FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – IndyCar drivers finally were able to get on the track, on a steamy day in Texas at what would usually be the midpoint of their season.
Nearly three months after the start of the season was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, the cars pulled off pit road onto the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked oval for practice at noon Saturday. It was the start of an all-in-one-day event, with the practice session and qualifying and the 200-lap race all in the same day.
The massive grandstands at Texas Motor Speedway that can seat well more than 100,000 people were empty, and not because of extreme heat – it was sunny and 93 degrees Fahrenheit with a heat index around 100 degrees when the 24 cars fired their engines for the start of practice. No spectators were allowed, as will be the case for the next race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4.
All of the teams were already in St. Petersburg, Florida, for what was supposed to be the season opener March 15. But there were never any practice laps on the streets of St. Pete, making the fast track at Texas the debut for the protective windscreens that are now over the open cockpits of the cars.
Texas became the season opener while keeping its originally scheduled date, which was supposed to be the ninth of 17 races. That would have been two weeks after the Indianapolis 500, which has been rescheduled for Aug. 23.
Drivers and team members went through health screenings when they got to Texas Motor Speedway. Many of them had already gone through similar screenings to get on chartered planes they boarded at dawn Saturday in Indianapolis – and will return home on after the race.
Crew members were required to wear face masks, and there was plenty of room for social distancing in the garage areas. Texas used both of its 64-bay garages so the 24 teams could spread out and there were bigger-than-usual stalls on pit road.
The two-hour practice session included 30 minutes early in the session with only series rookies Rinus VeeKay, Oliver Askew and Alex Palou, and Texas first-time racers Jack Harvey and Pato O’Ward on the track.
VeeKay, the 19-year-old driver for Ed Carpenter Racing who won six Indy Lights races last year, crashed during the rookie-newcomer practice. The No. 21 car got loose between Turns 3 and 4, spun and slammed its left side hard against the outside wall. The car settled near the entry of pit road. The driver, who was checked and released from the infield medical center, had done a fast lap of 215.514 mph.
Owner-driver Ed Carpenter slid coming onto the frontstretch later in practice. The car spun, but it appeared Carpenter was able to avoid hard contact to the wall or significant damage to his No. 20 car.
It took a lot of effort just to get VeeKay, who is from the Netherlands, back into the United States. He was in Europe when IndyCar announced the start of the season. He initially flew to Mexico and spent two weeks quarantining there before being able to travel to Texas earlier this week.
â€œIt was very complicated. First of all, with the borders being closed, only flights going for necessary people, it was tough to make sure, yeah, the borders would open for me. Iâ€™ve had many weeks of no sleep,” VeeKay said earlier this week. â€œBut at the end, yeah, everyone really worked extremely hard to make it happen for me. Ed also worked super hard. At the end it was quite a journey going through Mexico and then to the United States. But, yeah, at the end just being here for the race is what matters.”
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