Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced Thursday that its NASCAR/IndyCar weekend July 4-5 will be run without fans.
In a letter to fans, Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wrote:
“After extensive consultation with local and state health officials, we have made the difficult decision to run these events without fans in the stands due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. …
“While the State of Indiana plans to enter Stage 5 of its “Back on Track Indiana” plan on July 4, opening sporting events to fans with social distancing, Marion County – home to IMS – moved to Stage 3 ten days after the rest of the state, and we cannot be confident that it will be ready to move to Stage 5 by the holiday weekend. This approach follows national trends for larger communities, and we must follow those guidelines and the leadership and judgement of our city and state officials during this challenging time.
“Customers with tickets to the impacted events will receive an email from the IMS ticket office with instructions for claiming tickets to our 2021 events, an account credit good for all future events at IMS, or a refund.”
NBC will broadcast the IndyCar and Xfinity races July 4 on the track’s road course and air the Cup race July 5 on the oval.
Penske Entertainment Corp. President & CEO Mark Miles said in a statement: “We remain committed to welcoming the world’s greatest fans to the Speedway for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in late August.”
The Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for Aug. 23 on NBC.
Roger Penske, the owner of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, believes “you’re going to see more” NASCAR/IndyCar doubleheaders in the future.
Penske’s comments Thursday on NBCSN’s “Lunch Talk Live” represent just how quickly the idea of doubleheaders with NASCAR and IndyCar has taken hold over the last two years, resulting in the first doubleheader scheduled for July.
In November 2018, NASCAR President Steve Phelps thought the prospect of an IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader “would be a good show. We would have to figure out how that works.”
“I’ve known (NASCAR CEO and Chairman) Jim France and the France family for a long time, we were partners in fact at one point when we built (Auto Club Speedway),” Penske told Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live.”
“So I reached out Steve Phelps and to Jim to talk about what we could do to potentially make these weekends better. We came up with this idea of running an IndyCar race on the Brickyard weekend, and I think you’re going to see more of that. I think it’s a fan experience, and I think it will be very, very good from a TV perspective to see the different disciplines. I would hope that this is just the start of things that we can do together as we go into 2020 and beyond.
“Obviously, NASCAR’s got a great fanbase and we’d love to be with them on certain weekends and vice versa. We need to be sure that we can bring motorsports back to where it was prior to this pandemic and I think that’s job one from a standpoint of not only NASCAR but IndyCar and our team.”
Long gone but never forgotten, North Wilkesboro Speedway will make a comeback.
Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, told NBC Sports that “we’re on track to get (North Wilkesboro) released the first week of June.”
No other long lost track is as revered among NASCAR fans as the .625-mile speedway where the frontstretch went downhill into Turns 1 and 2 and the backstretch went uphill into Turns 3 and 4.
NASCAR ran 93 Cup races there from 1949 — when it was the finale in the inaugural season of NASCAR — to 1996. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson was the local favorite. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had an epic door-banging battle in 1972. Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt tangled on the last lap in 1989 and crashed, leading Rudd to hide in the back seat of a passenger car to escape the wrath of fans. Jeff Gordon won the final Cup race there in 1996.
The track was revived in 2010 and held a few races. Its final race was 2011.
In December, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others helped clean the surface so the track could be scanned and added to iRacing’s sim racing program.
“There were certainly sections of the track that were much worse condition than could possibly be raced on,” Myers said. “Turns 3 and 4, the pavement was sliding. You could see it was buckling in on a section of the track … from sitting unused for so many years.
“Going into Turn 1, the drainage coming out from underneath the grandstands kind of ran across the track and because it was downhill, it was funneling down the front straight pit wall and right along into Turn 1 and collecting in the apron at the exit of the pits. You could tell there (had been) a lot of water there because the pavement started peeling up along that wall. So those things are kind of the obstacles that we have in the production process of trying to figure out how to smooth those things out and do the best we can.
“The data, we looked through it already, we’re pretty far along on the development of the track. It actually looks pretty good.”
That’s not the only track iRacing is working on to give race fans. They are working to do a version of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville.
“Everyone that has kind of been clamoring for that, I think, is going to be excited about that,” Myers said.
2. Offseason iRacing?
OK, it was one event under extraordinary times where there were no other live sporting events on TV at time when normally there would have been NCAA basketball tournament games, NBA and NHL contests, among other sports, but the excitement (and viewership) for last weekend’s debut of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series has raised the question of if this is something that could be done in NASCAR’s offseason.
With NASCAR looking to end future seasons earlier and possibly making the offseason longer, a question was posed on social media if iRacing with Cup drivers would be a good offseason element for the sport and its fans.
Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports this week that “anything is possible, (but) I do think it’s probably early to think about that now.
“I think we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got not only sim racers like you see in the (eNascar) Coca-Cola (iRacing) Series but also professional drivers that are able to do this at a high level,” Clark said. “What that does, I think it gives us some flexibility to determine what we’re going to do with these platforms and the timing. I think we want to strike the balance between having some opportunities to do more in this space but also being cognizant enough to not oversaturate.”
Should there be something in the offseason, it would face obstacles. Many drivers typically take vacations after the season. With the holidays of December, that makes it more challenging.
Now, if there was an interest in a short series of offseason races, January could be the time. Sundays could prove difficult because of NFL playoff games. So maybe a midweek event? Still that would face competition from other pro and college sports. And of course, the biggest question is if people will still want this after sports resume throughout the calendar.
Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, explained the move and what it could mean for the future.
“It’s not like we had a plan in place,” Miles said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s something that comes up. It’s been clear for a long time that both series, under the right circumstances, thought it could be a good thing for the sport and for each of our series.
“The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority, but this just sort of created the opportunity of here’s an opportunity, let’s go for it and as has been said there wasn’t much hesitation.”
IndyCar driver Graham Rahal expressed his feelings with running at Indy with NASCAR and the possibility of future doubleheaders with NASCAR.
“I’m extremely excited to run with NASCAR,” Rahal said in a social media video. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport, for their sport to come together. Opportunity maybe for some doubles to be done, which we’ll look into and things like that. But I do think that’s really good and it’s exciting for all of us to go off and do that together.”
With shops closed or running with a limited crew because of no racing until May 9 at the earliest for Cup organizations, teams are trying to figure out what to do next.
“What became very apparent to me about two Mondays ago is after Atlanta is that you could not make a long-range plan,” Philippe Lopez, general manager of Richard Petty Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Because I did. I did it on Tuesday. I redid it on Wednesday. Then on Friday, I said, ‘You know what, it’s impossible. We’ve never gone through this.’ ”
Lopez said the RPM shop was closed this week and was closed part of the previous week.
“The biggest thing we’ve told (employees) that right now this is about them and their families and we wanted them to be home and be safe. We have continued to pay our employees and not cutting anything yet.
“They know, obviously if this goes on for much longer, we can’t afford to stay at that rate and that pace. There are, fortunately, some teams that can but we’re, unfortunately, not one of those.”
Lopez said that he is reaching out to employees each Friday to give them the plan for the coming week.
“The biggest thing was,” he said, “is we’re all going to get through this together.”
He said a group text for employees has been “really heartwarming to see how they are taking care of each other. It’s just a good bunch. Everyone is taking care of each other right now. I told them to not worry about the racing part. We can build cars in two weeks.”
5. Long wait
There are certainly bigger issues in the world with COVID-19 infecting more people in the U.S. than any other country and the demand for medical supplies.
While racing, along with all sports, waits to resume, there have been many stories that have intrigued me. One is Jesse Little.
The 22-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte spent the previous five seasons trying to make it in NASCAR’s Truck Series but never competing in half the races any of those season. His was a case of a driver seeking work his way into a full-time ride.
He got that chance this season in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and after four races, he, like everyone else, waits for when sports can return.
Little understands his plight does not compare to others who are suffering.
He also understands that this pause is just part of a journey he has gone through to become a full-time racer.
“I’ve learned to expect nothing and be prepared to react to everything,” Little told NBC Sports.
The Xfinity Series is not scheduled to return to racing until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, meaning teams would go 11 weeks between races. He’s gone months between starts in his Truck career, which has seen him run between four and nine races since 2015.
He admits there have been times when his career could have ended because of the lack of rides.
“Like a lot of drivers in my position, there were always crests and there were troughs,” said Little, whose best finish this season was 14th at Las Vegas. “I think at the end of 2017 when I ran only four Truck races that year and my last race I crashed and was, like ‘OK this might be it. Luckily, I’m going to school full-time who knows.’
“We were fortunate enough to be able to make the investment and go racing and bring back some people I had great chemistry with and had good notebook and that’s when I had my most successful year in Trucks in 2018. So in the span of six months, I went from thinking I was pretty much done to having my best career finishes and leading laps.”
And it led to him getting a full-time ride this season.
“I’m fortunate to have the support system I do,” said Little, the son of former NASCAR driver Chad Little, of family and friends. “If it wasn’t for them, without a doubt, I probably would have said, ‘All right this racing stuff didn’t work out. I played my cards.’ “They forced me to continue down the path and in doing so, each step … I’ve been given chances and I’ve seen personally that I believe I have what it takes and I’m confident enough in myself. It’s proved to me and I think to the people I want to prove, I think I deserve a shot at showcasing the potential I have. Each one of those things has given me the next step to readjust and get to that next spot.”
