Monday, March 23, 2020

33 Indianapolis 500 Possibilities

Things have been constantly changing and in one moment you think you know the plan only for it to be completely flipped hours later.

The ACO and FIA announced it would determine this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans fate in April and then days later announced the race was moved to September. The FIA announced the postponement of Zandvoort, Barcelona and Monaco and three hours later Monaco announced the race was entirely cancelled.

Don't get me wrong, things have slowed down considerably from ten days ago but it is still a breakneck pace and with CDC recommendations for postponing larger gatherings until the middle of May the pressure is on the Indianapolis 500 because any further extension will mean the race will not take place on Memorial Day weekend.

Any news regarding the Indianapolis 500 date could come out at any time. It could be out minutes after this is published, within the hour, day or later in the week. We have no clue, as discussions are constantly being had and arrangements are constantly being adjusted.

We need to prepare for every possibility for this year's Indianapolis 500 and I have come up with 33 of them for you to digest.

1. Everything happens on schedule
This is the easiest one and the calmest one.

The CDC recommendation goes through May 10. Let's say the CDC has no further extension to that recommendation and practice can begin on May 12, qualifying can take place on May 16 and 17 and we can close out the month with Monday practice on the 18, Carb Day on the 22nd and the 104th Indianapolis 500 on May 24th.

That would be great. That is unlikely. Unless something miraculous happens in the next week and the number of new COVID-19 cases drops to close to zero, we see no further spikes in reported cases and the number of recoveries shoot through the roof I do not see everything happening on schedule.

2. Condensed schedule, race still happens on May 24
This is a little more pessimistic but still optimistic. This is a case of perhaps the recommendation is extended a week but cars can get on track May 18th for practice. That entire week could be used for practice with qualifying being one day on Carb Day.

Not ideal but it gets the most out of the Indianapolis 500 in a short period of time.

3. Typical race weekend, race still happens on May 24
This would be shortening the Indianapolis 500 to three days, practice on Carb Day, qualify on Saturday and race Sunday. It would become an ordinary race weekend and we get the Indianapolis 500 on time but we lose the pomp of practice, the rush of storylines, the party of Carb Day and the pageantry of the parade.

It would fulfill the Indianapolis 500 dogma of the race being on Memorial Day weekend but it would be hollow. It would check off a box but leave us empty. This would be done more for relief than satisfaction. It would likely leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Not a bad taste in terms of disgust but a bad taste in this could have been better.

If we are talking about changing the Indianapolis 500 schedule, especially condensing the on-track activities to three days like a typical IndyCar race weekend we could also be looking at the possibility of changes to the grid for this year's race.

4. Guarantee everyone starts
This possibility especially comes into play if possibility #3 happens or any Indianapolis 500 schedule is a three-day format.

These teams are walking the tightrope and after everything that has happened the safety net is gone. If a team has a sponsor the last thing it needs is missing the race in this climate, especially if proceedings have been cut down to three days instead of a week of practice and two days of qualifying with multiple attempts.

There is a good chance the teams need a break after this uncertain time and the best act of charity Roger Penske can do for this year's race is guarantee every entrant will start the race.

If it is a three-day format have Carb Day be a day full of practice and end it with the pit stop competition, have qualifying be one attempt on Saturday to set the field, have the public driver's meeting afterward, take the front row photo and then get everyone on a bus to the parade.

Everyone can breathe easier over those two days and focus on race day.

5. Field fewer than 33
It was only a month ago we were counting Indianapolis 500 entries and we had 29 announced car and driver pairings. Since then we had James Hinchcliffe confirmed at Andretti Autosport, Fernando Alonso confirmed at McLaren and Spencer Pigot will be running for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with Citrone/Buhl Racing bringing us to 32 entries.

There is a chance that will be it. I am not sure how many sponsors are looking to drop $1 million on an Indianapolis 500 effort after all this. There is also a chance a few sponsors back out and knock a few entries off the grid.

Nothing is set in stone anymore and we have to be comfortable that this could be the first Indianapolis 500 since 1947 to have fewer than 33 entries on the starting grid.

