LEEDS, Ala. – In the middle of a pandemic that has taken its toll around the world, IndyCar has actually grown its series.
One year ago, IndyCar was shut down and there were serious questions about whether or not the season would even happen. The COVID-19 pandemic had sent most of America into lockdown, including all professional and collegiate sports.
The first four races of the season were either canceled or postponed. The cornerstone Indianapolis 500 was moved to August in hopes that the COVID-19 virus would have subsided. In April, the annual Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was also canceled.
The season finally started with a one-day show at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6. All races after that were tentative at best.
Fast forward one season later and the NTT IndyCar Series is on the eve of its season-opener – the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. It features a 24-car entry list, including seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson as a rookie for Chip Ganassi Racing. Romain Grosjean, a 10-year veteran of Formula One, is also a rookie for Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware. Team Penske has expanded to four drivers with the addition of Virgin Australia Supercar legend Scott McLaughlin.
Early indications from Honda and Chevrolet call for at least 35 cars fighting it out for a place in the 33-car starting lineup during the 105th Indianapolis 500 on May 30.
There have only been two tweaks to the schedule so far. One was shifting the traditional opening race, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, from March to the end of April to help Florida in its COVID-19 fight. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was moved one week at the request of NBC to keep it from conflicting with another major sporting event, The Masters golf tournament.
Despite a 14-race schedule in 2020, nearly every sponsor is returning to the series, keeping a healthy driver/team lineup on the entry list.
IndyCar is enjoying a renaissance during a dark and challenging time.
Just how has IndyCar been so successful?
“I think the thing about IndyCar is that it’s just compelling,” said Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles. “When we get on the track there’s every reason for fans to be excited about what they see in our sport.
“But really when I think about 2020, I think it’s just the strongest possible affirmation of how aligned the IndyCar Series is, all the stakeholders, the teams, the promoters, our broadcast partner, the sponsors, our partners in that regard.
“Everybody just pulled together, got on the same page. Every time something changed people worked together and showed flexibility and persistence, and there was really no internal dissonance about what we were doing and what we had to do.
“I don’t take that for granted. It wasn’t always true in this sport for sure. But in other sports, we read all the time about what’s going on between stakeholders in leagues, and I just think last year was the strongest possible statement about how our stakeholders are really on the same page.”
Miles is part of the key management team of the Penske Corp., which purchased Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 on Nov. 4, 2019. Prior to that, Miles was IndyCar CEO since the end of 2012. Under his guidance and leadership, he has helped return this fascinating form of racing to a solid foundation.
Another key member is IndyCar President Jay Frye, who was able to maintain the troops and keep the teams informed, even during the darkest days of the pandemic when race shops were closed.
“Well, as Mark mentioned, it was a phenomenal paddock-wide effort,” Frye said. “We started having team manager calls basically the week after the original St. Pete postponement. We’ve continued to have those. We actually had one yesterday getting ready for this weekend at Barber. As an example, when we got off the call there were no questions. When you do these things every week and everybody knows what you’re doing and everybody is part of the solution and part of the direction, they know what’s happening and we’re going to do it. So that was really good.
“One of the things we looked at is if you look at 2019 to 2020 to ’21 how we approach the way we do our business, how we approach the way we go to the events. Barber this weekend as an example. We’ve become more efficient, we think. If you look at 2019, we would have had two practices on Friday, one on Saturday and qualifying, and then a little bit of warmup and a race on Sunday.
“This year we won’t practice on Friday, we’ll have two on Saturday, qualify on Saturday, and then have a warmup and race on Sunday. We think from a fan’s perspective you get a lot more in a shorter period of time, which is economical for the fan. They don’t have to take Friday off, which is a good thing. And then with today’s attention spans it’s probably a really good thing. You get a lot more in a less period of time.
“From a team and league perspective or series perspective, it’s a huge financial gain. It’s a huge savings. Obviously, there’s less days at the track, engine miles, travel, per diem, that type of thing. We’ve just condensed a lot of things based on what we learned in 2020.
“Again, we think it’s a little more efficient. We think it’s more impactful for everybody, so we’re excited to get the 2021 season started.”
The key to IndyCar’s renewed success is keeping a once divisive paddock unified. Instead of working against each other in an attempt to gain a competitive advantage, they did what was best to keep the series in business in 2020. That included competing at an empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 104th Indianapolis 500 and racing for half of the previously announced purse. The purse was cut in half because there was no revenue coming through the gate.
“When you look at what was in the on-deck circle, if you will, as we approached 2020, we were all filled with excitement and anticipation,” IndyCar team owner Chip Ganassi said. “Obviously the biggest curve ball ever thrown at us with the pandemic, and like Mark and Jay said, could not have been stronger relationships with all the stakeholders from the sanctioning body, and that is just paramount, that I think all sports could probably learn from.
“I think that motor racing and IndyCar in particular led the way there, that made us in an otherwise year where we were changing — seems like we were changing directions and changing plans by the hour. It could not have been better.
“I think it just shows, again, the product is compelling, like Mark said. To weather what it did you have to have a compelling product. As so many people have seen there were a lot of products nobody is interested in anymore for 2020, and that’s certainly not the case with IndyCar.”
There remain challenges on the horizon. It is still uncertain how many spectators will be allowed through the gates of Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 105th Indianapolis 500 on May 30. This is also the final year of the television contract with NBC, and it looks increasingly likely that IndyCar may have to strike a deal with either FOX or ABC/ESPN for its next television deal.
Considering where this series was 12 months ago, IndyCar has weathered the pandemic better than anyone could have possibly imagined.