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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The roar of racing around Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course will return this weekend – and so will the roar of fans – as North America’s top sports car racing series comes to the 2.258-mile road course in Morrow County Friday through Sunday.

Last September’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race was allowed just 6,000 fans, but this weekend’s feature could see at least four times as many, possibly making it Ohio’s largest sporting event crowd in the COVID-19 era.

“I’m just getting the sense people want to get back out,” Mid-Ohio president Craig Rust told NBC4. “And that’s the great thing about our facility and racing, is it’s all outdoors.”

Before Ohio lifted a 30% capacity restriction on sporting events in April, the 380-acre facility asked the state health department for 24,000 fans (30% of the venue’s 80,000 capacity).

“We expect a few more people” now that the cap is lifted, Rust said, but the goal is to “get as many people out there as possible but without being irresponsible.”

Rust did not have an expected attendance figure when asked, but 24,000 fans would likely be Ohio’s largest sports crowd of the pandemic so far.

The track’s restriction variance request from March, which NBC4 obtained via public records request, outlines health protocols that fans will remember from last year. They include hand sanitizer stations, social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing (indoors and outdoors). And racers, teams and IMSA personnel will be in a bubble away from fans.

“We offer the ability for (fans) to be cautious and to see some great racing, see the cars and still be with their small group and maintain that social distance,” Rust said.

There will be no areas exclusive to vaccinated fans, but Rust does see the vaccine as the key to returning to semi-normalcy. Rust also said he is fully vaccinated and has encouraged Mid-Ohio employees to get vaccinated.

“I still think there’s some work to be done. I still think people need to be careful. I do think everybody has their own thoughts about where things are right now,” he said. “But I also don’t want to see things go back – because everybody thinks it’s all over – see things go back to what happened in 2020.”

Mid-Ohio took a financial hit from the pandemic, Rust said, but it was also able to hold two major events with fans last September (IMSA and IndyCar) and keep its driving school and track rentals open. He said the facility’s path forward is less making up for what it lost and more weathering the storm.

craig rust
Craig Rust, seen in 2010, became President of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2011. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

“In professional sports, once an event is held and somebody does not buy a ticket, I cannot resell that ticket to them for that event. That’s just lost revenue, and there’s really no way to make that up,” Rust said.

“(2021 will) be better than it was in 2020. It’s not going to be where we were in 2019. But we do see a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m excited that the vaccine got out here, got out so quickly, people are taking advantage of it.”

Local teams and drivers on the grid

A handful of local and Ohio-based teams and drivers will compete in Sunday’s main event.

Columbus motorsports mainstay Meyer Shank Racing will try for its first win in the top class: DPi prototype. Just two races in, the Pataskala-based team has run up front but still needs to put all the pieces together to capture a victory.

“At Daytona, two hours to go we were P1. At Sebring with one hour to go we were P1 and didn’t get the result I thought we could at the time,” co-owner Michael Shank told NBC4. His team sits fourth in the seven-car DPi standings.

The coronavirus-shortened offseason threw a wrench in the team’s development as MSR only got their car from former DPi team Penske six weeks before heading to Daytona. But a lengthy break between January’s 24 Hours of Daytona and March’s 12 Hours of Sebring gave MSR more time to prepare for Mid-Ohio.

“I feel like we’re kind of catching up to the program,” Shank said. “And since we’ve had some time off from Sebring, we’ve really been able to get our engineering a little bit stronger and learn more about the car.”

On their side, too, is the fact that Team Penske won Mid-Ohio the past three years with the same DPi cars that MSR and Wayne Taylor Racing have this year.

Mid-Ohio is the season’s first sprint race, lasting 2 hours and 40 minutes and using two drivers per car. One driver qualifies the car on Saturday then races the first 40 minutes on Sunday. The first of typically three pit stops in the race, Shank said, will feature a driver change.

But at a track where sharp turns and narrow racing lines make passing difficult, qualifying is critical.

“That’s the No. 1 thing,” Shank said. “In order to be up front, you’ve got to start up front” barring rare flukes in strategy during the race.

Shank added that his drivers, 2019 Mid-Ohio DPi winner Dane Cameron and French endurance racer Olivier Pla (who has never raced at the track), ran qualifying simulations when they tested at Mid-Ohio in late April.

