IndyCar packed every bit of its delayed season-opening event into one long, hot day in Texas without any fans in the stands. Scott Dixon was the fastest for most of the day at a place he knows well.
Dixon, a five-time IndyCar champion, took the checkered flag at dusk Saturday for his fourth win at the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked oval, where drivers had also practiced and qualified earlier in the day. The 39-year-old New Zealander raced to his 47th career victory and matched A.J. Foyt’s record of 18 seasons with a win.
After a restart with three laps left following a caution when his young teammate Felix Rosenqvist crashed, Dixon sped away in the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Honda for a 4.4-second victory over Simon Pagenaud. Defending IndyCar champion and polesitter Josef Newgarden finished third behind Pagenaud, his teammate at Team Penske. Canada’s James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., finished in 18th spot.
Nearly three months after the start of the season was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, IndyCar finally got on the track for what would usually be the midpoint race of its season.
The massive grandstands that can seat well more than 100,000 people were empty, and not because of extreme heat — temperatures in the mid-90s with a heat index around 100 degrees Fahrenheit throughout practice, qualifying and even much of the race. No spectators were allowed, as will also be the case for the next race on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4.
Gov. Greg Abbott rode in the pace car for the first professional sporting event in Texas since sports shut down nationwide because of the coronavirus. The only at-track spectators were the people watching from their condos in the building overlooking Turn 2.
WATCH | Dixon wins in IndyCar’s season debut:
Dixon had the top speed during the two-hour practice session earlier in the day, and qualified second to start on the front row alongside Newgarden. He went on to win the IndyCar title each of the three previous times he won the race at Texas.
Rosenqvist had been running behind Dixon for several laps when he crashed trying to move through traffic. He got high going onto the backstretch with nine laps remaining, bringing out the final caution. He finished 20th out of the 23 cars that started the race.
Race was shortened from 248 laps to 200
Dixon led 157 of the 200 laps, and had an earlier six-second lead over Newgarden wiped out by a caution for debris. Newgarden led twice for 41 laps and fourth-place finisher Zach Veach led the remaining two laps. Ed Carpenter, the series’ only driver-owner, rounded out the top five.
Because of the extended day at the track, the length of the race was shortened to 200 laps from its usual 248 at Texas, and was finished under two hours.
When Newgarden won the pole after being the last to take a qualifying run earlier in the day, there was no reaction from a crowd. There was, however, a quick warning over the radio to his Team Penske crew to avoid any celebratory high-fives.
“This feels awkward. There’s no fans,” Newgarden said then, adding that he was still excited to be back with his team and racing again — more than eight months after the end of his second championship season.
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 now over the open cockpits of the cars.
Teams went through health screenings
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 — they were returning home 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.
Rinus VeeKay, the 19-year-old rookie driver for Ed Carpenter Racing who won six Indy Lights races last year, crashed during practice and then had his debut IndyCar race end with another crash after completing only 36 laps. His No. 21 car got high going onto the backstretch, then ricocheted off the wall to collect Alex Palou, another rookie.
Takuma Sato missed the race after the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing crew was unable to get the No. 30 car repaired in time for the green flag after a crash in qualifying about 2 1/2 hours before the race started. The 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner was the polesitter at Texas last year before finishing 15th.