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Motor sports insider Nathan Brown discusses what’s next for the 2020 IndyCar season.

Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS – Roger Penske kept one of the biggest secrets in motorsports history under lock-and-key for a month-and-a-half. A transaction that likely involved a nine-figure sale needed just eight people apprised of its crucial details until The Captain was mere inches from the finish line.

Penske’s ship is tight, focused. Always aligned on a common goal, whatever winning looks like with the topic at hand.

The scheduling of the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 is no different. Before COVID-19 shook the world off-kilter – with schools, jobs, sports leagues and large portions of some states coming to a halt – May 24 was supposed to be Penske’s coronation. It was to be the final step in his takeover of IndyCar and its crown jewel track. Close to 300,000 roaring onlookerswould be in attendance to witness what might be the pinnacle of his racing career begin to truly unfold.

But that vision gets blurrier by the day. It’s been 40 days since Penske Entertainment Corp. unveiled its announced changes to this year’s Indy 500 and the short-term plan for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We’re less than that – 37 days – until the track is supposed to open, and just 48 days until rookie practice was set to roll May 12.

With a domestic diagnosis growing more dire  by the day, and with it so hard to project what even the next week or two may look like, it’s hard to imagine what the Indy 500 would – or even could – look like right now. Thirty-three entries on race day mean several hundred team personnel, not to mention emergency workers stationed around the track, media, IndyCar and IMS workers and a TV crew, among others – everyone in sets of relatively confined spaces just two weeks past the set expiration of the CDC’s call for no more than 50 people to congregate.

That’s without fans, of course.

The public perception, not to mention the aspect of ensuring everyone’s safety, is hard to get past in terms of having fans on the scheduled date.

And running without them, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing becomes a mere shell of itself – the same year it was supposed to be the best version of itself yet. A race preserved in its hallowed slot on the calendar becomes anything but what it’s supposed to be.

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And it doesn’t have to be – at least it doesn’t appear so at this moment. Despite this week’s announcement of the postponement of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo — planned for late July and early August — the entire sporting world doesn’t yet seem to need to follow suit.

After considering the handful of serious factors that would play into finding a new landing spot for an Indy 500 postponement – while keeping the two-week race schedule intact – there seem to be two separate plans overlapping one large hole in the current slate that makes far more sense than any other.

If Penske and Co. have any hope of holding an otherwise “normal” 500 during a topsy-turvy year, an early August race seems to be the best bet.

A closer look

Before I dive too deeply into this proposal, let me make a couple of things clear. This idea makes a handful of assumptions which could very well be adjusted going forward. Those include:

>> Scheduled NASCAR races do not change their broadcast time or network (from NBC to NBCSN, for instance).

>> IndyCar essentially picks up the traditional two-week calendar of festivities surrounding the 500 – post GMR Grand Prix – and drops it somewhere else on the calendar. Rookie orientation, practice dates, two-day qualifying, Carb Day, all of it.

>> IndyCar doesn’t shuffle around any other races that could otherwise go off without a hitch to put the 500 on an already-occupied weekend.

>> Planned NBC-televised events this summer and early fall (the Open Championship, the PGA Tour’s playoff events and the Ryder Cup) stay in place.

>> By mid-July, the sports world and most of the rest of the country has returned to whatever “normal” means following the height of the pandemic.

With those items stationary, let’s continue.

In a Summer Olympics year, IndyCar had pressed together six race weekends during an eight-week span following the 500, allowing a three-week layoff for its sole broadcaster, NBC and its other platforms, to have around-the-clock Olympics coverage, and still finish the season in mid-September. After Iowa on July 18, it was supposed to be 29 days until Mid-Ohio on Aug. 16.

With NASCAR switched onto NBC at that point in its season, but also off the air for two consecutive weekends (the final one in July and first in August), it creates the only real hole without current competition. Regular season hockey and soccer, as well as tennis and, of course, NASCAR, will come back into the fold if IndyCar is returning, too. But the 500 would appear to be the biggest show in town on a national level at that juncture, at least for the necessary weekend programming.

