INDIANAPOLIS — The 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) is here. Sunday’s “Greatest Spectacle In Racing” is certainly going to feel different. None of the previous 103 editions will have the makings to what Sunday’s about to have.
Originally, this race was supposed to be held on Sunday, May 24. But, on March 26, the entire leadership team felt like it was best to move the race until August. They worked with their partners, the teams, NBC and everyone involved to find a new date – August 23.
“When we did that we felt like those five months were going to give us the best opportunity for our community, our state, the country to figure out how to manage through this COVID pandemic and the metrics,” track president Doug Boles said in a leadership conference call with the media on Wednesday.
A lot has changed since that decision, obviously. In early June, they decided no fans will be at the Brickyard 400/GMR Grand Prix race weekend for July 4-5. Later that month, it moved from a full house on Aug. 23 for the ‘500 to 50-percent capacity.
“It’s not a secret. We’ve tried to be very transparent about it. We had to be flexible,” said CEO Penske Entertainment Corp, Mark Miles. “We had to plan all kinds of different scenarios. There was a point in time, remember way back when the governor announced the five stages, the hope was that the state would be at stage five in early July. Under the guidelines at that time, for stage five, we could have done the race as we normally do.
“Then 50%, we knew at that point in time that we were going to have to make accommodations.”
So, between that June decision and the one a month later in July to be able to seat 25-percent capacity, Miles said that the amount decided to allow in was driven also by their customers and who wanted to go or not.
“We contacted every one of our ticketed customers, the people who buy the tickets not that many weeks ago, kind of the last available date to say, What do you want in the way of your tickets?” Miles continued. “They were asked to remake their order from nothing, take a credit next year, to I want them all.
“At that point it was pretty clear that we could meet two goals really. One was we could accommodate the requests of all our ticket customers at the same time we could put a 25% cap on attendance as a percentage of the capacity of the Speedway. That’s how we got to there.”
Also, while that announcement came, so did the 88 page report to how the Indy 500 was going to safely run with 25-percent capacity. They got the report signed off on by all the top ranking officials that needed to be in terms of the state and federal health and government officials.
“Throughout this whole period, (we had) very frequent, in-depth conversations and discussions with the city and state public health authorities,’ Miles said. “Those are both at the boards of health, city and state, then the mayor’s office and governor’s office.
“We made it clear to them from the first conversations, we tried to make it clear publicly, that we could have the best 88-page plan imaginable, and we reviewed it with so many experts, so many local public health experts, nobody had anything to add. They felt like we had really thought of everything under these circumstances. We can have that kind of quality plan with all the right inputs, confidence we could execute it.”
But, the only problem was, the report was fluid as the biggest thing about this was, the pandemic itself and how it was going to affect the areas around the track. Miles said that if the public health situation in general was not at a place where it made sense to go forward with fans, then “we wouldn’t do it.”
“I think people want to hear that somebody told us no,” Miles said. “That wouldn’t be correct. We understood exactly where the public health metrics were. We understood what public health authorities were saying, for example, to schools. 5% positivity rate is a pretty universally understood kind of threshold for whether or not schools should welcome kids back in person. All those things went into it.
“We got to the place where we couldn’t wait any longer. We were a week or so to beginning to have cars on track. At that point we had to make a decision.
“I think it was clearly the right one.
“Sitting here today, some of the metrics are slightly improved but not where they should be. I think the realities on the ground with respect to public health made the decision. It was just clear to us what the right decision was. I think both the city and the state were as disappointed as we were not to be able to welcome fans, but appreciative of the call that got made at the end.”
Boles said that throughout this entire process, it’s been an emotional rollercoaster for everybody working at the Speedway. He said their ticketing team has worked virtually every day since the beginning of June.
“I mean that every day, Saturdays, Sundays, managing through how do we take care of our ticket customers, how do we reseat the entire venue at 50%, at 25%. It has been a taxing time for all of us.” said Boles.
“At the same time we’ve all been worried about our customer because it is the customer that makes the Indy 500 what it is. We are trying to do the best we can for them.”
Boles notes that without the leadership of Roger Penske, “I don’t know how we would have gotten through this. Every time Roger has been here, his attitude has been nothing but positive and focused on managing through this in a way that makes the Indianapolis 500 better when we get through this and makes the experience better for our fans getting through it.
“His positivity, reinforcement to the team, walking around the building, encouraging them, his availability virtually 24 hours a day to help us solve big problems, little problems, it didn’t matter. To have an emotional leader like Roger Penske through this time has been a blessing.
