I have a confession to make: I was late to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week. It wasn’t my fault (it never is, but honestly, it wasn’t), but I’ve finally made it to the Speedway for my first Indy 500.
I’ve done qualifying weekend here before on three occasions, but never the race itself, so even in COVID times I was massively looking forward to getting out here. And all sorts of issues that I won’t bore you with now meant I didn’t arrive until last night.
So today was my first day at the track, and it is eerily quiet for a venue that is about to host the biggest post-pandemic sporting crowd the world has seen.
Walking into the plaza behind the Pagoda and the drivers’ meeting was taking place with just a handful of guests or spectators. When it was done, the drivers all chatted to each other for a while, Roger Penske starting chatting to the service men and women who were present, and there was a fair bit of milling around.
So I headed to an interview with Mario Andretti, walking past a silent Gasoline Alley and beside hospitality areas that were totally empty. Mario even had to unzip the awning because it was closed for the day.
In F1, the day before the race has always been one full of tension. Plenty of track action including qualifying and support races, if you were admitting 100,000 for the race then you’d expect up to three quarters to be in for the day before. Here at IMS, it’s empty.
That’s partly due to the pandemic, of course — with stuff like the Spectacle of Homes taking drivers out to the fans — but it’s also just a day of preparing things. Audio tests, setting up, getting ready for tomorrow, there was nothing for fans to come and see today and that’s why it feels so quiet and still.
But even with a capped capacity, all of that is about to change.
“I wish you were in for 300,000 people, but 135,000 people is going to feel like a whole bunch,” IMS president Doug Boles told me Saturday evening. “I think the biggest thing is how this place changes when it’s got people in it. Right now, it’s just so massive and cavernous. Then when you get people in here, especially along the frontstretch, it becomes this really intimate theater.
“I think that’s something that people, especially race car drivers, who come here for the first time, find. They go through the whole process leading up to it, and even qualifying day when you have 25,000 people here it feels like not very many, and then when they end up walking out on race day morning watching the place fill up, it’s magical.
“Then from a fan’s perspective, the tension level rises too. You clearly know that something important is on the line. And it’s not just the race, it’s all the other stuff that goes around it. So the pre-race traditions, that methodical lead-up that happens year after year after year that makes this place so special. So I think just that tension, that density of the air, I think that is what you’ll notice.”
All of the preparations are especially important this year, even for a smaller than usual crowd, because this is a venue that isn’t just going to have the eyes of the motorsport world on it on Sunday. It’s going to be anyone who relies on big events.
135,000 people will descend on the Brickyard Sunday, bringing with them atmosphere and noise, but more than that they will provide hope. A symbol for the rest of the world that is maybe still tightly gripped by the pandemic that things can get back to normal.
“This morning I wake up to a text from the Philadelphia Eagles president — which is kind of cool — so it’s people that are acquaintances that you have met along the way who are cheering you on,” Boles noted. “And the way he said it actually added a little bit of pressure for me this morning.
“He signed off with: ‘I will be watching, and not rooting for any driver, but rooting for Doug Boles and the staff at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.’
“That’s a pretty big deal, right? So tonight I’m going to send a note to my staff and I’m going to end it with that, so that they know that the hard work they put in over the last several months and certainly the last few weeks hasn’t gone unnoticed outside of these grounds. When an NFL president sends you a note, it means people are paying attention.”
Chatting to drivers today, some like Pato O’Ward were being pulled from pillar to post with different sponsor commitments, while others like Marcus Ericsson were staying at his home rather than at the track in the confidence traffic won’t be so bad with the smaller crowd; but all were hyped for the race: “Who do you think’s going to win? Who’s your pick? I can’t wait to get out there. I want to win it so bad.”
For the drivers, that edge is back, knowing so many fans will be watching them live again. And the silence and peace on Saturday evening is giving them time to think about what’s ahead.
Even just filing this, most people are long gone from the Speedway, and I’m the last one leaving the media center. So I’m already realizing my rookie mistake, because just as the drivers will be now, they’re all taking a deep breath while they can, before a big slice of normality returns tomorrow with The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
It might even end up being the greatest spectacle since COVID hit, period.