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104th Indy 500 will run without fans; Hendricks County diehards weigh in

By Rick Myers

For the first time in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history, the Indianapolis 500 will be run without fans.

IMS officials released a statement shortly after 12:30 p.m. Tuesday with the announcement.

“It is with great regret that we announce the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 will take place on Aug. 23 without fans. This tough decision was made following careful consideration and extensive consultation with state and city leadership,” officials stated. “As dedicated as we were to running the race this year with 25 percent attendance at our large outdoor facility, even with meaningful and careful precautions implemented by the city and state, the COVID-19 trends in Marion County and Indiana have worsened. Since our June 26 announcement, the number of cases in Marion County has tripled while the positivity rate has doubled. We said from the beginning of the pandemic we would put the health and safety of our community first, and while hosting spectators at a limited capacity with our robust plan in place was appropriate in late June, it is not the right path forward based on the current environment.”

The race, originally schedule for May 24, was pushed back to Aug. 23. At the time of the announcement, new IMS owner Roger Penske said he would not run this year’s Indianapolis 500 without fans.

“It’s very disappointing,” Geoff Bradley, of Avon, said.  “I think it’s the right call under the circumstances. I was surprised they went this long before calling it.”

Bradley, whose Speedway business rents a suite at IMS, said the decision will be a “blow to the Town of Speedway and the economy of Indianapolis.”

“It’s going to be real interesting,” he said.

Sarah Ferguson, director of marketing for Visit Hendricks County and a resident of Speedway said she was disappointed but understands.

“I had given up my seats this year for the race but did plan to attend some of the qualifications since the crowds would be smaller,” she stated via email.  “I have taken extra steps to keep my family and myself safe, and I wasn’t ready to attend the larger event yet. While I’m disappointed I cannot attend the race, I believe following the guidelines of the CDC and precautions put in place by our state and county to protect people is the number one priority.”

From an economic impact standpoint, she said hotel occupancy tells the story.

“The best way to explain the impact is by looking at the occupancy of our hotels,” Ferguson stated. “In 2019, we saw an average occupancy rate around 70 percent every day for people staying in Hendricks County hotels. This means every night, about 70 percent of all rooms in Hendricks County are occupied. During the Indy 500 weekend, this is usually closer to 90 percent for two to three days. Since COVID arrived in our community mid-March, we have seen occupancy drop to just 23 percent for the whole county at the lowest and currently it is just under 50 percent every day – over 20 percentage points less every day than what is was one year ago.”

Hendricks County Judge Dan Zielinski, of Danville, will be missing what would be his 40th race. An ardent IndyCar fan, his daughter, Abby, was a 500 Princess a few years ago and he met his wife, Patty, on opening day in 1992.

It’s a big disappointment for us,” he said, reflecting on the fact he will miss all of the pre-race pageantry. “This would have been my 40th race.”

Still, Zielinski has faith in IMS leadership’s decision.

“It’s fine,” he said. “We’ll have fun. We just can’t wait until next May.”

John Whitehead, of Plainfield, who had two tickets to this year’s race, said this will be the first time in 34 years he will not have been present at the race. He attended the Road America race in Elkhart Lake, WI, in July where fans were present.

“I’m not surprised,” he said of the IMS announcement. “Unreal. I’m very disappointed. I think they could have ran the race with social distance seating and masks in an outdoor venue.”

IMS officials concluded: “Penske Corporation made a long-term investment to be the steward of this legendary facility. While we were very excited to showcase the investments and enhancements we have made in the guest experience, we know we have reached the right decision. As much as Roger Penske and everyone associated with the ‘500’ wanted to race with fans this year, we ultimately reached this conclusion in partnership with the state of Indiana and city of Indianapolis.

Additionally, during the month of August, IMS officials report:

  • All on-track activity during the month of August, including practice and qualifications, will be closed to the general public;
  • Individuals who still have tickets to this year’s Indy 500 will be credited for the 2021 Indianapolis 500 and will retain their seniority and their originally assigned seats;
  • The first Indy 500 practice will take place on Wednesday, Aug. 12, with a full schedule available on IMS.com;
  • All of the action from IMS can be viewed via NBC Sports Gold, NBCSN or NBC. Visit IMS.com or INDYCAR.com for a comprehensive streaming and broadcast schedule;
  • The 104th Running of the Indy 500 will take place Sunday, Aug. 23, with national coverage beginning on NBC at 1 p.m. ET;
  • Local Central Indiana coverage of the race will be available on NBC affiliate WTHR;
  • Broadcast coverage of qualifications on Saturday, Aug. 15 begins on NBC at 3 p.m. ET; and
  • Sunday, Aug. 16 broadcast coverage of Pole Day begins on NBC at 1 p.m.

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