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Canadian Press photo by Frank Gunn via AP / Canadian-American actor and racing enthusiast Jason Priestley waves the green flag to start an IndyCar race on July 15, 2018, in Toronto.

The stars of IndyCar were in Florida preparing to start their 2020 season when the coronavirus pandemic slammed the brakes on those plans 48 hours before the green flag.

Almost three months later, the series is finally set to go racing.

The revised schedule will start Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway in NBC's first prime-time IndyCar race. The open-wheel series follows NASCAR, which heads into this weekend with its top-tier Cup Series having already completed nine points races in 2020, with five of those just since the May 17 return at Darlington Raceway.

Both series have had to draw up extensive safety plans. Both are racing without fans for now.

IndyCar teams based in Indianapolis will head to the airport before sunrise Saturday to begin health screenings required to board chartered flights scheduled to leave for Texas before 6 a.m. Everyone will be screened again before they enter the track in Fort Worth, where face masks will be required.

Drivers and teams outside of Indianapolis will arrive Friday but also be subject to the same screenings. Team rosters are limited to 20 competitors, and the garages will be divided — Chevrolet teams in one, Honda teams in the other.

It will be radically different from the last time everyone was together in March 2019 in St. Petersburg, Florida, soaking up the sun and enjoying the party atmosphere of the traditional season opener. An already lengthy offseason has now been stretched to more than eight months, and the first event of 2020 will happen at a high-speed oval, where drivers will get their first in-race test of a new windshield designed to protect the cockpit.

"I think everybody is nervous. If you're not nervous, I'd be concerned about the head that you have on your shoulders," veteran driver Graham Rahal said.

"You're going to probably one of the most intense tracks of the year, and you're going there without testing, you're going there without much practice, you're going there without knowing what these tires may bring for us this weekend. You're going there without knowing what exactly the aeroscreen is going to do to us on a track like that."

Unlike NASCAR, which has scrapped practice and qualifying for its rescheduled events, IndyCar will do both at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday afternoon before the race that night. The field consists of 24 drivers, including three rookies making their IndyCar debut, for the 200-lap race on the high-banked, 1.5-mile track.

The rebranded Arrow McLaren SP team will debut with rookie Oliver Askew, last year's Indy Lights champion, and Pato O'Ward, who has returned to IndyCar after a brief stint last year racing in Europe. Alex Palou will debut for Dale Coyne Racing, which in the offseason fired Sebastien Bourdais and promoted Santino Ferrucci into its lead seat. Rinus VeeKay is the third rookie making his debut, alongside oval veteran Ed Carpenter, owner of Ed Carpenter Racing.

The past six winners at TMS are in the field dating to Carpenter's victory in 2014 through two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden's trip to victory lane last year.

Newgarden isn't sure veterans will have any sort of edge considering drivers have largely been sidelined since the Sept. 22 finale. TMS has never before hosted an IndyCar opener, with its race typically held well into the season and after the Indianapolis 500.

"Texas is a very difficult race track to race in general, whether you've been there 20 years or it's the first time. It's a daunting track to get right," the Tennessee driver said. "From the rookie side, it's going to be extremely difficult. This whole year is going to be tough on rookies with limited track time. I think Texas will be one of the toughest places to go to right out of the gates."

IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway are in their first year of new ownership under racing icon Roger Penske, who has worked with teams to get them guaranteed bonus money installment payments while business was closed. IndyCar now has a revised 14-race schedule. It includes three stops at Indianapolis — two on the road course and the rescheduled Indy 500 on Aug. 23.

"We've not heard a huge amount of issues yet," IndyCar president Jay Frye said. "We're very conscious that the economics of the teams matter. It's exciting that we're on NBC on Saturday night, and we're going to do everything we can to provide as many benefits as we can to make sure our partners are covered.

"We've not heard a lot of any huge stress on the teams from their partners, and one of the things we've talked to them about is what is the sweet spot for number of races?" Frye said. "How can we make sure that we're accommodating as many of them as we can? We feel good about the 14 that we have."

NBC will send its booth staff and two pit reporters to Texas, and executive producer Sam Flood said social distancing will be practiced between play-by-play announcer Leigh Diffey and analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Fox Sports, conversely, has been calling its NASCAR events from a studio in North Carolina.

Flood also said the broadcast will be careful to recognize the current issues in the country, from protests related to the death of George Floyd to the ongoing pandemic.

"I think it has to be acknowledged for sure because it's impacting so many lives, and starting with COVID-19, which anyone in the world knows about right now because it has been top of mind for 80-something days," Flood said. "And in terms of what's going on across our country in terms of race protests and the rightful dialogue that's coming from that, we will appropriately react to it and make sense of it.

 

Fourth without fans

Indianapolis Motor Speedway will host the IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader on Fourth of July weekend without fans.

Track officials had been optimistic IMS could be the first major sporting venue to have fans back in the stands this summer. Instead, the stands will be empty, much like the rest of the tracks since major racing resumed in the wake of the pandemic.

IMS officials announced the decision Thursday after consulting with local and state officials.

"While we certainly worked diligently to run our events with spectators, we reached a point where we needed to make a final decision because the race weekend is less than a month away," said Mark Miles, who oversees the IndyCar Series as president of Penske Entertainment Corp. "Today it's not possible to be confident that Indianapolis will be at Stage 5 of the state's reopening plan by the Fourth of July weekend."

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced a five-stage plan last month to resume business and social activity in the state, with the final phase tentatively scheduled to include a return to sporting venues on July 4 — the very day an IndyCar-NASCAR Xfinity Series doubleheader is scheduled to run at the sprawling track. Marion County — home to Indianapolis, the state's largest city — only recently entered the third stage of the plan.

IMS draws upward of 275,000 people for the Indy 500, the world's largest single-day sporting event that this year was postponed three months to Aug. 23. In recent years, Brickyard weekend attendance for the NASCAR visit has waned. Last year's estimated crowd of 60,000 was an improvement over 2018, but with approximately 235,000 permanent seats at the speedway, there could be plenty of space for fans to be socially distanced should the restrictions loosen.

NASCAR's Brickyard 400 is still set for its original date of July 5 on the historic 2.5-mile oval.

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