While he waits to race, he keeps busy with school work.
“The week heading into Atlanta I was stressing a lot because the week going into Homestead was my midterms and I was swapped absolutely with school,” said Little, whose major is management information systems. “The week after my midterms was my senior project. Literally racing got put on hold right when I needed to focus on my two classes at school the most. That’s what I’m taking up my time and I’m able to focus on my school stuff.”
Even with that, he’s still doing his race prep work from exercising and studying race film.
“I want to be as prepared as I can,” he said about when racing returns.
“I think it would be a game-changer in a good way. It’s not something you do every week. If you did it once or twice a year. You have to do it one time first. See how it goes. There would be certain tracks we would go to that would fit. At end of day, why not try it? It’s good for NBC, good for IndyCar and good for NASCAR.”
IndyCar driver Graham Rahal is all for such a doubleheader.
“We have to all help each other grow,” Rahal said on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Doing these joint events that only certain tracks can do are huge. We have to do it. We have to build our sports together. To do it independently, yeah, we might make ground here or there, but ultimately we’ll never make enough.”
There is support from some in the NASCAR garage for a weekend at the same track with the IndyCar Series.
“I think it’d be great,” Denny Hamlin said. “I mean I think that sometimes our fans are not the same and so it would be an opportunity to introduce each other. I’ve never been to an IndyCar race before, so it would be an opportunity for me to kind of see it up close and personal and I wouldn’t mind wandering around the garages and seeing how they do things.”
Miles scoffed at the notion of conducting a third IndyCar race at Indy, according to The Indianapolis Star. He also made clear that neither the IndyCar Grand Prix nor Indianapolis 500 would be interested in sharing their weekends with NASCAR.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO and President Marcus Smith said he is aware of the topic but “I wouldn’t say it’s on my top 10 list at this point. But we’re certainly open for discussions because we like to do things that are different and fun. So who knows? Our schedule for NASCAR is set for next year. I’m sure if it’s interesting to IndyCar after they finish the Indy 500 then they’ll want to talk about it.”
SMI owns such tracks as Texas Motor Speedway, which hosts the IndyCar Series this weekend. NBCSN has coverage of the race beginning at 8 p.m. ET Saturday.
NBC Sports to be exclusive home to IndyCar, Indy 500 in 2019
NBC Sports Group and IndyCar announced a multi-year agreement Wednesday for NBC Sports to be the exclusive home for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 beginning in 2019.
The Indianapolis 500 and seven additional Verizon IndyCar Series races will be broadcast annually on NBC. The remaining races will be televised on NBCSN. All races will be live streamed to authenticated subscribers on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. With the agreement, NBC Sports also will present all IndyCar qualifying, practices and Indy Lights races across its platforms beginning in 2019. Details of NBC Sports’ 2019 IndyCar schedule will be announced at a later date.
“We’re excited to have NBC Sports serve as the exclusive home of IndyCar, which represents the most competitive open-wheel racing in the world,” said Jon Miller, President, Programming, NBC Sports and NBCSN. “We’re honored to bring the Indianapolis 500, one of the most prestigious events in all of sports, to NBC, further enhancing NBC Sports’ Championship Season. We’ve seen consistent growth for IndyCaron NBCSN in the past decade, and we hope to continue that growth throughout the series by leveraging the television, digital, production and marketing assets that make NBC Sports a powerful media partner.”
“This arrangement brings all of IndyCar to one home, increases our exposure and includes our first direct-to-consumer offer for our fans,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, which owns IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We couldn’t be happier to have start-to-finish coverage of IndyCar season with the NBC Sports Group.”
The 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, set for Sunday, May 26, 2019, will be the first ever on NBC. The Indy 500 will also be included every year in NBC Sports’ Championship Season marketing campaign, which touts numerous high-profile championship events that are presented across NBC Sports platforms from May to July, including the Triple Crown, The PLAYERS, Premier League Championship Sunday, French Open, Stanley Cup Final, Tour de France, and The Open Championship.
The entire Verizon IndyCar Series will receive unprecedented marketing and promotional support from NBC Sports, which will utilize not only its own assets, but many NBCUniversal assets as well.With the Indy 500 and seven additional races on NBC, IndyCar will have the second-most races on broadcast television in all of motorsports.
NBC Sports Gold – NBC Sports Group’s direct-to-consumer product – will offer a package to IndyCar fans that features all qualifying and practices not televised live, all Indy Lights races, and full-event replays. Additional details, including the cost of the Gold offering, will be announced at a later date.