6. Field greater than 33
Let's say sponsors are still spending and in addition to the 32 entries already slated to participated in the Indianapolis 500 we see Dreyer & Reinbold Racing put together a second car, Juncos Racing get a program off the ground and Dale Coyne Racing roll out a third car, upping the total to 35 entries.

This goes in line with #4, if 35 entries are able to put together sponsorships for this year's race they could all be allowed in, especially if a three-day weekend is used. This would be an exception to the rule, similar to 1979 and 1997 though for much different circumstances. There are enough pit boxes for 35 entries. I do not think we are going to see more than 35 entries commit. Perhaps we get a 36th entry but that would not be a stretch if added to the grid. I think it starts getting hairy when you are pushing 38, 39 or 40-plus entries but I think the nature of IndyCar prevents those type of numbers being seen.

Things are not going to get out of hand but we should prepare for a 12th row in 2020.

7. Field of 33
This would not be new and this would be the worst case of the best case scenarios. We get to keep the field of 33 moniker alive, as was done for many years during the 2000s and 2010s. We have reach full capacity but with no spill over. If this is all we get for 2020 then good. It is not great but we should not be feeling bummed out if there is no bumping this year.

8. On May 24 but behind closed doors
Field size aside, this is worst case of the best case scenarios in terms of date and it seems really unlikely.

It has been toyed with and done with other sporting events around the world but I do not think the Indianapolis 500 would take place without any spectators.

We have reached a point with the COVID-19 virus where holding events behind closed doors really isn't protecting anybody. It might prevent 300,000 people from getting together and it would eliminate the virus potentially spreading to an unfathomable number of people in one sitting but the issue is even if only the teams got together it would still be a group north of 1,000 people when you factor in every crew member, track official, IndyCar official, dignitary, media member and security guard. It is not about that group of people coming together but that group of people splintering off to the rest of the world when the event is all said and done.

How would an Indianapolis 500 behind closed doors take place? I could only see it if there is a big push on the television side and estimates have the television audience at north of 15 million people, a number the Indianapolis 500 hasn't come close to since the 1990s.

9. Pushed back a week, quasi-longer schedule
10. Pushed back a week, typical race weekend
The Indianapolis 500 will likely not take place on Memorial Day weekend. This would be the net best scenario as the race would still take place in May, either on May 30th or May 31st.

What would happen to Belle Isle? I do not know but Belle Isle is a Roger Penske event and if Penske has to sacrifice Belle Isle for Indianapolis he would do it eight days a week.

A quasi-longer schedule would mean potentially having on-track activity on Memorial Day weekend but it wouldn't be the race. It could be the start of practice and practice could go through Thursday or Friday with qualifying following.

The good news is IndyCar has not one but two national television windows scheduled for the week after the Indianapolis 500 because of the Belle Isle doubleheader. IndyCar could have the first day of qualifying on Friday with the Last Row Shootout and Fast Nine on Saturday and the race on Sunday. It could just have one qualifying session on Saturday that fills the field with the race on Sunday. There is a lot of flexibility in moving the Indianapolis 500 back a week.

What would really happen to Belle Isle? The IndyCar schedule is tight after Indianapolis and I am not sure IndyCar could slide everything back with Belle Isle dropping back a week and Texas sliding back a week as well. If the Indianapolis 500 slides back a week I have a feeling Eddie Gossage will get snobby, dig his heels in the dirt and kick and scream how Texas should be the race after the Indianapolis 500 as he has been doing for the last 20 years acting like it is some decree from on high.

I know Belle Isle is a street course and those events are tricky but I am sure Penske could slide the city of Detroit a wad of cash to have the races on June 13th and 14th.

11. Pushed back to June 6, typical race weekend
12. Pushed back to June 7, typical race weekend
Let's say Memorial Day is wiped out and Belle Isle cannot move but everything will be good to go on May 30th and 31st. I think there is a chance, a slim chance but a chance, the IndyCar season opens at Belle Isle, IndyCar gets a doubleheader and it has two days on NBC to promote that the Indianapolis 500 is a week away.

