The shifting sands of American motorsport under the wave of COVID

I’ve been very lucky to have spent a life with 20/20 vision eyesight and by the amount of times I can’t find my keys I’m glad I don’t need to add glasses to the list of things I need to keep track of. That said, I don’t think any of us ever envisioned the real 2020 we are currently enduring.

Let’s just say it COVID sucks. Especially here in the States where the Government not only has it, but is saying that the end of this deadly disease is just around the corner.

Well sorry, America, that corner is Eau Rouge, and your barreling towards it with eyes wide shut at flat chat.

Despite COVID, and mainly because of it, American motorsport is alive and well and in fact, adapting to the situation brilliantly, causing a lot of shifts in logistics protocol and out-of-the-box thinking.

When Charles Darwin visited New Zealand in 1835 jumping off the HMS Beagle to visit Paihia Kororāreka, he was no doubt contemplating his ”Survival of the Fittest” theory.

What he meant by “fittest” is those species who are best able to ADJUST to their environment are the most successful in surviving and reproducing.

Well, I’m here to tell you “Darwinism” is alive and kicking in American motor sport and in fact, 2020 may well be a major turning point for the future of the sport.

NASCAR Cup Series Fanshield 500 at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo for Chevy Racing by Harold Hinson/HHP)

Much of that innovation began in March with NASCAR. Events every weekend and some midweek. No practice or qualifying just “run what ya brung”.

It worked brilliantly. The relationship between driver and engineer had never been more critical as they were setting the car up on the fly at 200 miles an hour on an oval while trying to compete with 35 others.

Radio communications became paramount with the first pit stop the first chance to adjust the car for the conditions with all the drivers having to drive with whatever came out of the truck, just like it used to be when they were running liquor from State to State chased by the police, which of course is how it all began. So in many ways back to its routes except for the moonshine.

Come to think of it, the way this pandemic is going, perhaps in 2021 carrying moonshine in the back of every NASCAR could be an interesting proposition and would certainly make victory circle more fun and live TV a must-watch for the post-show.

Not only did NASCAR garner a huge TV audience as the only live sport during the March to May lockdown, but they also put their whole reputation on the line. Had everyone got sick, then the press would have had a field day with headlines about irresponsible country folk having a cavalier approach to a deadly disease.

Instead Steve Phelps, the President of NASCAR, and his team got it spot on. Excellent safety protocols were put in place and despite no fans, the world of NASCAR was able to put a season together and a good one at that.

The only major COVID story was that 7-time champion and legend Jimmie Johnson had to miss a couple of races when he tested positive, but that was about it.

So good was NASCAR’s example that Indy Car, Formula One, IMSA, Trans AM, and many others, went back to the track in June using the NASCAR model to equal success.

But the shift in sands from the pandemic wave doesn’t end there. A noose was found in Bubba Wallace’s garage going into the Talladega race in Alabama.

Given the current racial tension in the USA, the FBI were brought in to investigate. Luckily the noose had been there long before Bubba Wallace was assigned that pit garage and the case was closed.

As the only black driver in NASCAR, the series reacted correctly. In a statement posted on Twitter, Wallace said he was relieved “that the investigation revealed that this wasn’t what we feared it was.”

“I think we’ll gladly take a little embarrassment over what the alternatives could have been,” he added.

As part of NASCAR’s investigation, 1,684 garage areas across 29 race tracks were inspected, Only 11 pull-down ropes tied into a knot were found and only one of those — the one found in Wallace’s garage, was tied in a noose.

Steve Phelps had just taken an even greater step to eradicate racism in NASCAR by banning the confederate fag. That flag is a symbol of the civil war and slavery and has been a prominent attachment to mainly southern state fans of NASCAR, who for some reason think they won the war.

In a statement Steve Phelps said:

“The presence of the Confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,”

NASCAR said in a statement on its website hours ahead of its race Wednesday night in Martinsville, Virginia.

“Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the Confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”
In a country where change is unbelievably slow and progressive seems to be a swear word this was an audacious move and soon Lewis Hamilton and Formula One had picked up the mantle to back “Black Lives Matter.”

IndyCar also followed suit with a million-dollar fund for diversity in Indy Car called “Race for Equality & Change,” a major effort to support diversity and inclusivity across the IndyCar industry. A $1 million fund to fuel internal and external programs and initiatives that hopes to create fundamental change.

President and CEO of Indy Mark Miles said:

“As our country has grappled with systemic issues related to race, equality, and access to opportunity, we’ve been doing a lot of listening, learning, and reflecting ‘Race for Equality & Change’ will create a more diverse and inclusive INDYCAR community that fundamentally transforms our sport.”

Indy too is going through a huge transformation now under the guidance of new owner Roger Penske.

Penske has already given the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a facelift with 30 new big screens around the speedway, 5G wifi throughout the facility and an upgrade to toilets and fan facilities so it can live up to its reputation as the host of “The greatest spectacle in racing.”

IndyCar has been busy too. As well as starting to engrave the name of Scott Dixon on the 2020 championship trophy, Indy has already put out its 2021 schedule dropping one music city for another. Sadly, Circuit of the Americas will not have Indy next year, but Nashville will.

