The stars of IndyCar were in Florida preparing to start their season when the coronavirus pandemic slammed the brakes on those plans 48 hours before the green flag.
Almost three months later, the series is finally set to go racing.
The 2020 season will open Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway in NBC's first primetime IndyCar race. The series follows NASCAR, which heads into this weekend having already completed nine events. Both have had to draw up safety plans. Both are racing without fans for now.
IndyCar teams based in Indianapolis will head to the airport before sunrise Saturday to begin health screenings required to board chartered flights scheduled to leave for Texas before 6 a.m. Everyone will be screened again before they enter the track and face masks will be required.
Drivers and teams outside of Indy will arrive Friday but also be subject to the same screenings. Team rosters are limited to 20 competitors and the garages will be divided — Chevrolet teams in one, Honda teams in the other.
It will be radically different from the last time everyone was together last March in St. Petersburg, Florida, soaking up the sun and enjoying the party atmosphere of the traditional season opener. An already lengthy offseason has now been stretched to more than eight months and the first event at Texas' high-speed oval will also give drivers their first test of a new windshield designed to protect the cockpit.
“I think everybody is nervous. If you’re not nervous, I’d be concerned about the head that you have on your shoulders," said Graham Rahal. "You’re going to probably one of the most intense tracks of the year and you’re going there without testing, you’re going there without much practice, you’re going there without knowing what these tires may bring for us this weekend. You’re going there without knowing what exactly the aeroscreen is going to do to us on a track like that.”
Unlike NASCAR, which has scrapped practice and qualifying for its rescheduled events, IndyCar will do both at Texas in the afternoon before the race that night. The field consists of 24 drivers, including three rookies making their IndyCar debut, for the 200-lap race on the high-banked, 1.5-mile oval.
The rebranded Arrow McLaren SP team will debut with rookie Oliver Askew, last year's Indy Lights champion, and Pato O'Ward, who has returned to IndyCar after a brief stint last year racing in Europe. Alex Palou will debut for Dale Coyne Racing, which in the offseason fired Sebastien Bourdais and promoted Santino Ferrucci into its lead seat. Rinus VeeKay is the third rookie making his debut, alongside oval veteran Ed Carpenter, owner of Ed Carpenter Racing.
The last six winners at Texas are in the field dating to Ed Carpenter's victory in 2014 through two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden's trip to victory lane last year.
Newgarden isn't sure veterans will have any sort of edge considering drivers have largely been sidelined since the Sept. 22 finale. Texas has never before opened an IndyCar season and instead is held well into the season and after the Indianapolis 500.
“Texas is a very difficult racetrack to race in general, whether you’ve been there 20 years or first time. It’s a daunting track to get right,” Newgarden said. "From the rookie side, it’s going to be extremely difficult. This whole year is going to be tough on rookies with limited track time. I think Texas will be one of the toughest places to go to right out of the gates.”
IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are in their first year of new ownership under Roger Penske, who has worked with teams to get them guaranteed bonus money installment payments while business was closed. IndyCar now has a revised 14-race schedule. It includes three stops at Indianapolis, two on the road course and the rescheduled Indy 500 on Aug. 23.
“We’ve not heard a huge amount of issues yet,” IndyCar President Jay Frye said. "We’re very conscious that the economics of the teams matter. It’s exciting that we’re on NBC on Saturday night, and we’re going to do everything we can to provide as many benefits as we can to make sure our partners are covered.
“We’ve not heard a lot of any huge stress on the teams from their partners, and one of the things we’ve talked to them about is what is the sweet spot for number of races?" Frye said. "How can we make sure that we’re accommodating as many of them as we can? We feel good about the 14 that we have.”
NBC will send its booth staff and two pit reporters to Texas, and executive producer Sam Flood said social distancing will be practiced between play-by-play announcer Leigh Diffey and analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Fox Sports, conversely, has been calling its NASCAR events from a studio in North Carolina.
Flood also said the broadcast will be careful to recognize the current issues in the country, from protests over the death of George Floyd to the ongoing pandemic.
“I think it has to be acknowledged for sure because it’s impacting so many lives, and starting with COVID-19, which anyone in the world knows about right now because it has been top of mind for 80-something days," Flood said. “And in terms of what’s going on across our country in terms of race protests and the rightful dialogue that’s coming from that, we will appropriately react to it and make sense of it.