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Uncharted territory for IndyCar at Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – As the professional sports world enters uncharted territory over the massive amounts of cancellations, IndyCar is trying to steer its ship to calmer waters.

It was able to salvage Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from cancellation, but it will be an IndyCar industry-only crowd.

Not since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 has the sports world been universally threatened by something so big. This time, it’s the coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic.

Working in conjunction with Mayor Rick Kriseman, Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles, race sponsor Firestone and other key health officials, the race will go on without spectators. No one from the general public will be admitted to the grounds.

Non-essential team members are being sent home.

“There will be a race,” Miles told about an hour before the official announcement was made at the St. Petersburg Police Headquarters. “It is challenging, but there is a great partnership between the city, the promoters, IndyCar and the other series.

“Everybody came to the discussions today to get the best answers. I think we’ve done that.”


Mayor Rick Kriseman -- Photo by Bruce Martin

Mayor Kriseman made the official announcement that the race would continue with drastic changes to who is allowed to watch in person.

The mayor, Miles and race promoter Kevin Savoree (pictured above) explained why the annual race on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, could not be canceled and held later in the season.

“From a series point of view, that would be very difficult,” said Miles, who is the CEO of the company that runs IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Nobody knows what the next several weeks or months are going to look like. You have multiple considerations. We’ve built a track. It’s tough to build it twice. There are television considerations. It would be highly unlikely to reschedule this. We have made the considerations we needed to do as we discussed to be able to continue forward.”

Green-Savoree Promotions has been involved in this race in one form or another since 2005. Because the NTT IndyCar Series season opener is conducted on city streets, there are a series of permits that have to be obtained with stipulations that have to be met by strict deadlines.

“We have a city license that we have had since 2004,” Savoree explained. “It’s very specific about build times and removal times and all those details. For us to work and recreate that over a two-month period, just wouldn’t be practical.”

The mayor has the authority to make a decision based on public health safety. He said there are now five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the area.

“It’s really about mass gatherings,” Mayor Kriseman explained. “The teams are already here. All of the competitors are already here in town. It’s not like it’s a week-out and nobody has come here yet. They are all here. What we don’t want to see is a situation where you have 150,000 people over a weekend that are all together in one place. It didn’t not make sense for us. That is why we did this.

“Trying to follow the advice of the experts, that is all we can rely on.”

Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was told of the joint decision to continue the race without spectators by

“Everyone is concerned about the health-related risks,” Hunter-Reay responded. “As racers, we want to race. With that said, these epidemics and pandemics, we are weeks and weeks behind what is actually the rate of infection. We don’t know where we are right now. We are a bunch of racers in St. Pete getting back to what we do.

“Not having spectators here, it’s unprecedented territory. We haven’t been here. It is extremely unfortunate for the fans. They make this series happen and make this event happen. It’s the only reason why we get to do what we do and what we love. They are not able to be here and support us.

“As fellow humans, we need to look after each other’s best interests and that is where we are at.”

This was supposed to be a weekend of great celebration, the beginning of a bright new future for IndyCar. Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation purchased IndyCar, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 from the Hulman-George Family on November 4 and officially become the owners on January 6.

Fans, media, competitors and partners were excited about the beginning of a new era for IndyCar, starting at St. Pete.

“At IndyCar, we are all about presenting great sport and compelling racing,” Miles said. “There is no place we enjoy doing that more than St. Petersburg, Florida. It’s the kickoff to our season every year. We feel the love here and have always appreciated the support.

“That is what we are about, but unfortunately, events have caught up with all of us here.

“I want to say heartfelt thanks to the mayor and his administration for their support and for Green Savoree for their hard work. The collaboration that went into their decisions today was excellent. We believe at IndyCar; we have ended up at a good spot.

“We are going to race. It will be part of the championship. It will be our first event. It will be seen nationally and internationally. People will still be able to see the beautiful vistas here at St. Petersburg. We accomplished a lot of what we set out to do.

“There are a lot of fans that are already here. I hope the merchants can take advantage of that because they won’t be able to come to the track. For us, it’s paramount, in addition to the support, the safety of the public and the competitors.

“I think we are at a spot that is the best under the circumstances.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500