It’s not overwhelming – or even close to a majority – but there are quite a few people questioning the decision to have the 104th Indianapolis 500 without spectators. “Why bother?” seems to be the most popular phrase in the emails and texts I’ve received since the edict came down last week.
Now, I understand that Indy is special to a lot of people for a lot of reasons. Some families plan their vacation around it each year, while others treat it like Christmas. It’s not just a race, it’s part of their being – whether it’s a 90-year-old like former USAC executive Bill Marvel, who has 75-consecutive Indy 500s under his belt, or a crazed supporter like UPS driver-turned-Indy 500-tire man Scott Gauger. And the super fans that get a flag, program or helmet signed every May won’t be allowed on the IMS grounds this week when practice opens.
If any sporting event thrives on fans and tradition it’s Indy, where the largest single-day gathering pushes 250,000 and attracts young, old, wide-eyed, buzzed, blue collar, tattooed and curious. To not have that melting pot of noise, emotion and color is truly hard to imagine.
But don’t think August 23 won’t matter without a crowd. Indianapolis is the lifeblood of IndyCar racing Always has been, and always will be. And in this year of fear and uncertainly from COVID-19, it might be more important to the pulse of the series than ever before.
“If the Indy 500 was cancelled, we would be giving back our sponsors a lot of money,” replied former winner and longtime car owner Bobby Rahal when asked the implications of not running Indy. “It would be a big problem for all the teams. I don’t think anybody is happy about not having fans – they make racing go, especially at Indy, and we’re always lucky to have so many generations, attend and celebrate.
“But Indy means the most and it always has, and it’s what attracts most of the sponsors to our series, so it’s imperative we have it – especially this year.”
The Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan stable fields two cars full-time for Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato, and has added Spencer Pigot for this month. Unlike days gone by, when Bob had Budweiser or Miller High Life pretty much as a sole supporter, RLL got creative a few years ago because, frankly, it was necessary as the big money dried up. So United Rentals, Fifth Third, Total, One Cure, Fleet Cost & Care, Factory Motor Parts, People Ready, Panasonic, Keihin and Hy-Vee Abeam Consulting, Digital Ally, Aero, Luther Auto, Hendrickson, Norm Reeves Honda, Rousseau, ZEISS, Canon Printers, Acronis, XYZ Printing, Mechanix Wear, Manitowoc, Lincoln Electric and Hogan are partners that either show up on one or all three cars and require different wrap schemes race-to-race.
“Our sponsors use races, especially Indianapolis, as entertainment for their customers and clients, and they aren’t necessarily happy they can’t come to Indy, but they’ve been super understanding,” continued the three-time IndyCar champion. “On the flipside, most of our sponsors are on ‘no travel’ mandates anyway, so even if we had the ability for hospitality, for most part it wouldn’t matter because they can’t travel.
“We’re doing everything we can so satisfy their needs, and it’s more work for the crews changing liveries twice a weekend. You simply do what you can with what you’ve got.”
Rahal is quick to praise Roger Penske for making the most out of an extraordinarily difficult situation.
“I’ve said all along, thank God we’ve got Roger, and if he hadn’t come up with doubleheaders, we’d have lost some sponsors along the way,” he said. “If we somehow come up with 14 races that’s pretty damn good, and it’s given us a chance to satisfy our goals. Everybody is dancing as fast as they can, and thankfully Roger is leading us. It’s going to be for less money this year, but we’re racing, and that pleases our sponsors.”
The Captain, who has already spent $15 million upgrading IMS and received limited or no sanction fees for the first six races in order to add races, won’t see one penny from tickets, suites, concessions or souvenirs without any paying customers. He’s not done spending as a co-promoter if Mid-Ohio goes in September, and if St. Pete can’t get clearance in October then he’ll have to find another track or make the Harvest GP at IMS a twin bill under Penske Entertainment.
“I have a problem with people criticizing Roger, because he’s stood up to his commitment to IndyCar and the Speedway,” said Rahal. “I can’t imagine what it would look like if he wasn’t calling the shots, and sure, we might all take a hit this year, but what about him? Yet he’s kept us on track in the most difficult of times.
“I get that Indy isn’t going to be the same, but it’s still going to be a helluva race, and I think TV and radio will convey the excitement of the day. I’m hoping people will be tuning into NBC in two weeks and give us the biggest audience we’ve had in years. That would be a nice thank you for all Roger has done to keep us alive.”