INDY ON EMPTY
RESCHEDULED 500 IS SUNDAY, BUT WITHOUT FANS INSIDE, RACE HAS NO REAL WINNERS
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.” ✶
The entrance to Indianapolis Motor Speedway is eerily devoid of fans this week.