The first thing you notice is driving downtown or out 10th Street, 16th Street, 30th Street or Michigan Road. There are no checkered flags, no black and white bunting anywhere and no sign the biggest race in the world is right around the corner.
You get close to the track and see one merchandise trailer in a parking lot across from the track but nothing else …. no ticket scalpers, no breaded tenderloin stands and no cars lined up at the main gate.
Pulling into the parking lot of the golf course you fill out a COVID-19 form, get your temperature checked and drive under the old Turn 2 tunnel where your path to the Pagoda lot is paved with orange cones.
There is one yellow shirt to wave you in the right direction and one to make sure you have the right pass and a few more scattered around the pavilion but that’s it – nothing like the usual compliment of 1,000 directing traffic and maintaining law and order.
Because, obviously, there is no traffic. And there are no fans. And there’s no atmosphere. This is the 51st consecutive year I’ve covered Indy as a writer and the 62nd in a row I’ve attended and it’s somewhere between surreal and unimaginable.
Not being allowed in the pits or Gasoline Alley robs the small group of media in attendance from interviewing drivers, mechanics and engineers right after they come off the track. You cannot properly cover Indy without that spontaneity and interaction and you can’t get that from the fourth floor of the media center.
It’s like being at a tire test at Ontario back in 1971. Beautiful two-and-a-half mile oval, splendid weather and no access.
The 104th Indianapolis 500 will go down history as the strangest, saddest and most talked about race before a wheel turns on Sunday. The pandemic moved it from May to August and then neutered it from the general public. It’s the greatest spectacle in hand wringing because so many die-hard and passionate fans have been left outside looking into a day they live for once a year.
There will be approximately 2,500 people allowed into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway instead of the usual 250,000.
It’s been a financial nightmare for Roger Penske, who spent $15 million giving the old girl a facelift these past six months and who will not reap a penny from ticket sales or suites or concessions.
To his undying credit, The Captain hasn’t moaned once about his plight and has remained about as upbeat as humanly possible considering he’s also spent a fortune keeping the NTT IndyCar Series on track.
The best thing about the 2020 Indy 500 is that Penske runs it and has done whatever necessary to make it work. He had what appeared to be a very workable plan to spread 60,000-70,000 people around the track before it was gunned down by the politics and numbers of this virus.
Anyway, without anybody in the grandstands, it’s not eerie – it’s boring.
“We really miss the energy of the fans,” said 2014 Indy victor Ryan Hunter-Reay. “It’s such a great atmosphere on Race Day, Pole Day and Carb Day and it pumps you up.”
Added defending IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden: “Obviously we really miss the fans but we’re going to do our best to put on a magical 500 and make it a great race.”
It would be pretty weird for a first-timer to take the checkered flag and have no one to salute on the cool-down lap or nobody to do donuts for on the main straightaway or no addressing the fans on the PA system.
The purse is half of what it was going to be and that adulation from the masses all around the Speedway won’t be there but it’s still the race everyone wants to win. And if it’s anything like the last few finishes, it might make fans forget the isolation and depression of not being part of it.
It’s totally understandable why people who have gone for 10-20-30-40-50 years in a row are so bummed but hopefully they’ll be watching NBC and drive up the ratings, which could really help sell sponsorship for 2021.
People will still have a voice — we just won’t hear it on Sunday afternoon.