Practice for Indy 500 starts this week, what drivers feel about no fans and why it was imperative the show still went on

INDIANAPOLIS — On Wednesday, 33 NTT IndyCar Series machines will be towed out of Gasoline Alley and placed in each of their individual pit stalls at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 17 of those cars will have a Chevrolet engine in them. 16 will have Honda power. Not all will come out at the same time though as the first couple of hours of practice (11-1 p.m. ET, NBC Gold) will be for veterans only. The two hours after will be for a veteran refresher program and Rookie Orientation (NBC Gold). Then, the day will wrap up with an all skate for all 33 drivers taking to the famed 2.5-mile oval.

What will make this year different is, typically as the cars and drivers maneuver their ways through Gasoline Alley to pit road, they’re normally flanked by race fans wanting a quick picture or a quick signature on their ways out. This is the time that these daredevils are treated like rock stars. The attention is great.

This year, that won’t happen. It will be a quiet lonely ride through the empty grounds for everyone on site.

“Yeah, I mean, obviously ideally we’d have fans there,” said Spencer Pigot. “It’s going to be different not having people standing outside the garages, Gasoline Alley, cheering for you as you walk out onto the grid. It’s going to feel a lot different.”

His former boss Ed Carpenter agreed.

“Yeah, I mean, this will be my 17th attempt at the 500,” said Carpenter of the new situation. “You meet new people every year. You see the same people every year. Over that time you develop relationships that are centered around standing outside of your garage in Gasoline Alley.

“It stinks, it sucks that we don’t get to share that passion we all have that is the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately it’s the reality we’re in right now.”

Carpenter, says that this is the best that they can do unfortunately and without a doubt is going to be a different environment.

“I was at the Speedway this morning when we were doing our announcement,” Carpenter continued. “Most of us in this call have been out there when it’s essentially empty, whether it’s early in the morning or late at night. That’s what it’s going to be like for the most part on race day. You’re going to be missing the sounds and a lot of the sights and colors.

“For sure I’ve thought about it. It’s going to be a different morning, different lead-in to the race. After 16 of them, you have a cadence and anticipation for the buildup. That’s all going to be different this year.

“But one thing I have learned for me personally from Texas, having no fans, Iowa being very limited, even from previous 500s, you take all that in, it’s a lot of the buildup, excitement, it makes it special, creates a lot of anxiety. When we strap in the cars and put our helmets on and start racing, for me anyway, whether it’s a full house or empty house, you’re so focused on what’s in front of you, doing your job, everything else disappears anyway.

“I’m confident it’s not going to affect the type of show we put on or the excitement and how aggressive we are fighting for an Indy 500 win. It’s still going to mean the same thing. We’re just not going to have our fans to celebrate with after the fact.

“But it’s going to be historic.”

Graham Rahal notes that it’s not ideal to not have fans, but it also wouldn’t be ideal to not run the race either. See, if you don’t run the ‘500 on Aug. 23, then the biggest revenue race on the season is gone. That means we’d lose a lot of teams between now and next year because they need this race in order to make any money.

We know 2020 has been less than ideal. There’s not a lot of money to be made this year. Everyone is doing the best that they can just to get by. But, if you move this race back to October, there’s no guarantee that this virus doesn’t get any worse and that we could even race in general. Plus, NBC Sports couldn’t guarantee a big enough window to get the race in on network TV. That would mean a loss of TV revenue.

So, while it’s not good to not have any fans here this month, it’s viable for the teams to at least get something in terms of revenue.

“It’s not great. It’s not great,” Rahal said. “I mean, I think everybody would like fans there. No matter the heat that he’s taking, there’s nobody wants fans more than Roger Penske. I can assure you that.

“Each and every one of us, it would be great to have fans, but obviously there’s a lot of pressure coming from a lot of different areas. There’s — I’m not even going to get into it.

“There’s a lot of pressure from a lot of different areas. Unfortunately at some point the decision had to be made.

“As I said the other day in my comments, we have to run this race. We have to run this race. I mean, no matter how you look at it, I want fans there as much as anybody. We thrive off of that, we thrive off of that atmosphere. But I can tell you right now there’s a lot of teams, trust me, I get the heat for it on social media when I say teams probably wouldn’t live without this race. I get all the fans saying, I don’t care about the teams. Fine, that’s great for you. But for us, we do.

“We care about the jobs that it provides, the cottage industries is provides in Indianapolis, everything else it does for our city, the economic impact. We have to have this race. At some point the call needed to be made.

“Some people said to delay till October. My personal opinion of that is you can’t. What if this doesn’t go away? In my opinion, it’s not going to. I just don’t see this disappearing any time soon. You get till October, you delay further, then it’s snowing, the race doesn’t happen.

“The race doesn’t happen, I can guarantee you United Rentals is not happy. I can guarantee you People Ready for Takuma, people aren’t going to be happy.

“We have to have this event, it’s really critical for our sport.”

Carpenter, is not only a driver, he’s the only owner-driver in the field. He agrees with Rahal in that while it sucks to not have any fans, it’s something that has to be done in order to help minimize any losses to the bottom line.

“It’s an awful situation to be in,” said the Indiana native. “I talked to someone about this back when Roger made the comments that we just won’t run the race without fans. I was asked a question if I would be open to doing it without fans. It’s something that I don’t want to have happen. I would love for our fan base to be there.

“But it absolutely is critical to run the race. Far and away it’s what makes and breaks our season as teams. It’s the most important event to our partners. It 100% sucks not having fans there and not even being able to have the experience with our partners in full being there. But it’s necessary.

“We’ve got to look at all the hard decisions now of what we have to do to be in a position to have fans in 2021. It’s critical for the health of the teams that we have this race to make sure we have teams back here next year.

“That sounds a little dramatic, but that’s the reality. We live in not only a very volatile world right now, but our industry and motorsport in general, it’s not an easy business to operate. When you lose your marquee event, it’s a lot different than looking at losing Portland on the schedule or Barber. They’re in totally different atmospheres as far as the importance to us and our partners.

“It sucks that we had to be in this position. I feel terrible for Roger Penske right now. But he’s doing an outstanding job leading our series and doing his best to help our teams through this difficult situation we’re in.”

So, off we go on Wednesday in an empty house with 33 drivers fighting for racing supremacy next Sunday. In order to go down in racing lore, fans or no fans, you have to have your car right and that’s how crucial these practice days are leading up to it.

Rahal, notes that this race though won’t be any different once the green flag drops. See, when you’re at speed, you don’t notice the fans. You have to be so in tune with the car and the track itself, there’s no time to drift off and let your mind wander.

“Sure, it does,” Rahal continued about the loss of fans. “Once you’re in the moment and you’re locked in, as Takuma said, when I’m racing wheel-to-wheel with Sebastien or anybody else last year, I’m not looking at the grandstands, right? A couple of my buddies play in the NHL. I’ve been talking to them. I asked them the same, What is it like to play without fans? To be honest, once we start playing, I didn’t even think about it. The same for us. That’s even in a much closer environment than even Indy.

“For me, do we want fans? I mean, you know we do. We all thrive off of that. Hopefully it is us that wins the 500 and drives through the Yard of Bricks. To see nobody, it’s going to be a weird feeling, for sure. At the same time we all understand the position that we’re in today and what we have to do to keep this thing going forward.”

 

 

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