There are still a lot more questions than answers about the 2021 Indianapolis 500 but 83 days out from the scheduled start of the 105th edition, it’s looking a helluva lot better than this time a year ago. And the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is doing its best to restore the health and confidence of all the lifers and fans that weren’t allowed to attend in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic.
This past weekend, almost 17,000 people were vaccinated at the Speedway’s streamlined and very efficient system that incorporated the F1 garages and let the Johnson & Johnson shots be given without leaving your vehicle.
Between the National Guard, frontline health personnel and medical workers it was a friendly, flawless, well-organized assembly line that brought some life and hope back to the world’s most famous race track.
“For months we’ve said to state and city, if this magnificent place can be helpful to the pandemic fight, whether it be COVID testing or vaccinating, that we were in,” says Mark Miles, the president of Penske Entertainment. “So the state came up with strategy to find three or four places in Indiana, and we were one of them.
“We could have run a whole lot more people through here and do it a lot more days, but we’re limited by the number of vaccines. Obviously it makes it better for May when a lot more people get vaccinated, and we’re certainly willing to do it again if asked.”
It was over our lunch almost two months ago that Miles floated an idea that sounded as smart as anything that’s ever come out of West 16th Street. He wondered if IMS could host a few days in April and May where there were three lines of service: one to get a COVID test, one to get a COVID vaccine and one to purchase race tickets. I was sworn to secrecy, but I finally told Rick Mears and he loved the concept.
“I just didn’t think it was feasible to have people do all that in one step,” replies Miles when asked about the possibilities. “The state and city want us to be successful, have a crowd, and I hope we have a pretty close to normal Indy 500, but it’s still too soon to know, in terms of the number of people that will be allowed.”
Last August, Roger Penske and his staff had mapped out seating for 60,000, and it seemed like an easy fit among the 190,000 seats. But after guaranteeing there would be fans, The Captain changed his mind and determined that Indy would only would be run in front of the teams. I asked if he took one for the team – the ‘team’ being Indiana, Indianapolis, government and all the health concerns – and he responded: “I think we took one for a lot of people.”
But in the past few weeks the numbers have started to look better and the vaccines are being gobbled up around the country, so cautious optimism is the byword.
“There is more of a spirit this thing is going to happen,” continues Miles. “I’ve talked to Augusta, Churchill Downs, all our tracks, and it’s getting better fast everywhere. But we’re still going to learn a lot from Barber and St. Pete.
“The city and country seems more optimistic that spring is coming, and it’s thawing from a pandemic point of view.”
Of course the tough choices have to be made by the fans from Boston to Bakersfield. Do they book a flight and room now? Or do they wait for April?
“We feel the pain for the fan as much as they do because this place is about having the same people back and all the traditions, and there is nothing we want more,” says Miles.
The smart money says 150,000-175,000 tickets have been purchased (or rolled over from 2020), but what might race day look like even with a green light?
“What will the conditions be?” says Miles, who hopes to be given a number or percentage by early next month. “Will everyone have to have a vaccine card to get in or show us they’ve been tested recently and got a negative result? Things are incredibly difficult to execute, and we can’t have every person taking 15 minutes to come through the gate. I hope everybody continues to plan on the assumption they’re going to be here. And as soon as we know under what conditions, we’ll be over-communicating once we know what we’re dealing with.”
Hopefully Gasoline Alley will be open to fans with gold and bronze badges and wearing a mask figures to be mandatory for practice, qualifying and May 30th.
“It’s been a year since lightning struck at St. Pete, and what’s crazy is it never stopped, and it’s nothing anyone could have predicted,” says Miles. We went through all the permutations and planning only not to have fans, and here we are again. But unless the world falls off its axis, we’re going to have fans.”