MOORESVILLE, N.C. – Days after the news that the 104th Indianapolis 500 will be held without fans on Aug. 23, NTT IndyCar Series drivers continue to focus on their job of winning the world’s biggest race.
Once they flip down the visor and peel off to begin the parade and pace laps leading up to the start, the 33 drivers in the field will be focused on trying to add their name to the history of the famed event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Once the race begins, the steely-eyed determination takes over and blocks out almost everything else.
One of the aspects that makes the Indianapolis 500 so special and so beloved on the worldwide sporting landscape is the massive number of fans that turn out to the 2.5-mile speedway every year. With 250,000 permanent grandstands, along with VIP suites and an enormous infield, more than 300,000 spectators annually attend the Indianapolis 500.
With Indianapolis one of the most recent hot spots for emerging cases amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials, led by owner Roger Penske, planned on reducing the crowd to 25 percent capacity. That included strict health precautions, mandatory face masks and social distancing between groups of ticket holders.
Inevitably, even that was considered too big of a risk. Thus, for the first time in the history of the race that dates back to 1911, there will be no spectators in the grandstands.
Despite that, the Indianapolis 500 must move forward. It is too vital to the health and future of the NTT IndyCar Series to be canceled. Sponsors have spent millions on the exposure that comes from the television broadcast on NBC.
“We have to run this race,” Graham Rahal said. “We have to run this race. I want fans there as much as anybody. We thrive off of that, we thrive off of that atmosphere. But I can tell you right now there’s a lot of teams, trust me, I get the heat for it on social media when I say teams probably wouldn’t live without this race.
“I get all the fans saying, ‘I don’t care about the teams.’ Fine. That’s great for you. But for us, we do.
“We care about the jobs that it provides, the cottage industries it provides in Indianapolis, everything else it does for our city, the economic impact. We have to have this race. At some point the call needed to be made.”
Originally, the weekend of Oct. 3 was being held in reserve for the Harvest Grand Prix that could be used in case the Indianapolis 500 had to be rescheduled from August. But the spread of COVID-19 isn’t slowing down, plus unpredictable weather conditions in October would make things even more difficult.
“Some people said to delay until October,” Rahal continued. “My personal opinion of that is you can’t. What if this doesn’t go away? In my opinion, it’s not going to. I just don’t see this disappearing any time soon. You get to October, you delay further, then it’s snowing, and the race doesn’t happen.
“If the race doesn’t happen, I can guarantee you United Rentals is not happy,” referring to one of Rahal’s sponsors. “I can guarantee you PeopleReady for Takuma Sato (his teammate), people aren’t going to be happy.
“We have to have this event, it’s really critical for our sport.”
Rahal admits none of the drivers in the field like the idea of staging the Indianapolis 500 in front of empty grandstands, but under the circumstances, that’s the way it has to be.
“It’s not great,” Rahal reiterated. “I think everybody would like fans there. No matter the heat that he’s taking, there’s nobody wants fans more than Roger Penske. I can assure you that.
“Each and every one of us, it would be great to have fans, but obviously there’s a lot of pressure coming from a lot of different areas. I’m not even going to get into it.
“Unfortunately, at some point the decision had to be made.”
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