FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — When defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden crossed the start-finish line to get the pole for the long-delayed season opener, 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.
Newgarden, last to make a qualifying run on a steamy Saturday in Texas, had a two-lap average of 215.740 mph in the No. 1 Chevrolet. The race later that night was set to end an all-in-one-day event to start the season.
“This feels awkward. There’s no fans,” Newgarden said, 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.
Five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, who had the top speeds in an earlier two-hour practice session, qualified for a front-row start at 215.368 mph mark in the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Nearly three months after the season was put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, IndyCar finally got on the track at Texas Motor Speedway for what would usually be the midpoint 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 and qualifying. 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.
With the heat and recent inactivity on the 1 1/2-mile, high-banked track — the last race was a NASCAR Cup race last November — there were some slick spots. Takuma Sato, last year’s polesitter, crashed hard into the wall when starting his qualifying effort after there were three different single-car accidents during practice earlier in the day.
Simon Pagenaud, Newgarden’s teammate, qualified third ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was fourth at 214.311 mph after the Andretti Autosport team got the No. 28 Honda repaired from a practice crash that damaged the suspension and wing on the right side of the car.
Sato had finished his warmup lap and taken the green flag for his qualifying shot when he got high into Turn 1. The No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing car had significant damage with only about 2 1/2 hours to prepare for the green flag.
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.
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 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 from the Netherlands 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.
“Rookie mistake. I went too low, lost the car,” VeeKay said, adding that team was working to repair the car for qualifying. “Let’s reset and go from there.”
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. He qualified 13th, 10 spots ahead of VeeKay.