INDY ON EMPTY

RESCHED­ULED 500 IS SUN­DAY, BUT WITH­OUT FANS IN­SIDE, RACE HAS NO REAL WIN­NERS

Chicago Sun-Times - - INDY 500 - BY MICHAEL MAROT @ap­marot

IN­DI­ANAPO­LIS — It’s al­most race week­end, and the tiny en­clave of Speed­way looks vir­tu­ally bar­ren. The usu­ally col­or­ful camp­grounds and park­ing lots are empty — green grass un­touched and white gravel undis­turbed. Ab­sent are the fa­mil­iar sweet smells of food sta­ples such as turkey legs and deep fried Oreos. The tra­di­tional signs wel­com­ing race fans to town are missing, as are the lawn chairs along the berm of Craw­fordsville Road in the shadow of In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way.

The 104th run­ning of the In­di­anapo­lis 500 is Sun­day, weather per­mit­ting. For the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity of Speed­way, which bills it­self as the rac­ing cap­i­tal of the world, many res­i­dents will be watch­ing from home be­cause of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, and they are filled with sad­ness.

“It’s been one of the most con­stant things in my life, and I look for­ward to it ev­ery year, just the race it­self,” said Tom Beaudry, a long­time rac­ing ven­dor who can hear the roar of the en­gines from his back­yard. “I haven’t missed one since I was 5. You know, it’s bit­ter­sweet hear­ing them run­ning — know­ing they’re run­ning and know­ing you can’t go in­side.”

In­side the his­toric speed­way are grand­stands with 232,000 seats now cov­ered in red stick­ers read­ing “Do not use.” With suites and in­field crowds, the race is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered the largest sin­gle-day sport­ing event in the world each year, with more than 300,000 in at­ten­dance.

This week­end, it will be zero.

New speed­way owner Roger Penske couldn’t wait to show the fans what he’d done to the place af­ter buy­ing it and pour­ing millions of dol­lars into ren­o­va­tions this spring. Now the grand re­open­ing has been resched­uled un­til at least Oc­to­ber, or more likely May, when the Indy 500 is usu­ally run.

Nearby restau­rants, ho­tels and other small busi­nesses have lost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars, and the pa­tio par­ties that are all the rage in Speed­way were put off.

Indy­Car driv­ers and team own­ers don’t like the deaf­en­ing sound of si­lence, ei­ther. A.J. Foyt, one of three four-time race win­ners, called the fan­less qual­i­fy­ing week­end lonely. Tony Kanaan, the 2013 win­ner from Brazil who drives for Foyt, de­scribed the un­fet­tered strolls through Gaso­line Al­ley eerie. Even two-time world cham­pion Fer­nando Alonso of Spain, who will make his sec­ond 500 start from the No. 26 qual­i­fy­ing spot, finds the empty seats dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing.

“When you’re out there run­ning, you al­most have the feel­ing that you’re test­ing — most of the guys have done that here,” Alonso said. “But that was a very strange feel­ing for me be­cause it was the first time I’ve done that here.”

Penske moved the race from its tra­di­tional Me­mo­rial Day week­end slot to late Au­gust, fully be­liev­ing some fans would be able to at­tend. On Aug. 4, he back­tracked, and ever since, IMS pres­i­dent Doug Boles has been in­un­dated with hun­dreds of re­quests for ex­cep­tions. He has heard from ticket-hold­ers hop­ing to at­tend their 75th con­sec­u­tive race, peo­ple such as Beaudry who haven’t missed a race since they were tod­dlers, and those with ter­mi­nal ill­nesses.

“It’s been the most dif­fi­cult part of this,” Boles said, and then paused. “It’s heart­break­ing. For many peo­ple, it’s one of the most im­por­tant things they do all year, and I’m one of them.”

Fi­nan­cially, the con­se­quences could be even worse — and not just for small busi­nesses or those who earn ex­tra cash by park­ing cars and campers in their front yards..

Indy­Car CEO Mark Miles said one study he has seen called the im­pact of the 500 the equiv­a­lent of “hav­ing a Su­per Bowl in In­di­anapo­lis ev­ery year.” Closer to home, Speed­way High School’s booster clubs and the town’s pub­lic li­brary all use race week­end as their pri­mary fundrais­ers.

The race’s most loyal fans may be get­ting at least some good news. Boles is ex­pected to give those ex­pect­ing their per­sonal streaks of at­tend­ing con­sec­u­tive races a dis­pen­sa­tion Fri­day by declar­ing only the May races count.

Oth­ers, like Beaudry, have an­other plan. He in­tends to set up his sou­venir stand out­side the track, be­tween turns 1 and 2 where about 100 peo­ple con­gre­gated with Boles for qual­i­fy­ing last week­end. No, it won’t be the same Indy 500 — but it will still be mem­o­rable.

“I know my streak won’t be bro­ken be­cause I’ll be there,” Beaudry said. “I might not be in­side, but I’ll know I was there.” ✶

DARRON CUM­MINGS/AP

The en­trance to In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way is eerily de­void of fans this week.

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