“Mark (Miles), Jay (Frye) and I have all learned from Roger how to attack some of these things. One of those moments while really difficult, heartbreaking is probably the best way I can put it, the big positive out of this is the opportunity to see a great leader like Roger Penske help walk us through a really difficult time with an attitude that you just can’t believe.”
Now, the race moves forward without anyone other than the team, drivers, officials, select media and safety workers coming through those gates. Still, it’s an important event, one that if this race didn’t go on, it would have lasting impacts on both the track and series going forward.
“We feel a great sense of responsibility for the nurturing and the ongoing growth of the Indy 500,” Miles said of Sunday’s race. “Our motivation and our thinking about the 104th running, even under these circumstances, starts with that at top of mind.
“We feel history is part of the stewardship aspect of it. This race starting in 1911, I think we missed six times, those were all during World War I and World War II. It’s just something we feel like we have to keep up.
“It’s so important to our fans. Yesterday I walked out the front door of our administration building and walked into somebody I happen to know who was there to get his silver badge, which doesn’t get him in this year. He keeps it as a souvenir. He’s about my age. This was going to be his 50th consecutive race.
“Doug and Jay, we all see people like this every day that are our most fervent fans. It’s emotional for them if they won’t be able to be here. So they’re going to watch on television, we’re sure.
“It matters to the fans that this race goes on and they can partake by television and radio. Ultimately it’s really important to our stakeholders. The teams have proven themselves to be incredibly resilient, but it’s important they have their Super Bowl, and that’s even a greater role that the 500 plays in the INDYCAR Series.
“It’s really important for our sponsors to get the exposure that they bargained and planned for, and for NBC. We’re one of the few biggest sports events every year. It’s very important to them that the show goes on.
“For those and many other reasons, there was really never a day when we imagined not having the race. It was just really about what circumstances we’d have to deal with at the time.”
Still, as there’s been all last week, they know fans are going to show up to line the fences outside the track. While they discourage showing up, they also know how passionate this fan base is and that it’s irrational to think no one is going to come out to at least hear the cars this weekend.
“I said this earlier, I’ll repeat it. I’ve been saying it a lot the last few days. We’re encouraging our fans to stay home and watch it on TV,” Boles said. “The TV coverage is going to be better than anything you can get standing at 16th and Georgetown. In our minds we’re trying to do the best we can to deliver an Indy 500 experience into the living rooms through NBC.
“Also I do know that fans will show up because this is the place we want to be. The other piece we’re messaging is make sure you’re wearing your mask, social distancing, all the things that the state and this community requires when you’re here.
“When I was out there on Sunday for the most part people were doing exactly that. Our race fans understand if you’re coming, please do those things because I want to be able to say to this entire community, we have been able to have folks here, you could have counted on race fans to do what we asked, which is wear masks in the grandstands, stay socially distanced in your seats. Whether you believe it or not, we will do right for this community and wear a mask and socially distance.
“More importantly, stay at home, watch it on TV, listen to it on the radio. If you’re here we expect you to do the things our state and city asks to do.”
Hopefully, this is just a one year deal.
“I would say even given what’s happened the last several months, I don’t think the Speedway has ever been in a better position in terms of the brightness of its future with the leadership that Roger has brought, the commitment that Roger has brought,” Boles concluded. “Even with all of these struggles, even with the heartbreak of not being able to have fans on Sunday, I don’t think the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has ever been in a better spot in terms of its future. Great leadership at INDYCAR. Obviously Mark’s tenure here has helped lead us through a lot of this. I feel very confident there.
“The one thing, maybe the best way to talk to the financial thing is a Roger anecdote. First thing he did when he came here was, How do we make the fan experience better? He never asked us or told us, Here is how much money I want to invest. It was, What can we do to make the fan experience better?
“All of our conversations walk through the challenges, especially this summer going from a full house to 50% to 25%, then ultimately to no fans, there wasn’t a conversation about, What does this do financially for us? It’s always been, How do we do this race in a responsible way that’s fair for our community and good for our fans?
“While, yes, there’s a massive financial implication to this, it’s not something that really weighed into the decision factors. It has not slowed Roger Penske down in terms of his focus on making the Indianapolis 500 even better than it already is.
“It’s amazing you can go through a period like this and be as encouraged as I think most of us here with the future for the Speedway. You’re right, there’s a financial impact. The biggest part is there’s an emotional leader who loves this place, knows the future is bright. Each one of us that has an opportunity to work with him every day are 100% onboard. I don’t think we’ve ever been in a better spot.”
On Thursday, Roger Penske himself issued a letter to the fans.