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IndyCar 2020 Schedule: Pocono Out, Richmond In

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 4 2019
The IndyCar Series is driving away from Pocono next year. In its place is a short oval.

By John Sturbin/Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Open-wheel racing’s return to Richmond Raceway next summer after a 10-year hiatus comes wrapped with the promise of delivering a demographic that is not necessarily so NASCAR-centric.

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule includes a return to the three-quarter-mile Virginia oval for the first time since 2009 as the only new addition. Richmond will play host to a night race on Saturday, June 27, as the 11th event of the 17-race season. Eight races will be featured on NBC.

“We’re pleased to return to the Mid-Atlantic Region, one we know to be full of INDYCAR fans,” Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman and Company, said during a national teleconference on Tuesday. “We’re also excited to return to historic Richmond Raceway, which was recently ‘re-imagined’ with a $30-million redevelopment project that modernized the infield for a better fan experience.

“Being back in the Mid-Atlantic Region is a big step toward our national footprint. It’s been a fun day here to see all the excitement. It was fun to see fans who have been waiting a long time to get us back, how enthusiastic they are. We believe that INDYCAR offers the best fan experience in racing. This is a terrific place to show off not just on the track but before and after the races what we do.”

The two-day race weekend will fall in the same slot utilized for the previous nine IndyCar Series races at Richmond dating to 2001.

“Richmond Raceway’s history in motorsports dates back to 1946, when the track hosted two AAA Championship Car events,” Richmond Raceway President Dennis Bickmeier said. “After hosting INDYCAR from 2001-2009, we now look forward to the return of the NTT IndyCar Series for our fans at America’s Premier Short Track as part of a Mid-Atlantic festival of speed on June 26-27, 2020.”

Bickmeier said he and INDYCAR officials are convinced Richmond no longer should be viewed as strictly “NASCAR Country.” The track plays host to a pair of weekends featuring the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. That is the same scheduling scenario at Pocono Raceway, the 2.5-mile oval in Long Pond, Pa., that Richmond is replacing with INDYCAR. The Indianapolis-based sanctioning body opted to drop Pocono from the schedule after a star-crossed seven-year run that was completed with the rain-shortened running of the ABC Supply 500 on Aug. 18.

That race was marred by a five-car crash largely blamed on Takuma Sato of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in Turn 2 moments after the start, prompting a 45-minute red-flag stoppage to clear debris. Pocono also was the site of the grinding, multiple-car crash on Aug. 19, 2018 that paralyzed series rookie Robert Wickens from the waist down. Wickens,  driving for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, continues a rigorous rehabilitation program with the goals of walking and racing again.

Pocono also was the site of the crash on Aug. 23, 2015 involving Justin Wilson, who was struck in the helmet by a large piece of debris off the car of race-leader Sage Karam. Wilson, of Great Britain, suffered a traumatic brain injury and died the following day.

Pocono’s list of open-wheel winners began with Mark Donohue on July 3, 1971 and includes A.J. Foyt Jr., Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, Tom Sneva, Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon and Will Power _ who scored his third win at the track last month.

No mention of the departure of Pocono, which played host to its first open-wheel race under U.S. Auto Club sanction in 1971, was made by any of the INDYCAR principals during the teleconference.

“To the point about being ‘NASCAR Country,’ I think we’re motorsports country, we’re racing fans here,” Bickmeier said. “I think to be the Mid-Atlantic home for INDYCAR is a big deal for us. There are great fan bases in big cities that you can get here really quickly _ D.C., Philly, Baltimore, all these places we’re going to market and tap into that INDYCAR audience that’s there, get them down to Richmond.

“I will tell you, the community has changed here a lot as well in Richmond. We’re going through just a big transition here in Richmond _ a lot of jobs, a lot of young people that are staying here in this community, living downtown. It’s got a great vibe to it. We’re really trying to tap into that with everything we do out here, not just our racing.

“We’re a multi-purpose facility. We have an amphitheater, did 15 concerts this year. We’re attaching ourselves to the heart of what’s going on here in our community. People believe in us, our elected officials. Even to the point we got $21-million of road improvements coming to the area right around the racetrack.

“We’re working on revitalization projects with our county. All these things add up to, again, what we’re trying to do here. Bringing INDYCAR back was a big piece of the puzzle. I tell people all the time we looked at our facility as a puzzle _ literally we pulled it apart, putting it back piece by piece. INDYCAR was a big part of putting that puzzle back together.”

The 2020 schedule will mark INDYCAR’s second full season with NBC Sports Group, which will air races live on NBC and NBC Sports Network in addition to programming on NBC Sports Gold. Coverage will feature eight races on NBC, including qualifying for the 104th edition of the Indianapolis 500. The remaining nine races will air on NBCSN.

Miles said TV ratings for INDYCAR were among the items considered in the decision to return to Richmond. “We look at everything starting with the racing,” Miles said. “You’ve heard a lot about that, our great expectations for that. Then you look at the market. Dennis already mentioned the demographics here have changed and continue to change. I think that’s all good from an INDYCAR perspective.