It would work similar to the qualifying weekend that is already scheduled to be shown on NBC it would just be races and at a different venue.

This would mean a shortened schedule and it would be a tight turnaround off Belle Isle but it could be worth it.

In the first possibility, I put the race down for June 6 because that is when the Belmont Stakes is scheduled we could see the Indianapolis 500 held in the first half of the afternoon with NBC moving straight into Belmont Stakes coverage afterward. It could be a great day of sports and if the Stanley Cup playoffs have started we could see the Indianapolis 500 lead into the Belmont Stakes, which very well could be the first race of the Triple Crown this year, and after Belmont a playoff hockey game could follow. Not bad for a terrible situation.

However, I do not think the Indianapolis 500 would be moved to a Saturday afternoon unless the data is there to show the number would be worth it. Saturday afternoons are not big television windows, not compared to Sundays, which is why June 7 would make more sense.

The only problem is NASCAR is scheduled to be at Michigan on June 7. When has the Indianapolis 500 and Michigan had a date clash before? U.S. 500 jokes aside this would still be the Fox portion of the calendar and I cannot see how IndyCar and NBC could get NASCAR and Fox to move the Michigan Cup race to June 6 to prevent the clash.

13. Pushed back to June 14, quasi-longer schedule
14. Pushed back to June 14, typical race weekend
These scenarios take place on the first available off-weekend in the IndyCar schedule. What was supposed to be the off-weekend after the gauntlet of Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Indianapolis 500 qualifying, Indianapolis 500, Belle Isle doubleheader and Texas race in five consecutive weeks would be the easiest place to slide the Indianapolis 500 into the schedule, as it would not require any other events to be moved around.

The question then becomes, how much track time is given? With Texas being on a Saturday night would it be feasible for Indianapolis 500 practice to begin on the following Tuesday, continue through Friday with qualifying on Saturday? Could practice open on Wednesday?

It could be too much but the teams would already have the cars in low-downforce oval trim. However, after back-to-back weekends of racing the teams might just need a few days off and this could be better as a three-day weekend especially with Road America scheduled for the weekend after.

15. Pushed back to June 21, full week of practice
16. Pushed back to June 21, typical race weekend
I do wonder with the Indianapolis 500 if a full week of practice is necessary and if IndyCar wants to keep the schedule with a qualifying weekend the week before the race itself. Trying to save the qualifying weekend along with the race is asking a lot during these times but it is possible.

Road America is schedule for June 21st but it is not crazy to think IndyCar could move Road America back a few weeks and slot the Indianapolis 500 in for this date. The weekend of June 13-14th could be used for qualifying with practice starting the Tuesday or Wednesday after Texas.

If it is not possible to save a full week of practice and a qualifying weekend then we could see this be a three-day weekend.

The good news is IndyCar already has June 21st scheduled for an NBC race. It would be easy to slide into that national TV spot than try to squeeze one in on June 14th.

The one problem with this weekend is it is scheduled to be NBC's first NASCAR race with Chicagoland scheduled to be on NBCSN. The good news is this could all be under the Peacock umbrella and the NASCAR Cup race could be shifted to June 20th or it could be shifted back and the start time could be later not to clash with the end of the Indianapolis 500. Last year, the Chicagoland Cup race completed 13 laps and was then delayed until after 6:00 p.m. ET due to rain. It could be worked out that Chicagoland becomes a night race, allows for people to watch the Indianapolis 500 and then sees post-race coverage transition into pre-race coverage for NASCAR.

It would kind of work out the same way Indianapolis leads into Charlotte's 600-mile race already.

17. Pushed to Independence Day weekend , quasi-longer schedule, combination weekend with NASCAR
This is where we get crazy but this year has already been nuts.

If the Indianapolis 500 is going to be moved from Memorial Day weekend the best way to ensure it has a similar feel is to put it on a holiday weekend. I present you Independence Day weekend.

