MOORESVILLE, N.C. – In a season that included incredible obstacles, IndyCar was able to navigate the challenges and successfully complete a 14-race schedule.
It started and ended on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread its grip throughout the United States, the NTT IndyCar Series had convened on Florida’s Gulf Coast to kick off the season. The teams were in place as well as the series officials, media and spectators, many of whom had come from around the United States to watch the opening race of the season.
In a matter of two days, it became obvious the season could not start because of public health concerns. IndyCar and Green Savoree Promotions, the promoters of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, along with government and public health officials in Florida, halted the weekend on March 13 before an Indy car ever got on track.
The first four races of the season were also canceled, including popular events at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, and the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
As the United States went into a near-nationwide lockdown, Indy car teams were unable to work in their shops because of rules in Indiana, North Carolina and Illinois where the teams are located.
“Once we had the postponement of St. Pete, I don’t think any of us knew what we were dealing with; we just knew it was pretty big,” IndyCar President Jay Frye said. “When the NBA postponed its season, and different things started to happen, over the next several months there were hundreds of times we planned something then went home at night and the next day, you would have to completely redo it because something changed in the interim.”
A few weeks into the pandemic, the cornerstone event of the series, the famed Indianapolis 500, moved from Memorial Day weekend on May 24 to Aug. 23 in the hopes the virus would subside and fans would be allowed to attend the world’s biggest race.
A new schedule was created, but that had to be revised when the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was canceled.
If there was going to be an IndyCar season, it needed to get started somewhere, anywhere, and in a hurry as May turned into June.
IndyCar owner Roger Penske, IndyCar President Frye and Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles were able to successfully negotiate an arrangement with Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage to hold the season-opening race without spectators on June 8. Television partner NBC agreed to make it a prime time telecast on the network instead of NBCSN.
The first race was held in a bubble. Teams underwent medical checks before boarding charter flights in Indianapolis for the majority of teams and Statesville, N.C., for Team Penske. Once those flights arrived at Alliance Airport, a shipping and cargo airport near Texas Motor Speedway, more medical checks were given before teams were allowed inside of the facility.
Practice, qualifications and the race were held in one day. Shortly after Scott Dixon scored the season-opening victory, the teams left Texas Motor Speedway for private charters back to Indianapolis and North Carolina.
For those on the flights, by the time they had returned home, they had been awake for more than 24-straight hours.
The season was officially underway.
“The Governor of Texas was great, and Texas Motor Speedway was great and once we got going, we showed we could do it and managed the process in a really good way,” Frye told SPEED SPORT. “We got going and that certainly helped.
“Once we got to Texas and launched our season on a one-day show, we flew in, practiced and qualified and then raced, we learned a lot from that first event. Then, throughout the season we learned even more.”
Another schedule revision was completed by moving the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway from May to July 4. It was part of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader that also included the NASCAR Xfinity Series on the IMS road course on July 4 and NASCAR Cup Series on the oval on July 5.
Road America was moved from the third week in June to the second weekend in July. The highly anticipated return to Richmond Raceway was canceled due to the State of Virginia’s restrictions on crowds.
Many of the teams needed a 14-race schedule to honor sponsorship agreements and IndyCar needed that number of races to fulfill its schedule with NBC.
So, IndyCar created doubleheaders at Road America, Iowa Speedway, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The series also created a new event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Harvest GP, which was held on the first weekend of October.
A limited numbers of spectators were allowed at Road America, Mid-Ohio, Gateway, Mid-Ohio and the Harvest GP at IMS. Unfortunately, there were no spectators allowed to attend the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23 when track owner Penske came to the conclusion there was simply too much risk because of the pandemic.
The true comeback story of the season was the revival of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. It went from being the season-opening race, to being canceled, to suddenly being revived when Kevin Savoree and Kim Green were able to successfully negotiate a new date with the City of St. Petersburg.
Instead of kicking off the season, it was the championship finale on Oct. 25. The State of Florida allowed 20,000 fans to attend the final race of the season and they saw Josef Newgarden win the race and Scott Dixon win his sixth NTT IndyCar Series championship.
IndyCar had overcome the obstacles and made it to the finish line of a 14-race season.
Frye was able to succinctly sum up one of the most challenging seasons in IndyCar history.
“We ran 14 races and it felt like we ran 50 with the number of times we redid things and did them over again,” Frye said. “There were times on Tuesday of race week, it wasn’t 100 percent sure we were going that week.
“It was coming down to the wire working with government officials.”