Stock car racing was set to return post-Olympics at Michigan on Aug. 9, but broadcast on NBCSN, meaning either that date, or the Sunday prior (Aug. 2) have a clear runway from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for a 500 broadcast, including the pomp and circumstance pre-race, as well as a post-race celebration for the winner and his team.

Golf has left an open window with the Open Championship capping on July 19, without another NBC event planned until the BMW Championship the weekend of Gateway (Aug. 22). No football, college or Colts, to get in the way or distract fans. No IMS conflicts – beyond what was shaping up to be the Penske team’s first chance at a truly massive overhaul post-Brickyard 400. The Kentucky Derby has been shuffled into September, and IMSA won’t yet be into its massive season-ending events at Sebring (now in November) and Petit Le Mans (mid-October) that some IndyCar drivers have, in the past, raced in.

What about Labor Day weekend?

To keep the 500 closely resembling what it has been for decades – a two-week-long ramp up to the biggest single-day sporting event in the world – you’d have to go much, much deeper into the calendar.

Folks have suggested dropping the 500 on Labor Day weekend, the current spot for the penultimate race on the series calendar in Portland. But the news of the past two weeks – with races at both street (St. Pete and Long Beach) and road courses (Circuit of the Americas and Barber) either announcing finalized cancellations for 2020 or already handing out refunds to ticketholders – it should be very clear that moving a race, even with weeks’ notice, isn’t a simple feat.

In fact, the Portland race promoters – Green Savoree Racing Promotions – already lost maybe their most important race in St. Pete and weren’t able provide basic refunds. Forcing more of their race fans to change flight and hotel plans, as well as volunteers’ scheduled time off work, doesn’t seem like something Penske Corp. would do to a loyal partner already feeling a lot of this in its pocketbook.

NASCAR runs deep into the fall. Why can’t IndyCar?

In order to put something remotely close to a full 17-race schedule, the series will have to lengthen the schedule. But in the heat of NASCAR’s playoff races, which truly ramp up after IndyCar’s planned season-finale at Laguna Seca, it would need both NBC and NASCAR to shift things around to make things work.

The weekend of Sept. 26-27, NBC is full with Ryder Cup coverage, and the following weekend, IMS is set to host the Indianapolis 8 Hour for the Intercontinental GT Challenge Oct. 1-4.

Each of the following two Sundays, NBC is set to broadcast Cup races starting at 2:30 p.m. (Charlotte and Kansas) – both of which would interfere with NBC’s Sunday Indy 500 qualifications broadcast (originally slated for 1-3 p.m.) as well as a race broadcast that typically needs until close to 4 p.m. to complete.

Minus the Oct. 25 NASCAR race at Texas set to broadcast on NBCSN, you’d have to move back a NASCAR broadcast from its current slot, and then you’re inching toward butting into Sunday Night Football.  Not to mention battling with the Colts and college football during fall weekends.

Are there thousands and thousands of fans that would flock to IMS no matter what day the race was run? Absolutely, but it’s not the only segment of ticketed fans that attend year after year. And folks who would traditionally tune in from their couch that holiday weekend in May without much else on suddenly have a myriad of options vying for their attention.

In the end, this is merely an educated guess. The sporting world may pause completely until the end of the year, or a compact four-day Indy 500 program may end up being what’s necessary in 2020. And even still, we may see a dramatic reversal in the current state of affairs that makes late May somewhat viable.

But there’s a reason we haven’t heard anything definitive from Penske. He’s known to work with haste and decisiveness throughout his career as a racing mogul and racing savant. There’s no doubting he’s spent hours the past two weeks on the phones, in meetings and awake at night trying to brainstorm, negotiate and pinpoint the best-possible solution.

And in the past 36 hours, the perfect window may hav just opened up and tossed his camp a lifeline.

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

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