In one of the darkest times in American racing history, as all professional and collegiate sports have been halted because of COVID-19, Thursday’s announcement by IndyCar can be viewed a much-needed ray of hope.
Ever since the NTT IndyCar Series season was abruptly stopped by the coronavirus outbreak that is threatening the health and lives of Americans young and old, it was obvious the 104th Indianapolis 500 would not be held on Sunday, May 24.
On Thursday that became official, but what followed was reason for optimism.
Instead of Memorial Day Sunday, the race will take place on Sunday, Aug. 23. By moving it to a time deep into the summer, it is hoped by then the United States and other countries will have overcome the virus.
IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske, Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles and Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles were able to move pieces around and get it to all fit.
“In essence, it’s a new schedule,” IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal said Thursday.
The season was supposed to start in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15, but that race was the first event to fall victim to the pandemic. Believed to be down and out for the year, that event has been revived as the potential final race of the season at an undetermined date in October.
The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, and the AutoNation IndyCar Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas have all been canceled and will not be part of the revised schedule.
The season will tentatively start on May 30 with the first of two races in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. Races at Mid-Ohio and World Wide Technology Raceway have been rearranged in August. The Portland Grand Prix will give up its Labor Day Weekend date and move one month later.
The GMR IndyCar Grand Prix was scheduled for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 9. It will now take place on July 4 in conjunction with the Pennzoil 150 NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course. The Big Machine Vodka 400 will be on July 5.
Forget a IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader, the weekend will be a tripleheader with back to back road courses races on Saturday followed by the NASCAR Cup Series race on the oval the following day.
“After protecting public health, our priority is absolutely about running the 104th Indianapolis 500 race in 2020,” Miles explained on a national teleconference Thursday. “By rescheduling in late August, we fully expect to be outside the window impacted by the COVID-19 virus. We and our fans still have five months to plan for the event. We believe our fans will be ready in August.
“More specifically, the date is in late summer, before NFL regular season games, and before college football really begins. With a number of postponed sporting events being rescheduled in the summer and early fall, it’s frankly very difficult to find three consecutive weekends as we traditionally have in May.
“Moving the GMR Grand Prix to July 4 to run with NASCAR’s Xfinity on the road course is a big positive. It’s groundbreaking, will be an exciting addition to the Pennzoil 150, and will be live on NBC.
“That left us two back-to-back weeks. We think August 15 and 16 for qualifying, Aug. 23 for the 500-mile race is a great solution. All three of those on-track activities, the two days of qualifying and the 500 itself, will be live on NBC. Actually, we have more live television over the three weekends than we did even last year.
“We’re grateful to all of our partners who worked with us on this. NBC has been incredibly helpful with working on it. We think we’ve landed in a good place.”
A near complete schedule of practice and qualifications on the weekend of April 16 will be held followed by the traditional race week culminating with the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Aug. 23.
“The fact is August isn’t going to be Memorial Day weekend, it’s going to be another time, a time when we may not be the first public event after the real crisis of the virus is pretty much behind us, but we’ll certainly be the biggest,” Miles promised. “We just think it will be perfectly in keeping with our tradition of honoring heroes and being inspirational, pulling people together, that we’ll be able to think about honoring the heroes that have really stepped forward in fighting this current crisis, this current war.
“I think that’s going to be terrific to be able to bring out people from all over the country, our community as well, who have played key roles in pulling us together and getting us through this difficult time. It will be very much in keeping with the traditions of the 500.”
Of course, all of this depends on how soon and how effectively the world is able to tackle the COVID-19 virus. By moving the Indianapolis 500 deep into the summer, it gives IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway its best chance of staging the grand race in 2020.
“Being in the summer, it gives our fans time to plan,” Miles said. “The further away from today the better. I think that was a key.”
For now, the season will begin in Detroit, not St. Petersburg and not at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But, fighting an invisible foe, there are no guarantees in this battle.
“We’re optimistic,” Miles said. “Again, we’re talking to all our promoters regularly. In Detroit they’re optimistic. We might have been able to run the 500. It’s two weeks. It’s really effectively three weeks before Detroit. The 500’s lead times to put everything in place, given the scale of it, are longer than probably any other races.
“They’re optimistic. We’re optimistic. If at the end of the day it can’t happen, we were thinking about other dates that might work. We’ll do everything possible, they’ll do everything possible, to stay on the schedule hopefully at the end of May.”
There remain a lot of uncertainties. Yet, Thursday’s dramatically readjusted schedule finally gives a sense of hope the 104th Indianapolis 500 may actually happen.
It’s just going to take a little more time.