The one issue is this year was the first time the Brickyard 400 was scheduled for Independence Day weekend, as NASCAR moved the 400-mile race from Daytona from the holiday weekend to the end of August and the final spot in the regular season.

However, if there was ever a time better for a IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader than this Independence Day weekend and if there was ever a place better than Indianapolis I do not think such a combination could exist.

Moving the Indianapolis 500 would actually be a benefit for NASCAR. The Brickyard 400 would get a much needed breath of life.

How could this work logistically? That is the $64,000 question and there are two options.

IndyCar is at Richmond the weekend before but that race is Saturday night. I could see practice opening on Tuesday and going through Thursday. NASCAR could practice and qualify with the Xfinity cars on the road course Friday morning with a Cup practice in the late morning on the oval. Indianapolis 500 qualifying could be Friday evening. If the Indianapolis 500 is on July 4, a Saturday, then it is only the race, the Xfinity race gets pushed to early Sunday afternoon with the Cup qualifying and the race following.

If the Indianapolis 500 is pushed to July 5, IndyCar could practice Tuesday and Wednesday and qualify on Thursday. Xfinity could get a practice in Friday morning and then qualifying before Cup practice and qualifying late Friday. IndyCar could get final practice on Saturday morning before the Xfinity race in the afternoon and the Cup race in the evening.

The problem with this scenario is the difficulty squeezing in the Freedom 100 and I am not sure how at least 33 IndyCars, at least 38 Cup cars and at least 38 Xfinity cars could all fit in that garage area. The Cup cars use the old Formula One garages, which open out toward pit lane and for the Indianapolis 500 there are seats in that location. The Cup cars could go out the back of those garages but it would be congested, which leads us to possibility #18...

18. Pushed to Independence Day weekend, quasi-longer schedule, NASCAR weekend moved
This is a stretch but if we are saying everything is on the table then this has to be on the table.

The only way this works is if Daytona moves back to this weekend for NASCAR and Indianapolis takes the regular season finale spot. It would be a one-off thing and then come 2021 NASCAR can flip it back. After this hectic period I think people just want to get back to familiarity and what is more familiar than NASCAR at Daytona on Independence Day weekend? It would be a small sacrifice that would go really far.

It would also allow for an Independence Day weekend Indianapolis 500.

That schedule is a little more flexible. Would the race be on July 4 and lead into the NASCAR race? Would it be July 5? I think to maximize the schedule it would be practice Tuesday through Thursday, qualify on Friday, final practice on Saturday before the Freedom 100 Saturday afternoon and the race would be on Sunday.

19. Olympics are postponed, NBC needs something to fill those weekends, full practice schedule, race is August 9
This seems strangely possible especially as pressure from national Olympic Committees to postpone this year's games is increasing. If there are no Olympics there is going to be a lot of television time that needs to be filled and the Indianapolis 500 could take up some of that time.

The good news for IndyCar is this period could allow the series to get in an entire week of practice, the race itself and still give everyone a week off. IndyCar races at Iowa on July 18. The series could take off until July 27, start practice that Monday, have a full qualifying weekend on August 1-2nd and even have a Carb Day on August 7.

The issue with this is NASCAR was scheduled to return at Michigan that weekend. Once again, another Indianapolis/Michigan clash. The good news is this is the NASCAR portion of the schedule and if the Olympics are not happening Michigan could move up a week to August 2. NASCAR has a handful of other races that will need to be rescheduled and the luxury of moving Michigan up to create a NASCAR off weekend when the Indianapolis 500 could take place doesn't really exist.

Michigan could be moved to August 8. Michigan doesn't have lights so it would be tough to hold this race after the Indianapolis 500 on August 9. Michigan could be run on August 9 but it would have to start after 5:00 p.m. ET and just because of geographically location I think it would make more sense for Michigan to move to Saturday.

20. Pushed to August 16, full week of practice
21. Pushed to August 16, typical race weekend
Let's say the Olympics happen. This is the earliest date after the Olympics and it is a day where IndyCar is already scheduled to be on NBC with Mid-Ohio. This would mean Mid-Ohio would have to move but I am sure that can be accommodated.

