This is not how Roger Penske envisioned his debut season unfolding when he purchased IndyCar last fall.
Penske and the rest of the open-wheel racing circuit were in Florida in mid-March, gearing up for the season-opening race in St. Petersburg. But, before the green flag dropped, that race — and every other sporting event that weekend — had been called off amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Then Penske made the difficult decision of postponing the sport’s Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500, to August, marking the first time the race has been moved out of May.
But Penske is ready and excited for his IndyCar ownership tenure to finally start with the Genesys 300 on Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway. It’ll be a one-day, made-for-TV event with practice and qualifying in the afternoon, and the race scheduled for a prime-time start at 7:10 p.m. on NBC. No fans will be allowed to attend the race.
“We want to have a great day,” Penske said. “We’re ready to go. We’ve been through the playbook so many times, we’ve worn the pages out. We’re ready go.”
The Star-Telegram caught up with Penske this week about starting the season at Texas. TMS has never hosted a series opener, but it’s been an open-wheel staple since the track opened in 1997. Saturday marks the 32nd IndyCar race at the track.
How ready are you to get the season started at Texas?
“We needed to get back on the track with or without fans. There’s a real value to have IndyCar back running at Texas Motor Speedway. We have a long history there. We’ve worked very hard in conjunction with Eddie (Gossage) and his team in Texas, along with the IndyCar team, to have a protocol which will allow our teams, the officials, the drivers and anyone else who is on hand to have a safe and healthy environment. It’s a one-day event. We’ve seen NASCAR being able to execute those flawlessly. We’ll be leaving from Indianapolis early in the morning, having our practice, qualifying and racing all in one day. That’s going to be a first for us. It shows what we can do. Overall, I’m excited to get back on the track. We’ve got some great new young drivers and we hope to have a great kickoff to the season in Texas.”
Is it difficult opening the season with no fans given how fan-friendly the circuit prides itself on being?
“Of course. There’s no question about that. But for the health of the teams, their sponsors, our media commitment with NBC, when you take those all into consideration, you see the best thing to do is go racing. The goal is to get back to racing in front of fans. Right now, though, we’ve got to be driven not by what we might want to do, but be driven by the governors, the states and localities on where they are on the COVID-19 phases. We’ve got to take those into consideration and respect those as we go forward. I think this thing is moving in the right direction. We’ve seen numbers come down across the U.S.”
Along with owning the series, you’re a team owner as well. What feedback have you gotten from the drivers?
“All of the drivers are in their best physical condition, spending three to four hours a day on it. They’ve done some iRacing, too, but conditioning has been key. I’ve never seen a group of guys more ready to go.”
Eddie Gossage has called this one of the most important races in IndyCar history. Do you agree?
“It is the first race of the season. We thought we would be racing in March, but we’ve been dry. I think the fact that we’re opening up on a high-speed oval is good. The racing has always been great there and the fact that we can do it in this environment is amazing. When you think about network TV, on prime-time, you put all of that together — we couldn’t be in a better position.”
With that being said, there could be a lot of first-time viewers. What should they know about the sport going into it? “We’re counting on our commentators to let this new audience know about the technology, about the speed, about the G-forces. I think the in-car cameras and some of the information that we can give to those fans is going to be terrific. A lot of them have seen NASCAR now for the last few weeks and it’s a big difference between open-wheel and stock car racing. The new Aeroscreen makes the cars almost look like a space capsule now and running at the speeds that they’ll do at Texas … it’ll show off the sport quite well.”
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