SHEHEEN: A Most Unusual Indy 500

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Ralph Sheheen Mug
Ralph Sheheen

MOORESVILLE, N.C. — It was 11 a.m. on the morning of the Indy 500. I was sitting at my assigned spot in the media center, where only two people were allowed in a single row.

There was a sign with my name on it, a race program, an empty collectible milk bottle and a pack of disinfectant wipes — all courtesy of the speedway’s media department. The media center was one of the very few places I was allowed to go. At that moment, I was one of only five media members in the massive room. It was one of many different experiences during this year’s Indy 500 run Aug. 23 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Normally, the room is buzzing at full capacity with more than 200 media folks from around the world, who are busy cranking out content as the tension builds for the start of the biggest race on the planet. Not this year.

I was fortunate to be one of only 40 journalists invited to cover the 104th running of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Only 2,000 people were on the grounds, including drivers, crews, officials and speedway staff.

On race morning, I knew there wouldn’t be any traffic and there was no need to rush to the track. Usually, I am there before the cannon fires at 6 a.m. This year, I slept in a little. I cruised through the health screening outside the track and pulled into my parking space behind the media center at 7 a.m.

I am hopeful that a fanless Indy 500 will never happen again, so I wanted to fully experience an empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway on race day. It was eerie. No cannon, no bagpipes, no whistles blowing. Just an early morning photo session taking place behind the pagoda with some folks from Chevrolet and their new Corvette C8 pace car, along with the beautiful Borg-Warner Trophy and its caretaker, Steve Shunck.

Everywhere you went you had to have on a mask. The only time you were allowed to take your mask off was when you were eating or drinking. Even the flagman atop the Borg-Warner Trophy wore a mask.

It was race day for the biggest motorsports event on the planet, though, at times the speedway felt like a ghost town.

I couldn’t go in the garage area or on the grid, which are things usually open to the media. We watched the field take the green through the glass high above pit road.

It was another action-packed, drama-filled Indy 500 with a very deserving winner in Takuma Sato.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 are all about history. Even though this year’s running of this legendary event without fans is something none of us ever want to see again, it was ultimately another unique moment in time for the speedway and this incredible race. I will certainly never forget it.

This was also Roger Penske’s first Indy 500 as owner of the speedway. Even though he didn’t have much time to make a lot of changes, his influence was visible everywhere — from the massive video board behind the pagoda, along with others placed around the speedway, to the thousands of gallons of fresh paint that helped the legendary race track  sparkle in the summer sun.

– In talking with members of the speedway staff, we learned the reason the grass throughout the speedway looks so immaculate is because Penske now has the greens keeper from the Brickyard Crossing golf course handling the manicuring of the track’s grassy areas. It looked fantastic.

– We took in all of the racing we could while in central Indiana. The American Flat Track motorcycles ran Friday and Saturday night at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. We caught the Friday show, and it was good to see the stars of the sport mounted on their Harleys, Indians, etc., pitching it into the corners and sliding in  formation around the mile dirt track.

– Bob Sargent is living up to his reputation as one of racing’s best and busiest promoters. His Track Enterprises group presented the Dave Steele Classic for the USAC Silver Crown Series on Friday at Lucas Oil Raceway and the rejuvenation of the Night Before the 500 with USAC sprint cars and midgets the following night at the .686-mile asphalt track. Both were good shows.

Sunday night after the 500, I hustled back to the Indiana State Fairgrounds for the Hoosier 100, another Sargent promotion featuring the heavy Silver Crown machines.

Even after two days of motorcycle racing on the fairgrounds mile, the track was in tip-top shape and the fans in attendance were thrilled as Kyle Larson drove from the back of the pack to add another victory to his magical season.

– The music pumping through the speakers around Indianapolis Motor Speedway got your adrenaline pumping just like the roar of the race cars. With a little investigation, we learned that Penske wanted high-energy, classic rock played over the speakers. Nobody was sure if it was “The Captain’s” play list, though.