The good news is IndyCar could get a full week of practice in because of the Olympics. Practice is only televised on NBC Sports Gold so it would not lose television time and if qualifying is held on August 8-9th it would be during the final two days of the Olympics but there is not much going on during this final days. In fact, the Olympics are going to be officially over around 9:00 a.m. ET on August 9. The rest of the afternoon is just going to be re-airs until the Closing Ceremony is shown in primetime that night

Qualifying could get in that weekend and then August 14 could be Carb Day and the race could be August 16. There is also the chance we are so late into the season that the teams just want to get it over with and have a three-day weekend or four-day weekend leading into this race.

NASCAR is scheduled to race on August 16 at Watkins Glen. That race could be moved to August 15 and be a doubleheader with the Xfinity race.

22. Pushed to August 30, typical race weekend
This is a scheduled IndyCar off week but it is the day after the NASCAR regular season finale at Daytona. It could be a great weekend of American motorsports from Daytona to Indianapolis. One race could be used to promote the other.

The issue with this weekend is it would be immediately after Gateway and immediately before Portland. That is a tight window. You couldn't really do a full week of practice. Gateway is a Saturday night race but I think the timing of everything would see this cutdown to a three-day weekend or a four-day weekend.

23. Pushed to September 6, full week of practice
24. Pushed to September 6, typical race weekend
25. Pushed to September 7, full week of practice
26. Pushed to September 7, typical race weekend
The final holiday weekend for the Indianapolis 500 would be Labor Day weekend and this would require Portland to move. Either Portland would have to move up a week or move back a week.

If Portland moved up a week this would have to be a three-day weekend for the teams. If Portland moved back a week it could allow the teams to get a full week of practice and a full weekend of qualifying. The teams could return from Gateway, starting practicing on either the Tuesday or Wednesday afterward, practice through Friday and then qualify on August 29-30th.

The teams could then get a week off and Carb Day could be September 4. I leave the door open for this race to be on either Sunday September 6 or Monday September 7. If it is a Sunday, it leads into the Southern 500, which is not a bad thing. The Southern 500 doesn't start until 6:00 p.m. ET. The Indianapolis 500 could end well over two hours before that race. The Monday is a dead day. Other than baseball and one primetime college football game there is not much going on Labor Day.

I feel Sunday would be the better option because it allows for a rain date it would also give the teams an extra day to prepare for Portland if Portland was pushed back a week but I will leave Monday on the table.

27. Pushed to September 12, typical race weekend
28. Pushed to September 13, typical race weekend
This is slotting Indianapolis in as the penultimate race of the year between Portland and Laguna Seca. It would not have time for a full week of practice. It would have to be a three-day show.

The other problem with this weekend is it is the opening weekend of the NFL season. I highly doubt this weekend will be when the Indianapolis 500 falls. I bet the latest we see the Indianapolis 500 is Labor Day weekend because the track is going to want to capitalize on the summer feel. It doesn't want people having to face Monday morning and going back to work or school and it knows against the NFL it will get slaughter.

But everything is on the table so let's envision an Indianapolis 500 during football season.

In this scenario, it might make sense to run this race Saturday. It would be against college football but at this time in the college football season it is mostly lopsided out-of-conference games. It would have to be practice Thursday, qualify Friday, race Saturday. NASCAR is racing at Richmond this night but it could work out that Indianapolis leads into the Richmond race.

The race could be on Sunday against NFL games if NBC wants a lead in to the first Sunday Night Football of the year. It would still not be a great number for the Indianapolis 500 but it would be better than terrible.

29. Pushed to September 20, full week of practice
30. Pushed to September 20, typical race weekend
Once again, these two are not likely but they are possible.

Let's tackle #29 first. This is assuming Laguna Seca is pushed back and IndyCar is still the penultimate race. The teams could get back from Portland on September 7, starting practicing on September 9 and go through Friday September 11, qualify on the 12th and 13th and have Carb Day on the 18th.

