Leadership from INDYCAR, cooperation from its track promoters and broadcast partner NBC, and incredible resolve from its teams were crucial in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES reaching the finish line of a 14-race schedule in 2020.
Many of the lessons the series learned during the season impacted by COVID-19 have helped prepare INDYCAR for 2021.
“We learned a lot in 2020 about how to be more efficient and how to do things a little differently,” INDYCAR President Jay Frye said. “A lot of the things that will be implemented in 2021 may not be fan facing or public facing, where they might not notice the difference. A lot of it is load-in times and tech times. A lot of it is trying to shorten up the weekends on the front end. The teams may come in a day later than they currently do.
“The way we have done things in the past would be a full day of tech, but we have become more efficient in that and understand it differently.
“It’s a lot of little things that add up to something that is more cost-effective to the teams and doesn’t impact the fan experience or the promoters in any way. That is what we are looking at right now for that.”
INDYCAR is considering ways to shorten the race weekend schedule without diminishing the fan experience.
Prior to 2020 when COVID-19 drastically changed the schedule, teams would arrive at a venue Thursday to unload equipment and go through technical inspection. Cars would take to the track for practice Friday, participate in qualifications Saturday and race Sunday.
Because the weekend schedules were greatly compacted in 2020, doubleheader races were held out of necessity, with teams arriving one day later. For many of the doubleheader races, practice was held in the morning, qualifications in the early afternoon with the race in the late afternoon or early evening. The same schedule would be used for the second race of the weekend on road courses.
INDYCAR may keep that format in 2021 because flexibility is necessary as potential COVID-19 vaccines are awaiting final approval.
“What does 2021 look like? None of us know at this point,” Frye said. “What we did in 2019 and what we actually did in 2020, we have come up with a hybrid schedule of those two. We are not going back to the way it was in 2019, but it is not as limited as it was in 2020. There has to be some balance in the middle, and that is what we are looking at the most.
“That is something people would see that is different from track time to impounds to doubleheaders.”
Most of the road course doubleheaders held qualifications the day of the race, except for the Harvest GP presented by GMR in October at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Traditional qualifications were held for the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, which was held in August.
INDYCAR came up with a unique qualification concept for short-oval doubleheaders at Iowa Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway. Two-lap qualification runs were split, with Lap 1 speeds setting the lineup for the first race and Lap 2 speeds determining the grid for the second race.
INDYCAR will continue that qualification format for next season’s doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway in early May.
“We did that a couple times in 2020, and that worked really well,” Frye said. “It was exciting. It was interesting to see who was able to put two laps together, who had one good lap and one not-so-good lap. That changed the complexion of one of the races. That was really good. We were excited about how that played out.
“There is one opportunity to do that this year at Texas, but I think it makes that qualifying session even more exciting and makes the qualifying laps matter in a big way.”
Frye and his staff navigated the tremendous challenges that came when the start of the season was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic March 13. INDYCAR and its teams were in place at St. Petersburg, Florida, prepared to begin the season.
But once all major sports, including INDYCAR, had to shut down because of the public health crisis, Frye and his staff continued to work toward finding solutions to saving the season. Telephone and Zoom conferences were held every week with team managers of every INDYCAR team.
All teams were shut down at that point, but INDYCAR worked with the teams and the states to get the shops back open. The teams did a great job having a COVID procedure and plan in their facilities.
There were many instances where Frye and his staff had a plan, went home that night and had to completely revise that plan because something had changed. They had to work with track promoters, state and local government officials and NBC to get approval to stage events.
The season began with the Genesys 300 on Saturday, June 8 at Texas Motor Speedway. Teams flew in early Saturday morning, unloaded, practiced, qualified, held the race and flew home within a 24-hour period. The race was contested without spectators at TMS, as was the next race, the GMR Grand Prix on July 4 at IMS.
Limited numbers of fans were allowed to return at Road America and Iowa Speedway in July, but no spectators were allowed at the Indy 500 in August. A limited number of fans were allowed at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in September and Indianapolis in October, and an even larger contingent of spectators were allowed at the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Oct. 25.
“We ran 14 races, and it felt like we ran 50 in 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.
“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.
“Once we got to Texas and launched our season on a one-day show, we flew in, practiced and qualifying and then raced, we learned a lot from that first event. Then, throughout the season we learned even more.
“It was an incredible group effort by the entire paddock. Everybody bought into it. Everybody did what they were supposed to do. Because of that, we were able to get the 14 races in.”
There still will be some challenges in 2021 because of the timetable for vaccines to be available to the public. INDYCAR is prepared to be flexible.
“Look at the crystal ball and what 2021 looks like, to me this could be a couple-year recovery,” Frye said. “Hopefully, we go to St. Pete and the vaccine will work, and we can get back to normal. But we have tried to become more efficient. We operated in 2019, then came 2020, and 2021 will be a hybrid of the two. We can have great weekends, great events at great venues, but we don’t necessarily have to be there as many days in the past to do the same thing.
“That is what we have worked hard with the teams to consolidate things that will help the overall paddock.
“We learned a lot in 2020, and there is not much that would present itself in different scenarios that we aren’t already prepared for in 2021. I’m proud of everybody and our partners. They all did a good job, and we were able to get it done.”