IMSA's Busy Stretch Run
IMSA action at Road Atlanta. (Michael Levitt/LAT photo for IMSA)

IMSA’s Busy Stretch Run

It’s amazing that a spiked microscopic virus that looks like a World War II naval mine can be just as destructive.

One sinks ships and the other has sunk racing as we know it this year.

Every major racing series has been forced to either cancel races or postpone them into the latter part of the year.

IMSA was not spared. The season kickoff at the Rolex 24 At Daytona was a great race. Then in March, the 12 Hours of Sebring was postponed until Nov. 11-14 when it will be the sanctioning body’s finale, wrapping up a busy stretch  to end the schedule.

IMSA restarted its season July 4 at Daytona Int’l Speedway. The remainder of the schedule was to be busy with races stacked on top of one another.

IMSA President John Doonan led the organization through the pandemic minefield.

“We are facing the toughest challenge in our careers,” Doonan told SPEED SPORT. “We need to keep our family and our friends safe, then immediately shift our focus to keep our competitors safe, our participants safe and certainly our fans and our audience when that day comes. So our priorities have always been safety, but it has certainly been shifted now trying to get as many races as we can and doing so in the safest manner possible.”

Doonan said IMSA’s teams were anxious to get back on the track.

“Nobody had expected the checkered flag to fall on the Rolex 24 and to return to Daytona for our first race back four months later,” he said. “They were cautious but very eager to get back to racing as soon as we could. Once we were able to do that here at Daytona, I think there was a lot of nervousness because the drivers had not been in a car for a while except for a simulator.

“We put amazing protocol in place for a race and in cooperation with NASCAR, we developed a protocol that took away concerns about the safety in terms of the virus, and once everybody got into the circuit and got settled outside of social distancing and wearing personal protective equipment it was business as usual.”

IMSA has been fortunate to have fans at many of its events, including Daytona, Sebring (Fla.) Int’l Raceway and at Road America in Wisconsin.

“The good news is thanks to the partnerships at Daytona, being part of our family as well as Sebring, we were able to have fans here. Working with Chip Wile (DIS president), we had folks camping in the infield and socially distanced, separated from the garage area and pit lane and our industry support paddock,” Doonan explained. “The same will go for Sebring infield camping, but they will not be part of the racing paddock and pit lane. Now we have to keep people compartmentalized,”

While many teams shut down temporarily, Action Express Racing General Manager Gary Nelson took a different approach.

“The virus hit us all by surprise. We were on our way to Sebring for a 12-hour race and all of a sudden, we were locked down,” Nelson explained. “We didn’t want to shut down the team, so we put the company at idle speed. We started with 50 percent of our team off for two weeks and 50 percent on. We kept making progress on our list of things, the ‘one day we’re going to get to that’ list, so it wasn’t a drastic thing at the moment that we wanted to do this or that. It kept everybody working and everybody busy, which I think paid off later. It’s always easier to use that little bit of momentum that you may have rather than start up from zero.

“Fortunately, our team was ready to go, but we didn’t know when the season was going to get back but we wanted to make sure that as many spare parts that we could prepare, our equipment and our haulers, just anything you could imagine that could go wrong during the season becomes a distraction when you get going. We tried our best to cover any department we could with what we call ‘disaster times two.’

“So everything is ready to race and then if we have a disaster, we can recover,” Nelson added. “And if we have a second disaster, we can recover again. We used that attitude for everything, all the way to our pit equipment, parts department, everything that we could think of. We used the time to make our team stronger and I think it is starting to pay off now.”

That preparedness will be tested over the final seven weeks of the season, with five events (as of magazine press time) planned beginning Sept. 25-27 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, through the finale at Sebring in mid-November.

“As the season progresses, it’s like one a month when we get started,” Nelson said. “If you have 10 races in a 10-month period, you tend to have a smaller staff and more time between races. If you have a smaller staff, you need that time. The NASCAR guys have 36 races, but they have hundreds of people. We’re able to do it a little differently with the IMSA schedule. What that means is there’s not a lot of depth either. “

Travis Geisler is the competition director for Team Penske and has had to manage plans for IMSA, NASCAR and IndyCar operations.

“It’s certainly been a challenge,” Geisler said. “Everybody’s individual role has to adjust. The key is everybody reevaluating, nobody’s allowed to say, ‘That’s how we’ve always done it,’ because we’re doing things  we’ve never done before.

“I think that everybody has to think how we’re going to do this safely. It’s an incredible opportunity for our sport to get back to competition and give our fans a product they like,” he continued. “With that there comes a large responsibility to do it safely for the people involved in the sport and the markets we are traveling into.”

Teams, drivers and sanctioning bodies hope the revised schedules will play out, but caution that if there’s a surge in the virus, everything could again come to a screeching halt.

We all hope not.

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