Colton Herta won the last IndyCar race at Circuit of The Americas

Now as the official voice of COTA, I’m particularly miffed. COTA had only one try at putting on an Indy event brilliantly won by Colton Herta who became their youngest ever winner.

That plus winter testing was all deemed successful and the track got thumbs from a majority of the drivers.

Then this year’s event was called off due to the pandemic and then came the news that it was one and done.

I think politics was afoot in this decision as COTA’s competition in Texas is the Texas Motor Speedway. Eddie Gossage, who owns the Fortworth track, has now got back to back Indy events in May, the most popular month for IndyCar racing, as these are the events leading up to the Indy 500. He also got the all-star NASCAR event usually held at Bristol Tennessee or the heart of NASCAR country Charlotte, North Carolina, where most of the NASCAR teams are based.

So what about COTA?. Well, it did lose Indy, but it did gain NASCAR for the first time something Gossage has fought against since COTA opened in 2012.

The NASCAR event at COTA adds another road course to the series along with Road America and the Inddianapolis Motor Speedway road course. For NASCAR, COTA could be an interesting new venue. Indy and Road America are age-old iconic American venues, but COTA is an intriguing add on. With the massive amount of camping and RV room at the venue and the fact that 80 million people are within a 200-mile radius of the track, NASCAR may well have found a great new home for the series, We will find out May 23rd, 2021.

So it’s been an interesting 2020. The Indy 500 held in August minus the 330,000 fans. NASCAR and Indy shared a weekend together at the Indianapolis Speedway. A driver, Kyle Larsen, was fired from NASCAR while competing in a video game for racist comments.

Scott McLaughlin tested an IndyCar at COTA earlier in 2020

V8 champion Scott Mclaughlin, from New Zealand, racing in IndyCar. One day events in Indy and NASCAR with no practice and qualifying. Yes all because of COVID, but is it a glimpse at the future of motorsport in America.

Certainly, costs have been dramatically reduced with these shorter events and it may lead to a rethink for the future where load-in is Friday and events are just Friday and Saturday. Plus seasons may take NASCAR’s lead and continue to hold more mid weeknight races and doubleheaders.

And looking ahead to 2021, next season could be more unprecedented. I’m talking about “Ghostbusters” quotes different.

“Wrath of god stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling. 40 years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes,the dead rising from the grave. Human sacrifice. Cats and dogs living together”.

Jimmie Johnson – Photo: Getty Images

Well maybe not that dramatic, but consider the following:

In 2021 seven-time NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson will race alongside potentially six-time Indy champion Scott Dixon. Two of the greatest to grace American circuits working with one another in one of the most successful teams in mtor racing Chip Ganassi Racing.

Scott McLaughlin will swap the other way and race Indy. So now we get two tin-top legends and different ends of their career, racing against each other as they learn Indy.

Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham will launch Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) live on CBS on Saturday nights.

Tony Stewart racing against Mark Webber. Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, and Helio Castroneves up against Bobby Labonte and Willy T Ribbs, and Bill Elliott.

Porsche will launch a new Porsche Carrera Cup in North America and there will be a junior programme for under 23-year-olds.

In NASCAR, Bristol will be covered in dirt for its spring race. It will be the first Cup Series dirt race since 1970.

Could we see the the US F1 Grand Prix back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway? (Photo of 2003 USGP)

Could Roger Penske be looking to bring Formula One back to the Brickyard.? Philip Morris Malboro money which connects the two says maybe.

Michael Jordan – yep that Michael Jordan, will launch a NASCAR team with Denny Hamlin and of course Bubba Wallace will be their driver.

Could Lewis Hamilton be his teammate or Kimi Raikkonen? Kimi said he had unfinished business in stock car racing and who knows what about LA-based, black lives matter ambassador Hamilton seek out a new challenge in his adopted new home of the USA.

Could Schumacher (Mick) race for a Ferrari engined team or will Roman Grosjean become the real french F1 “Jean Girard” from “Talladega Nights”? Or Will Earl Bamber take the plunge and race in NASCAR after his excellent debut in the Xfinity Series at Daytona? Hell, how about Earl Bamber to Jordan Motorsport alongside Bubba Watson?

Could Hunter McElrea become an American champion in 2021 and follow in Scott Dixon’s footsteps? His season this year and continued growth says you wouldn’t bet against it. Can Scott Dixon go for another title and continue his path to becoming the greatest Indy driver of all time?

All this potential for 2021 is ahead. So let’s hope these tumultuous times are finally in the rearview mirror cone the new year and we can all go back to enjoying motorsport in person.

No one here seems to have got this horrible COVID Ectoplasm Slimer under control so who are we going to call – “COV BUSTERS”. Stay safe race fans and here’s to a better 2021 and to hell with 2020.

Jonathan Green

Known in New Zealand for being the voice of the Toyota Racing Series TV coverage, Jonathan Green is also a co-host at Speed City Broadcast. Speed City is a US national radio show broadcasting F1,Indy Car and Moto GP and Jonathan is the voice of the Circuit of the Americas. Based in Austin Texas, Jonathan is one of the world’s leading motor sports broadcasters with more than 20 years at the sharp end of the sport as producer, presenter, reporter and commentator and is one of a handful in his field that he covers both two and four wheel motor sport from Formula One to Moto GP and World Superbikes.

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