Cameron, the 2019 DPi co-champion and winner at Mid-Ohio, has helped flatten MSR’s learning curve with the new car.

“It’s really just a matter of putting it all together,” Cameron told reporters last week.

Shank will oversee his IndyCar team on Saturday at Indianapolis then come back east Saturday night and arrive at Mid-Ohio Sunday morning.

In 21 entries at Mid-Ohio in various vehicle classes dating back to 2004, MSR has three second places but no wins. As a Columbus native with decades of experience in sports cars, Shank dreams of victory at his home track.

“We have not won a prototype race at Mid-Ohio before and we need to do that,” he said. “And it’s a very crucial time for me personally. It means a lot to me for lots of reasons, but we need to win at Mid-Ohio.”

The Columbus area’s other IMSA team, Hilliard-based BMW Team Rahal, will not race at Mid-Ohio. They are instead focusing their GTLM class efforts on endurance races, the next of which is June 27 in Watkins Glen, New York.

Elsewhere on the grid, Stockdale native Zach Veach will continue his first IMSA season after three years in IndyCar. Veach, whose best IndyCar finish at Mid-Ohio was 10th, will co-pilot the No. 12 Lexus GTD (a sedan/coupe class) for Vasser Sullivan Racing.

Centerville native Bryan Sellers will co-drive the No. 1 Lamborghini GTD for Paul Miller Racing. And class points leader Wright Motorsports, based in Batavia (east of Cincinnati), will field the No. 16 Porsche GTD.

Another notable entry is former Formula One driver Kevin Magnussen in the No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillac DPi.

View the full entry list here.

Drivers preview the tough racing

Wayne Taylor Racing, MSR’s Acura DPi sibling, is off to a hot start in 2021. Full-time drivers Ricky Taylor and Filipe Albuquerque won the Rolex 24, lead the DPi points standings and come to a challenging Mid-Ohio course as favorites to win overall.

“The track is very low-grip,” Taylor told reporters. He won Mid-Ohio in a Penske DPi in 2020 and 2018. “The surface is very, very old, and smooth. And so, the way that the corners go, you just feel like you can never turn the car.”

That smooth surface, however, marries well with the Acura DPi, Albuquerque said.

“I think it’s the flow that this car likes,” he told reporters. “There’s not so much bumps, I think it fits our cars well.”

A key part of the 13-turn, 2.258-mile course, Taylor said, is the “rhythm section,” turns 5, 6, 7, 8.

Mid-Ohio track layout
The 2.258-mile layout of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. (Will Pittenger/Wikimedia Commons)

“The traffic management there is always very important,” he said. “And managing your risk and knowing who’s in what GT car at what time is pretty critical to know who you can trust and who you can’t, because you’re kind of dancing along with a lot of risk there.”

For Wright Motorsports’ Patrick Long, who will drive one of those slower GT cars, the best places to pass are the braking zone entering the “The Keyhole” (turn 2), the straightaway right after it and “The Carousel” (a sweeping turn 12 at pit road entrance).

While drivers may spend some time protecting equipment in endurance races, Long said sprint races are “all attack all the time.”

“Every single lap could have a factor in the end of the race,” he told reporters. “It’s short enough that there might not be any safety car periods. And that first lap for (teammate Ryan Hardwick) is one second that he might be giving up when I get in the car toward the end of the race.”

Notes and weekend schedule

Vehicle classes: DPi prototypes, LMP3 prototypes, GTD sedans/coupes

Qualifying: Saturday, May 15, 12:15 p.m.

  • Format: GTD qualifying will feature two, 15-minute segments, the first setting the class’s starting grid and second giving out points. DPi and LMP3 qualifying will each have a single 15-minute session determining both points and starting position.

Feature race: Sunday, May 16, 2:40-5:20 p.m. (TV: NBC Sports Network)

Support races:

  • Mazda MX5 Cup (Race 1): Saturday, 11:15 a.m.-12 p.m.
  • Michelin Pilot Challenge: Saturday, 3:35-5:35 p.m.
  • Prototype Challenge: Sunday, 9:40-11:25 a.m.
  • Mazda MX5 Cup (Race 2): Sunday, 11:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.

View the full schedule by clicking here, review health protocols here and buy tickets (online only) here. 🏁