Opening day of Indy 500 practice felt weird without fans

INDIANAPOLIS — James Hinchcliffe returned to Andretti Autosport. Well technically he did back at Texas in June. But, for the first time since 2014, the popular Canadian driver is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Andretti.

Andretti, has won three of the last six Indianapolis 500’s, so having Hinchcliffe back is a big deal. In two of his last three starts with them during his first stint, he started on the front row.

Wednesday though, felt weird for Hinch. His popularity comes with a ton of attention here in Indy. Normally, he signs autograph after autograph and poses for picture after picture.

He wasn’t able to do that on the opening day of practice for next Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). That’s because no fans were allowed in.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, this years race will take place behind closed doors. That’s been tough to grasp for everyone. The largest single day spectator event being run in the largest sporting venue in the world, has no one in those big aluminum grandstands — practice included.

“It felt different,” said James Hinchcliffe. “You kind of nailed it with saying it felt like a test day. I was having that conversation with a couple of the guys. It just kind of felt like a full on, very full on full series test day.

“Knowing that there’s way fewer people than there would normally be at this point in the week, thinking ahead to Fast Friday, qualifying weekend, Carb Day, normally you see a steady escalation of people at the track each day. Just knowing you’re not going to see that, this is the view we’re going to have until the end of the race, it’s a bit weird, a bit surreal. We certainly miss having spectators here in the stands.

“We still get to go put on a good show for them.”

Scott Dixon agreed.

“It was very easy getting into the circuit today,” said the 2008 Indy 500 winner. “It was very easy to go to the restroom. I didn’t need to remember my Sharpie at all. There were definitely a whole lot of differences.

“As Hinch said, it’s very strange, very weird. That’s what makes this place, the fans. We miss them greatly. But I think race day, that’s where the difference is going to be. Typically walking out of Gasoline Alley, that feel that you have coming out and hearing all those conversations, the atmosphere is crazy. We won’t have the buildup throughout the week. Definitely will be a big miss this year as far as not feeling the fans there.”

Hinchcliffe led the day in terms of speed in topping the speed charts with a lap of 224.526 mph in his No. 29 Chevrolet. The series returns to practice on Thursday, again without fans, with a longer session running from 11 am ET until 5:30 pm ET.

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