Coronavirus Black-Flags The 500

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Joseph Ball

If you weren’t already concerned by the deserted downtown streets, the closing-down of restaurants and bars, or the Kroger shortages of Purell and toilet paper, here’s your COVID-19 wake up call. Indianapolis is now on a Code Black—as in black flag.

For the first time in 75 years, there will be no Memorial Day weekend racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. On Thursday, Roger Penske announced that due to the ongoing pandemic, the 104th running of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing would be postponed until August. This year, there will be no Month of May.

And if the cancellation of an entire month doesn’t provide perspective, consider this: Since its inception in 1911, the Indy 500 has only been pushed for more than a rainy day six times and every one of the cancellations were due to a global catastrophe.

In 1917, eight years after the track opened, the track was shuttered because America’s entry into World War I that April. The following year, the second 500-less year and the last of the Great War, the track and adjacent area were transformed into the Speedway Aviation Repair Depot, where more than 300 American bi-planes landed for repairs, modifications, and testing before heading overseas to fight.

By the time World War II came to America in December 1941, track owner Eddie Rickenbacker had no qualms about shutting down the Speedway and the race for the duration of the conflict. Eventually all auto racing would cease, as rationing of parts and fuel were key to the U.S. war effort. But unlike during the First World War, this time IMS was more or less abandoned. The facilities fell into disrepair, grass overtook the grounds, and even the asphalt-covered brick track itself began to deteriorate. Many thought that might be the end of the race for good.

In November 1945, with WWII now over, Tony Hulman stepped in to buy the track, fix it up, and have it ready to resume racing in May 1946. Through nearly 75 years of Hulman family ownership, Speedway never experienced an interruption of engines starting in May. And it sure pains new owner, Roger Penske, to silence the Brickyard in his first year as IMS owner.

But when the green flag finally does drop on Sunday, August 23, there will likely be an old-school Snake Pit atmosphere that spills out of the vast IMS infield. By then, we’ll all have a reason to celebrate.