iowa and Mid-Ohio in Xfinity and Gateway for Trucks). While a Cup TV package pays far more than NXS or Trucks, it’s still money even if shared with them.
But, the best interest for IndyCar and the race tracks are to have a shared weekend with NASCAR. That’s because NASCAR is still in the midst of an $8.2 billion TV deal. That equates out to over $800 million per year getting paid to NASCAR from Fox Sports and NBC Sports. A large piece of that $800 million pie is paid to the race tracks for hosting them. In turn, the race tracks make millions before any race fans even show up.
So, if they’re already making money off NASCAR and all the infrastructure is already in place to hold a race, why not invite IndyCar to join?
This is the best case scenario for IndyCar because they get to charge a sanction fee, get TV money from their own contract and get a larger exposure with a true super weekend.
If IndyCar wants to start the first weekend of June, they need NASCAR to join them. Eddie Gossage pretty well said as much last week. Unfortunately, NASCAR wants to help but they also want to race at tracks closer to North Carolina and Texas is a tad too far to make it happen in early June.
What’s that do to Road America and Richmond next? I doubt either could race with fans, especially with Virginia being under a stay-at-home order through June 10. How can IndyCar race there two weeks later with fans in the stands without a vaccine for this virus?
Road America would be in danger to run in June while Richmond could if NASCAR joins IndyCar on their race weekend. Think about it, Richmond isn’t far from the NASCAR shops and NASCAR needs to make up a postponed race from a few weeks ago around the .75-mile short track. Doing so at the end of June is the most logical and pairing with IndyCar is the best chance. That in turn may serve as the season opener unless IndyCar and figure out a way to race at Texas and Road America without fans or IndyCar teams up with NASCAR at Texas on another weekend.
Then, it’s to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first week of July with an already shared NASCAR weekend. After that, it’s supposed to be to Toronto where I highly doubt will be able to happen. There’s strict stay-at-home orders in place for Canada through August, so how can a track get constructed under those circumstances? Plus, how can teams cross a closed border? I would think Toronto joins the list of canceled races in 2020. A doubleheader in Iowa is to be run in the middle of July. I don’t see that track paying a double sanction fee without fans there for either race.
As you can see, IndyCar is going to have a hard time without NASCAR’s assistance. If they want to get away from that shadow, the only other way is to waive the sanctioning fee. That would help the tracks open up for them, but how can IndyCar pay purses and other fees based only off a TV contract? It won’t do much in terms of profitability. The entitlement sponsor from NTT Data and other “official” sponsors of the series isn’t enough to pay the bills on that alone.
Luckily, Roger Penske is the right man to be in charge as he has some deep pockets and can help in the short term, but he can’t front the entire season out of his own wallet this way.
So, if you want IndyCar to make a return, it’s going to be with you on the couch and the series and tracks making some large adjustments. A June start to the season is now looking more ambitious than realistic.