A look back on how this started in March and how we got here today in St. Pete

The end of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season is near. Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) will mark the 14th and final race of the year. The fact that I’m even writing that is a feat that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

As we’ve watched several stick and ball sport seasons end over the course of the last few weeks (NHL, NBA) and another (MLB) about to end as well, it’s amazing with how everyone involved with INDYCAR was able to move and adapt their ways through nine race weekend’s spread out over the course of five months.

13 races down, 1 left to go. The original spot for the season opener is now serving as the season finale for Sunday’s rescheduled race. We’re returning to the exact same spot that put the entire landscape of the 2020 season in shambles. Before we look ahead to this weekend and crowing a champion, let’s first rewind back to March.

The second week of the month, the INDYCAR traveling circus traveled south to the Sunshine State with eager anticipation of another season ahead of them. Unfortunately, they were met with one of the biggest life altering moments of everyone’s entire lives – a pandemic.

A day before we were supposed to light the wick on this candle and start practice for the first time of the year, the world came to a screeching halt. Instead of practicing on Friday, a teleconfernce ensued that the 2020 season would be put on hold. The world was being tasked with so much uncertainty. To go back and read the quotes and the uncertainty then, to where we are today now, it’s miraculous to how far that we’ve come and just goes to show how great the leadership is in this series today.

Just read what INDYCAR President and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp, Mark Miles, said on that frightening day on March 13 and look at where we are as a series now going into a season finale.

“Obviously, this is an incredibly fluid situation,” Miles said from this very track at St. Pete back in March. “The entire world is dealing with it. It changes by the hour. The President of the United States is going to make another statement later today. We certainly don’t know what’s coming. It just underscores I think the gravity of the situation.

“We are so excited about this season. We remain that. We’re going to race as much as we can race. It was clear to us from overnight and this morning that the right thing to do right now was to suspend our competition, really all on-track activity through April.”

The season was up in the air when we packed up and left here in March. No one knew what to expect. The fear was real. We knew lives would be lost? Would the same familiar faces that we’ve seen in the paddock or media centers for these races around the country be back or would they become a horrible statistic? No one knew in March just how deadly this virus would be. The literal fear for our lives were put into us this exact week in March.

This is the time that the coronavirus raged fear over every single one of us.

How can you stage a season when you don’t know how the world is going to look throughout the course of the remainder of the year, let alone tomorrow? How can you plan for this? After all, INDYCAR is a business. The teams competing in it have businesses to run. How can you conduct either when no one knows how this world is going to look moving forward?

“We want to have as full a season as we can,” Miles continued in March. “We want to race in all of our cities. But the bottom line is we just don’t know enough now to know what’s possible when. What we can do is monitor the situation endlessly and to be in a great communicator with our promoters and all our officials and to focus on May. From our perspective, our hope, our ambition, our plan is to restart in May and to get in as much of a season as we can.

“I know that our promoters are going to assess their individual situations, as well. We’ll be every day, every hour talking to suppliers, to the paddock, to our sponsors, our broadcasters and our promoters. We’ll put on as big a show as we possibly can this year.”

June’s INDYCAR season opener went off behind closed doors

Obviously, May came around and didn’t happen. It couldn’t. The world was shut down. May, was moved to August. The road course race that month was moved to July 4, a weekend shared with NASCAR. A few weeks later, Texas, was the new target for the season opener for June 6.

Unfortunately, it cost some tracks dates this season. Long Beach was in a hot bed in California that was shutting down the entire state. A street course race is tough to plan for with zoning, permits, etc. You can just decide to show up and run a street course race out of no where. It takes extensive planning and tons of manpower to build. So, Long Beach, Belle Isle and Toronto were canceled.

Barber and COTA in the spring were off limits and there was no way of being able to fully know when to reschedule later. So, both of them were canceled. With both Indy races being moved, Texas was the new focus. But, what after Texas could run?

The immediate halt in the season gave INDYCAR leadership between March and through May to come up with a plan.

So, INDYCAR leaders met and worked diligently on doing so. Then, they saw what NASCAR came up with an applied it to see if it could work with them. If they wanted to start, it was likely going to come at the expense of fans. No way could you plan for a resumption and having butts in the seats. That could be a death wish when planning in the spring. Now, we’re seven months later and we go from no fans in a large Texas Motor Speedway venue in June to 20k fans on a 1.8-mile street course in October.

That’s how far this thing has developed.

“Yeah, there’s a public health risk any time people are getting together,” Miles also said in March. “Really there isn’t a sporting event left that feels comfortable running even without fans. I just think that’s reflective of what’s going on in the country and in the world.

“In this country, as you know, very few universities are unaffected. Schools at other levels are closing and asking families to stay home. Businesses are banning travel and asking their employees in many cases to work from home. Really I think it’s just the reality that our society right now is discouraging getting people together.”

