NEWTON — This was different. This was strange. This was good.
For the first time since winter, Iowa had a major sporting event. For the 14th-straight year, the IndyCar Series held a race at Iowa Speedway. Two, in fact. It was a Friday night/Saturday night doubleheader.
It was on national cable television, and it had fans in attendance. Not very many, but some. To accommodate social distancing, only about 5,000 tickets were made available for each night’s racing. In a 30,000-seat facility, that made for plenty of distancing and easily the smallest crowd that’s ever seen those ground rockets fly around that .875-mile oval.
But at least there were some people in the stands. At least there was something happening, sports-wise.
“It’s a difficult time,” popular driver Tony Kanaan told the fans before Friday’s race. “But it’s nice to see the grandstand with people.”
Those people had what was probably a new experience for them, getting a contactless temperature screening in their vehicles before they were allowed to enter a sports venue. All were given a face covering if they didn’t already have one, and hand sanitizer. Ticket scanning was contactless, as were transactions at concession and merchandise stands.
The infield was off-limits to fans. Everyone in the infield was masked, from team crews to race officials to media. On a steamy day/night on pavement, wearing a face covering normally wouldn’t be your first preference. Here, it was an accepted way of life.
Then they put on a show Friday, with a couple of wild moments in the middle and the kind of final result you seldom see.
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On the 144th of the 250 laps, Will Power’s car hit the wall when a lug nut came loose on his left front tire. The tire than caromed over the front of Power’s car, and he was lucky he didn’t get clobbered by it.
While Power’s car came to a stop on the track, the loose tire rolled all the way down the straightaway like a horse that had thrown its jockey and kept running.
Twelve laps later, Colton Herta didn’t know a restart had been aborted, and drove up on the back of the car piloted by Rinus VeeKay. Herta’s car went up and over VeeKay’s, 15 feet in the air. It straddled the retaining wall, then landed back on the track, right side up.
At first sight, it looked disastrous. Incredibly, neither driver suffered as much as a scratch.
Something odd happened during Friday afternoon’s qualifying. When it was his turn on the grid to get on the track and try to win himself the pole position, reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Simon Pagenaud’s car wouldn’t start.
That’s bad enough no matter where you are, but when your livelihood completely revolves around having a car that, you know, runs?
“We had some sort of a turbo pressure issue,” Pagenaud said later, “a problem that’s really rare.”
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His Team Penske crew members had a couple hours to correct the matter, and Pagenaud began the race in the 23rd and last position. He proceeded to win.
“Hey, I never give up,” Pagenaud said afterward.
“Sometimes there are mechanical issues. We didn’t crash out of the race. We scored maximum points. Can’t be mad at that. Can’t be mad at anything. … These things happen, and I’m 100 percent behind everybody. I make mistakes, too.”
Pagenaud is from France. The 23 drivers here represented 11 nations and four continents, and here they were competing near Iowa cornfields. That’s something I feel obligated to mention, because the networks that televise the races here always show the corn.
Normally, the top three finishers are brought to the media center for an interview session. Adding to the unusual circumstances of these times, however, Friday’s was done via Zoom.
“I think everybody is having to adjust massively like we are right now doing this videoconference,” Pagenaud said.
A runaway tire rolled all the way down a straightaway, the winning driver’s car wouldn’t start in time trials, all the fans got their temperatures taken before entering the facility, and you couldn’t see anybody’s face. Most importantly, no one got hurt.
It was something different, it was something strange, and ultimately, it was something good.
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