“The television, they (Richmond) seem to always almost be top-five wherever we race. We know they’re INDYCAR fans here. We have a pretty good sense that these folks we’re sitting here with know how to get them to the track. It’s hard to do, but it’s an obvious place to get to. We wanted to get this done. We’re going to see what happens next year.” Length of the new contract was not disclosed.

Jay Frye, president of INDYCAR, said Firestone Racing will conduct a tire test at Richmond in October “with a couple cars,” and a full field in March to settle on a compound.  “We’re going to make sure we give fans a good show. I think we’re going the right way,” Frye said.

Dixon, the five-time/reigning series champion from Chip Ganassi Racing, won the most recent Indy car race at Richmond in 2009.

“Last time we were here, we didn’t deliver what the fans wanted,” said series veteran Tony Kanaan of A.J. Foyt Racing, who won at Richmond in 2008 driving for Andretti Green Racing. “The last year we had too much downforce. Everybody was running the same lap time. Once you got a backmarker, you couldn’t do anything about it. That was a combination of a lot of things probably. I don’t think I can point out one thing that made the race like that.

“I remember we came back, we were going flat-out, like full-throttle around this little place. Then you go to a race, you’re only a 10th, 10th-and-a-half from each other. You can’t pass. I think we need the tires to go off (degrade), you need less downforce, you need the cars to slide, then you’re going to see some passing. I think the passing is the most important thing.

“Since Jay and Mark came on-board, they’ve been working extremely hard with Firestone and Dallara to get the right package. I believe we found that. If you guys watched the last two years in Iowa (Speedway), how the race has been. This track is extremely similar.

“I’m not expecting anything less than 800 passes here when we come back. Hopefully, I’ll pass Scott for the lead on the last lap and I’ll win.”

Dixon jokingly countered that he’ll be aiming for back-to-back victories. “I think the ultimate goal is Iowa,” said Dixon, comparing possible scenarios. “We’ll have to see how that progresses. I think there will be a lot of effort that goes in from the tire test in October through to March. Try and create as much margin in that as possible. But it could take a little while. We’ll just have to wait and see. The goal is to have a very similar race at Iowa.”

For the 10th consecutive year, the season will kick off on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sunday, March 15. The opener on the 1.8-mile/14-turn temporary street circuit in the Gulf Coast city first hosted Indy cars in 2003 and has continuously since 2005.

The schedule again features a diversity of tracks with seven races held on permanent road-courses, five on temporary street circuits and five on oval tracks. The season will conclude for the second consecutive year on the challenging 2.258-mile/11-turn WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca road-course in Monterey, Calif., where the championship-deciding race will be held Sunday, Sept. 20, again on NBC.

Other 2020 schedule highlights:

_ The race on Circuit of The Americas 3.41-mile/20-turn FIA approved natural-terrain layout in Austin, Texas _ second race of the 2019 season _ will move from March 24 to the fourth slot and be held Sunday, April 26.

_ After running the 0.875-mile oval at Iowa Speedway in Newton (Saturday, July 18), the series will take a three-week break as NBC and NBCSN focus on televising the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

_ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course’s 2.258-mile/13-turn layout returns to one of its traditional weekends, moving from Sunday, July 28, this season to Sunday, Aug. 16, next year. The event in Lexington, Ohio, will begin NBC’s road to the finale, with three of the final four races on network television (Mid-Ohio, Portland and Laguna Seca).

_ The break between the final two races of the season will be reduced from two weeks to one. The Grand Prix of Portland on Portland International Raceway’s 1.964-mile/12-turn road-course will be held Sunday, Sept. 6, while the event in Monterey, Calif., is set for Sunday, Sept. 20. Both will air on NBC.

_ Centerpiece of the schedule again will be the Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, featuring the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 24. The month will open with the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Speedway’s 2.439-mile/14-turn road-course on Saturday, May 9. Qualifying for the 500 is set for Saturday, May 16, and Sunday, May 17, on IMS’ famed 2.5-mile oval.

_ The street race in Long Beach (Sunday, April 19) returns to its 1.968-mile/11-turn layout for a 37th consecutive year, second only to the Indianapolis 500 for most years in succession. Toronto’s Exhibition Place, a 1.786-mile/11-turn temporary circuit, returns for a 36th year on Sunday, July 12.

_ After celebrating its 10th INDYCAR race earlier this year, Barber Motorsports Park’s 2.3-mile/17-turn natural-terrain road-course in Birmingham, Ala., will host the series on Sunday, April 5.

_ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park in Detroit will host a doubleheader on its 2.35-mile/14-turn street circuit for the eighth consecutive year (Saturday-Sunday, May 30-31), both of which will be televised on NBC.

_ Texas Motor Speedway ‘s high-banked/1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth will continue its tradition dating to 1997 of hosting “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” on Saturday, June 6. In addition to Richmond, the series will race Saturday night at Iowa Speedway (July 18) and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway’s 1.25-mile layout in Madison, Ill., (Aug. 22).

_ Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., again offers the season’s longest track at 4.048-miles and 14 turns, with the race set for Sunday, June 21, on NBC.

Broadcast times will be announced at a later date. All track activity and additional exclusive content will be available on NBC Sports Gold, the direct-to-consumer product that made its debut in 2019.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, September 4 2019
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