We’ve come to the point to where we can in smaller capacities now. That’s how well INDYCAR has developed a plan to get this season off the ground in early summer to to finish in early Fall.

If you said back in even early June that we’d fit 20k for a race in October, people would have called you crazy. If you said in February that the Indianapolis 500 would be moved to August and run behind closed doors, the IMS road course race would run in conjunction with the Brickyard 400, we’d have five of our race weekends run as doubleheaders and the season finale would wrap up on the streets of St. Pete on the last weekend of October with “only” 20k fans and that be considered a big crowd, imagine what people would have said about you.

That’s why this season being run to completion is such a large feat. We got it in. All the partners are happy. We don’t look back on 2020 now and see an * next to it. This virus was real but the season was too. It happened. A champion is going to get crowned in front of humans, in person.

None of the drivers missed a race for COVID. No widespread outbreak consisted in the paddock. No cases around the world can be tied to INDYCAR whatsoever. That’s a huge feat and that’s because of Penske, Miles and Jay Frye. Their leadership allowed this thing to happen.

MLB had to play their entire regular season without fans. It wasn’t until the NLCS that a smaller capacity was even allowed. The NBA and NHL played in controlled bubbles. No fans either. A majority of the NFL games have held no fans or less than 25-percent capacity. They’ve had several outbreaks start that have affected their scheduling already.

INDYCAR has gone off without a hitch. Yes, Mid-Ohio was moved back from August to September but that’s because of rising cases in the state of Ohio, not within the INDYCAR community. They still made it happen WITH fans at that.

The decision makers developed a plan when plans were hard to develop. They had no fans three races. Smaller crowds at the Road America doubleheader. Up to 5-6k at the Iowa doubleheader. Up to 15k for the two races at the World Wide Technology Raceway. 6k could go to both races at Mid-Ohio. 15k at the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend and now 20k for the finale.

These were needed.

NASCAR can race without fans because of their TV contract. They pay tracks to show up. INDYCAR charges them a sanctioning fee. How can tracks pay a sanctioning fee without fans? How can they pay in full with limited fans? What states will even allow for fans? How can teams make money in this dire landscape?

INDYCAR developed a plan and it worked.

Just over seven months later, we return – this time to wrap up what will certainly go down as one of the weirdest seasons to date. But, with a huge credit to Roger Penske, Mark Miles, Jay Frye and the entire team at INDYCAR, we’ve made it. The end of the season is here and we will crown a champion on Sunday afternoon on the west coast, just not of the United States in California like initially scheduled, but the west coast of Florida instead.

“I think how all of us started the season loading into St. Pete, getting ready, ready to go, then waking up on Friday saying, You probably need to book a flight to go home,” Dixon said on returning to St. Pete this weekend.

“Nice to end it in full circle and go back to St. Pete this year. Massive thanks to everybody in St. Petersburg, the mayor, Kim Green, Savoree to get this back on, have this race prepped. Obviously Florida for allowing us to have fans at the race, which I think doing some different series, it’s been interesting to see how each state has kind of laid this out.

“We’re in a great situation with the series. I guess a big thanks to Roger and everybody, NTT INDYCAR Series, because the season for a lot of us, we weren’t sure we were going to be able to continue. Cool to end it the way we are with the championship going down to St. Pete.”

His main rival for this year’s championship in Josef Newgarden agrees.

“It’s kind of fitting that we come full circle this with,” said the defending series champion. “It was odd to be there at the beginning of the year when everything fell apart, not just in INDYCAR but the world really.

“I just remember when the NBA postponed, I don’t even remember how they announced it, I think they said they were canceling the season. As soon as that happened, people were speculating there’s no way we’re going to run this weekend. You saw the trickle-down effect from everywhere in the country. Didn’t take long for everything else to follow suit. It was just a strange time to be involved in.

“To be able to finally come back and run the race is great. To have some fans there is fantastic. Hopefully have a little bit of energy.

“It’s obviously different having the fans, the way they’re able to be into the track, social distancing, masks, all that. It’s going to be a different energy, but somewhat to have energy back is really pleasing to see.

“Great effort by everybody. Like Scott mentioned, a lot of people to put this together the whole year without knowing we were going to have that. Just thankful we’re able to go back there and race this season. I think it’s going to be a really fun time in October. It’s a different ending for us than we’ve seen in INDYCAR.

“We’re all pumped. Team is ready. Feel good. We’ll go to try to have a great weekend.

St. Pete stayed after it. They never gave up. When literally every other street course race fell off the schedule in 2020 due to the uncertain nature, St. Pete stayed. So, for the first time all season, we will run on a street circuit.

Lets rejoice that we’ve made it. Good job to all.

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