Roger Penske said it was one of the toughest decisions he’s ever had to make.
“It’s certainly at the top,” said the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to RACER on Tuesday night, some nine hours after it was announced there would be no fans at the 104th Indianapolis 500. “I told somebody today I got clubbed in the back of my head here in 1995 and today felt like I got clubbed in the front, but the bottom line is that it’s the best thing for everyone inside this racing bubble.
“We’re going to have qualifying, a race and a winner and I think it’s going to be a helluva show for NBC.”
The Captain had been adamant for two months there would be fans in the stands, but something changed his mind over the weekend. Even though Penske Entertainment president Mark Miles said nobody forced IMS’s decision, it almost seems like R.P. took one for the team since IU Health condemned the decision to run with paying customers.
“We took one for the city, state, racing industry, sponsors and just about everyone we talk to,” he replied. “Back on March 1 we had 160,000 seats sold, then we dropped it to 50 percent and put out our 88-page plan late last month to work with 25 percent. But the metrics in the past seven days really went against us, and we had to make a decision.
“If we’d have waited four days before the race to cancel it would have been hell, so we made the call. It killed us, but we think it was the right thing to do.”
Besides the estimated 70,000 fans that won’t be watching live, there is a big question about whether the sponsors will be allowed in the track and what kind of access they’ll have if they are.
“I’ve got a two-hour meeting set with the car owners tomorrow and we’ll go over a bunch of topics like that,” said Penske. “We’ll look at everything we can in the guidelines, and see what’s proper.”
Despite spending millions on the facility already, renting Iowa Speedway for a doubleheader, giving Texas a deal to stage the season opener and the fact he won’t make a penny off IMS’ biggest cash cow, the 83-year-old dynamo seemed as upbeat as ever.
“It’s my 57th wedding anniversary today — what a way to celebrate,” he laughed, sitting next to his wife Kathy. “But seriously, our people have done an amazing job from the ticket office to the ground crew, and Jay (Frye) and his people. Nobody wishes we could have fans more than me, but this COVID virus is bigger than anything in the racing business, and we have to support the technical data, metrics and daily information we’ve been given.
“It’s still going to be the greatest race in the world, it’s just going to look a little different this year.”