FORT WORTH With an unwelcome assist from the COVID-19 pandemic, IndyCars traditionally lengthy offseason will have reached 258 consecutive days when the green flag drops on the 2020 season-opening Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday.
Josef Newgardens victory in last summers night race on TMS 1.5-mile oval helped propel the Team Penske ace to his second NTT IndyCar Series championship in three years at the season finale in Monterey, Calif., on Sept. 22.
Start the clock.
The global pandemic that has marked the end of the innocence for American spectator sports began in early March. Widespread public health concerns prompted sanctioning body IndyCar to revise, reshuffle and reduce its original schedule from 17 to 14 races, move the tradition-rich running of the 104th Indianapolis 500 from May into the dog days of August, and devise a rigid set of social distancing protocols.
As a result of the latter, the Genesys 300 billed as Americas Original Nighttime IndyCar Race since its debut in 1997 will become the first series event run without fans watching in the grandstands.
Yeah, its a strange time, right? said Newgarden, a 29-year-old native of Nashville. I think its been tough for everybody right now, regardless of what industry or way of life youre operating in. A lot of things have been taken away, our passions and our jobs a bit altered. Its going to be a new world for us racing here.
Responding to public health concerns, the race has been shortened from 248 laps to 200. IndyCar will operate a condensed schedule with practice, qualifying and the race on the same day. Teams are scheduled to take the green flag at 7:10 p.m., with network broadcast coverage on NBC starting at 7 p.m. NBC Sports Network is scheduled to air a half-hour preview at 6:30 p.m.
We have some tasks at hand; we know what they are, said Newgarden, who will carry the No. 1 on his Team Penske Chevrolet as reigning champion. I know the first couple of weeks of this lockdown in the United States, it felt quite hopeless. Now we feel pretty positive that we have something to work towards.
Indeed, in his role as promoter extraordinaire, TMS President and General Manager Eddie Gossage recently dubbed the Genesys 300 one of the most important races IndyCar has ever held, adding, People are starving for sports programming, so theres an opportunity to have strong TV ratings around the country and around the globe.
Newgarden and popular Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe said they have watched NASCARs three major touring series make successful returns, without fans, at Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway since May 17. Drivers, crewmen and officials have been wearing masks while social distancing on pit road and even during TV interviews.
Its been actually quite fun to watch the NASCAR guys, Newgarden said. Were going to be looking to do much of the same.
Similarly to NASCAR, Newgarden and Hinchcliffe agreed the Genesys 300 is likely to draw curious first-time viewers to the open-wheel series.
Do I think its a hallmark day for the series? Yeah, absolutely, said Hinchcliffe, 33, whose three-race deal in an Andretti Autosport Honda is being sponsored by Genesys. Do I think its a make-or-break day? No, not really. I think IndyCar racing is going to get back to what we do, and thats going to continue for years to come regardless. Certainly we want this to be a successful race. We want it to be a good show. Were on network in prime time. Theres a lot of reasons that we really want this one to go well.
But you know, Eddie needs to make it sound like its the biggest race in history, so that way more people tune in and thats totally fair.
Newgarden noted the TMS night race, typically featuring razor-thin finishes, has evolved into must-see TV.
Its always had a storied place in IndyCar history, Newgarden said. But in these current situations, without a doubt its going to be a very important event for us. Is it the most important event in IndyCar history? I have no idea if it is or not.
It will be, for sure, an event to get right. A lot of pressure. But I think everyone involved will really be able to rise to the occasion and do a great job.
John Sturbin is a senior writer at RacinToday.com, based in Fort Worth. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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