Possibility #30 makes Indianapolis the finale. Laguna Seca moves up a week, we have some strange IMSA/IndyCar doubleheader, which would be a nightmare because of the number of support series but it could be forced and then IndyCar has a three-day weekend or four-day weekend before the championship is likely decided in the Indianapolis 500 on September 20.

How would this work for the championship? Would Indianapolis be the only double points race? Would Indianapolis be a quadruple points race? Would Laguna Seca keep its double points status? It would be a massive end to the season. The championship could swing monstrously over these two races if both are double points. It would actually be interesting to see.

31. Pushed to October 3, full week of practice
32. Pushed to October 3, typical race weekend
These two take into consideration that Indianapolis will be the finale and Laguna Seca keeps its date.

Why didn't I put September 27 on this? Why did I jump all the way to October 3? The Ryder Cup is the weekend of September 27 and I do not see how NBC could fit the Indianapolis 500 in. Another reason I went this late is the 24 Hours of Le Mans is September 20. I don't think Roger Penske is going to move the Indianapolis 500 to the same date as the 24 Hours of Le Mans even if it meant the IndyCar season ending on the scheduled date for the finale.

Why October 3? Because Indianapolis Motor Speedway is already scheduled to be used this weekend for the Intercontinental GT Challenge's Indianapolis 8 Hours. The 8-hour race would not occur the same weekend as the "500." This 8-hour would likely be pushed back or moved up a week.

October 3 is also a Saturday, so it would mean avoiding an NFL Sunday and October is also the coolest option. It would not be a scorcher, which every date from July through the middle of September could be.

I would envision an Indianapolis 500 on October 3 would get a full week of practice. It could begin the Wednesday after Laguna Seca, run through Friday, qualifying could take place on the 26th and 27th, there would even be time for a Monday practice on the 28th, Carb Day could be October 2 and the race could be the next day.

I could also envision if the Indianapolis 500 is pushed this late teams will just want to get it over with, squeeze it into three or four days and then call it a season.

33. No Indianapolis 500
This is the worst possible scenario and it is still a real threat of happening.

A lot of events have been postponed and announced new dates or been outright cancelled. The hope is things will be better in the next few months. The hope is come May 10 things will be better but that seems tough. If not May 10 then by the start of June the hope is everything can get back up and running. These are all hopes. We need to see the number of new cases start to drop at some point and remain low for an extended period of time. Until that happens nothing is restarting.

The number of new cases could continue to rise and continue to overwhelm hospitals into July. At that points many more races would be postponed or cancelled. Things might start to get better but come autumn there could be another outbreak that shuts everything down again and all the races that were pushed from April to November and June to September will have to be flat called off because we will be right back where we are now.

We cannot rule out that the Indianapolis 500 doesn't happen this year and if that is the case there will be no IndyCar season this year. I know it is the most pessimistic thing to say but we have yet to see things get under control and things keep getting pushed further and further back. Formula One seemed ready to start the season at Azerbaijan during the first weekend of June and that has been dropped. If we are dropping things in June there is a good shot we have no season at all. We need to prepare for that possibility.

Monaco is already off the board. If Monaco can be cancelled then Indianapolis is no different. This is a year where there will be no NCAA tournament. A number of golf tournaments, tennis tournaments, hockey seasons, horse races and other sporting events have been called off. The Indianapolis 500 is not immune from postponement and it is not immune from cancellation either.

No one wants this to happen and it would be painful if the Indianapolis 500 would not be able to take place in 2020 but there have been years without the Indianapolis 500 before. The race did not take place in 1917 or 1918 due to World War I and the race was not held from 1942 through 1945 due to World War II. Despite each interruption the race returned.

This is an unknown feeling to us and as much as it hurts to have this void motorsports will return. We must do everything in our power as individuals to make sure a race is possible this year. That means isolating ourselves, not participating in possibly reckless behavior, washing our hands thoroughly and just being smart. We will have to be patient as more tests take place and clinical trials go on for a vaccine.

The Indianapolis 500 will take place again. All we can do is do the little things to make things get better.