Fans At The 500: Can Penske Deliver On Promise?

Roger Penske in the pits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

(AP Photo/Tom Strattman)

The Indianapolis 500 will have to wait if fans can’t attend due to COVID-19, according to the new guy who owns the place on West 16th Street. But Indianapolis Motor Speedway proprietor Roger Penske also thinks that will be a straightforward bar to reach.

“We’re on for fans in August and planning on it and we feel good,” Penske told Saturday night. “It’s still almost three months from now, and I think we’ll be OK. But we will run it only with fans.”

That final mandate—“only with fans”—initially makes the cloudy, uncertain COVID-19 world feel a bit better. Here’s Roger Penske, one of the better candidates for anyone creating a list of The World’s Most Connected People, speaking confidently about allowing hundreds of thousands of people to gather in one place later this summer while everyone tries to figure out when—and if—the virus will stop affecting so many and waving a red flag on plans everywhere.

But reality comes quick. It’s mid-June in America and there hasn’t been a paying spectator at a major sporting event in three months. COVID-19 testing in the Indianapolis area alone keeps finding nearly 150 new cases each day. The Indiana State Fair, scheduled to wrap up all its sweaty, fried glory on the very same day as the rescheduled race, was canceled last week. How the hell is “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” going to happen?

As we saw last week, IMS is trying just about everything. The traditional Brickyard 400—now a Fourth of July weekend event with, yes, a hand-sanitizer sponsor—is now going ahead without fans despite becoming a verifiable motorsports extravaganza. For the first time, NASCAR’s top Cup Series will race at the same location on the same weekend as IndyCar. The Cup stock cars will stick to the oval on July 5, while IndyCar will run its rescheduled GMR Grand Prix the day before on the IMS road course, making up the race previously scheduled for mid-May. There’s also no lack of interest in the second-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series race scheduled for July 4. The Indiana 250 Xfinity race will be raced on the road course layout for the first time, and three-time NASCAR champion and Indiana native Tony Stewart is planning to join the field for his first stock-car race since retiring from full-time NASCAR competition in 2016.

Penske said the track had big plans to let fans through the gates for the July weekend—photos popped up on social media showing social-distancing markings near ticket gates—but they were all scrapped to keep the table as neat as possible for the Indianapolis 500. It’s easy to see why that’s a shrewd move. Any change in local coronavirus cases between now and August that could be connected to IMS would have greatly reduced the appetite for a race with spectators. And IMS still stands to collect millions in hefty broadcast-rights revenues associated with hosting a NASCAR race—a revenue number typically much larger for tracks than the total dollar amount earned from selling things like tickets, hot dogs, parking passes, suites, and sponsorships. IMS doesn’t share its breakdown publicly, but one publicly owned NASCAR track listed a broadcast income more than double ($12.4 million/race) what it made otherwise ($5.8 million/race) last year.

The shift to no spectators in July without putting public pressure on local or state officials trying to navigate how to reopen safely also continued Penske’s run of growing political goodwill in the city since he bought the track. After completing the transaction, the billionaire business mogul quickly invested in significant capital projects at the track and was hardly shy in stating his grandiose vision for the future of the venerable venue long owned by the Hulman-George family. IMS also acted quickly at the onset of COVID-19 by announcing on March 26 the postponement of this year’s Indianapolis 500, giving credence to the stern warnings and stay-at-home actions taken by those officials.

“We’re on for fans in August and planning on it and we feel good. It’s still almost three months from now, and I think we’ll be OK. But we will run it only with fans.”

Penske’s words came while the IndyCar Series—he bought that, too—raced for the first time this season at Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth. The 24-car field raced only for NBC’s television cameras, as fans weren’t permitted—save for a few hundred people who owned or visited condominiums overlooking the track. It was the first time dating to the initial March 26 postponement that Penske unequivocally said the Indianapolis 500 wouldn’t occur if fans can’t be there.

Certainly Penske’s edict still provides a wide scope. Beyond an outright cancellation, the race could be postponed further if a clearer understanding of a COVID-19 resolution comes into view. Dates would likely be available all the way through sometime in October. And there’s always the chance the IMS runs the race with a heavily limited number of fans allowed, keeping to Penske’s word and giving an unexpected stimulus to the city’s ticket brokers.

Is it August yet?