IndyCar made a return from virtual racing to real, on-track action this past weekend. For the first time in over eight months, the series was able to organize an event and gather the necessary personnel to make it happen. The one-day event from Texas Motor Speedway, however, was far from typical.
In an effort to combat the spread of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and ensure the safety of everyone involved in the event, IndyCar put together a highly-modified weekend plan. The changes were based in part on NASCAR’s modified events from the past few weeks and included mandatory precautions from everyone involved.
Changes made by the track and the organizers
The precautions taken by Texas Motor Speedway and IndyCar were the most comprehensive and wide-ranging. Every aspect of the event was considered ahead of time and there was a large effort to properly modify every area of the premises.
Access to the track was limited to the day of the race only, with only the haulers containing the cars allowed to arrive a day early. Driving into a completely empty infield devoid of any of the usual support and hospitality personnel, the haulers were directed to an area of the track where they could be reasonably spread out from one another.
It wasn’t until the morning of race day that everyone else was allowed entry. Crew members were screened at the entrance and guided by track personnel to their respective garage areas that had been grouped together by team to help prevent further interactions than necessary.
IndyCar partnered with Clean Harbors, an emergency response company, to disinfect and wipe down support vehicles in the paddock and throughout the whole facility. Every door handle and surface that would be touched over the course of the weekend was kept clean by a dedicated crew of professionals.
Even less-typical cleaning services were offered by IndyCar, including a helmet sanitation station that was set up to ensure the driver’s helmets were completely disinfected before being worn out on track.
Changes made to the schedule
In addition to the many changes made to the facility, the weekend schedule was also highly modified to help minimize exposure of everyone involved. All track running was done on a single day, with only a couple hours of practice available to get acclimated to the cars before the drivers went flat out for qualifying.
The compressed schedule was particularly tough on the crew members. Many flew in from their respective home bases early Saturday morning, arrived at the track, worked on the car over the course of the entire day, then flew home late that same night. The near 24-hour work day was exacerbated by the extreme Texas heat, which topped out at a sweltering 98°F (37°C).
Most teams chose to have their drivers stay local to the track Friday night so as to be more rested for race day, but the crews did not have that luxury. Fatigue was certainly an issue as the race ran into the evening hours, and even then all the equipment still had to be packed away after the checkered flag flew.
Changes to media coverage
The reduction in on-track personnel directly affected the ability for media to cover the event. The TV crew from NBC was allowed into the facility in order to provide coverage for all the fans that could not attend in person, but most other publications and photographers were not permitted access.
Even with a standard crew for TV coverage, however, things were noticeably different. All interviews were conducted while maintaining an appropriate social distance, meaning boom mics were used to hear the driver’s half of the conversation. At times the driver even had a hard time hearing the questions asked due to the masks being worn by everyone.
There was also less ability for the pit reporters to get detailed information from the crew during the race. The teams’ pit boxes were reserved for crew members only, meaning it was more difficult to ask a crew chief, for instance, about problems occurring with his car.
For those that could not attend in person, the series went out of its way to make sure that access to the drivers was still provided. Post-qualifying and post-race interviews were conducted online via video chat to members of the media and series-provided photos of the event were made available.
Drivers adapted to the situation and enjoyed the challenge
Probably the most direct impact on the race was the reduction in on-track time for the drivers. There was significantly less time to get adjusted to the car after a long break, find the right setup, and prepare a strategy for the race. All of this was in addition to the fact that Texas Motor Speedway is one of the toughest tracks on the calendar.
For the most part, however, the drivers enjoyed the added challenge. Speaking from his motorhome after securing his 47th IndyCar win in dominating fashion, Scott Dixon shared his thoughts on the condensed weekend.
“I had a blast tonight, obviously with winning the race,” he said. “Even if we didn’t win the race, just to be back in the car, back on track, I think is a huge achievement.
“It was really the unknowns. Trying to cram that all in. Traveling here this morning, qualifying, practice, race, then we fly home tonight. First time we’ve ever done anything like that. I actually kind of enjoyed it. I think the unknowns are the most difficult part.”
2019 NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden recovered from ongoing wheel vibrations to finish third and echoed Dixon’s thoughts on the unique schedule.
“I had a blast tonight and today,” he said. “It was super fun to have kind of a jam-packed schedule. Really entertaining just to be back and to be back to work, what we love.
“The hardest part for me was … thinking we made the right decisions going into the race, about 15 laps in realizing that we were horribly off the mark. So you don’t have a lot of time to rectify an issue. When you have that jam-packed schedule, it’s kind of on the team and the driver to execute quickly and to make the right decisions, to show up with good stuff, kind of stick to your guns.
“I like that. I really like that style.”
With the success of this past weekend’s event, IndyCar will surely look to implement many of the same precautions at future events until more permanent solutions to the pandemic are found. However, this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway may be the only time the drivers and teams have to deal with so many unknowns.
Although the safety and sanitation precautions will surely continue for the next races on the calendar, the next race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course will feature a more manageable two-day schedule. In addition, most of IndyCar’s teams are also based out of Indianapolis, so the added pressure of flying to and from the track will be relieved.