Japanese IndyCar driver Takuma Sato took the checkered flag to win the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500. But instead of the roar of the crowds to celebrate the moment, it was just the humming of engines.
This year’s race was postponed from May to August in response to COVID-19. Track owner Roger Penske was determined to still have fans, first reducing capacity and then creating a comprehensive health plan.
But Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles said ultimately the efforts were just not enough.
“It really just became clear that the metrics weren't going the right way in the city of Indianapolis, and the best thing for us to do as community partners was to have the race without fans,” said Boles.
When the Indy 500 ran without spectators last weekend, it wasn't just the hundreds of thousands of fans who were missing – it was also the millions of dollars they pump into local shops and restaurants. Businesses in the racing capital of the world expect to take a big financial hit this year.
Race Fans' Annual Traditions Change
The news for fans was heartbreaking. This would have been Nich Holston’s 46th straight year attending the race. Up until it was announced no fans would be allowed at the race, Holston was planning to be sitting in his family's seats his father first purchased back in the '60s.
“It's been a focal point for my family and friends for our entire lives,” said Holston. “I mean it's, you know, a month out of the year that we look forward to all year and we've been doing it for so long.”
Race fan Ed Wenck stands outside Gate 1 at IMS hearing the cars zip by on the track during a practice session.
“Penske and everybody else who is handling this facility, I'm sure they would have done a masterful job inside,” said Wenck.
But he decided early on that his family would not go to the race.
“You have this huge space outside that they have no control over whatsoever,” said Wenck. “So even if it had been a perfect environment inside, I seriously doubt that the combination of race fans and alcohol on the day of the 500 would have resulted in consistent social distancing.”
One of Wenck’s favorite things about the Indy 500 is his family's race day tradition. Every year they bike to the race and eat at the same restaurant afterwards.
“It's turned into this ritualized event where it's just not to say we don't do A, B, C and D,” he said. “And there's a ton of other families with a ton of other stories that are similar to that, whether it's whether they live in Speedway, or if they live in Michigan.”
Those traditions put dollars into local businesses in and around the track.
Local Businesses Grapple With An Indy 500 Without Fans
The economic impact of not having spectators ripples outside of the track. A study commissioned in 2000 by IMS showed the Indy 500 brings about twice as much revenue into the local economy as a Super Bowl.
Main Street in Speedway is one popular location race fans flock to during the month of May. Restaurants have outdoor seating where customers can sit and hear the IndyCar drivers on the track.
"Well the good thing about May is, it's the entire month. Everyone thinks of when they think of May, they think of the race. And that's the, that's the Super Bowl, so to speak," said Chris Hill, Dawson’s On Main co-owner. "But it starts with the Mini[-Marathon] in we're coming out of winter, and we're building momentum. And it is, once the Mini starts, it's basically fasten your seat belt and you go for a ride the whole month, and the pinnacle is the Indy 500."
May is usually a month of events that keep things busy at his restaurant. Hill said the pandemic has hurt his business, but he isn’t sure just how much yet.
Speedway Town Manager Carlos May said it’s not clear how much of an economic hit the town will take without the revenue from race fans. So far, only one local business, a yoga studio, has closed during the pandemic. However, May said local nonprofits have already reported expected losses from race weekend.
“So, they do get a huge amount of money from that to the tune of $270-272,000 plus or minus a couple thousand,” said May. “So, it has certainly had an impact on their bottom dollar.”
Just steps away from the track, the American Legion Post 500 Commander Johnette Lawson said it’s usually packed the entire month leading into race weekend.
“Normally this place would be 110 campers here,” said Lawson. “Going into the track and then plus we park a lot of cars. I'd say about 75 cars we can get in here on race day.”
This time the lot is practically empty with only a few campers parked in the grass. Lawson said not having fans at this year’s Indy 500 is a major financial hit.
“We lost about 75 percent of our profit,” she said. “Because May is our month that gets us through the entire year. And it helps with all the charities that we donate to. And just anything for the community and our veterans and our soldiers and their families.”
Local Residents Step Up To Show Support
While the out-of-town crowd wasn’t there this year, Chris Hill said the local residents have stepped up to help the mom and pop businesses.
“We've been here for 14, almost 15 years,” said Hill. “And you know, we're a fabric of this community just like everyone else on Main Street and around and around Speedway. So, I think we're all hurting, but the community rallies behind us and it makes it not sting as bad.”
Town Manager Carlos May said that support is what makes Speedway what it is.
“Luckily the community has rallied around these businesses,” said May. “We've done an active job promoting folks that hey, even though you can't go in, you can still get takeout, please show up, support the businesses because they're the lifeblood of the town, of Main Street. Aside from the population, obviously, without people you don't have the town. But the other aspect of that is the businesses, and we need both as a town to function properly.”
The parking lots and bleachers may have been empty this year, but people in Speedway are already looking to next May in hopes of having Indy 500 race fans back in town.
“We know that our fans are resilient,” said IMS President Doug Boles. “We know that they'll be very excited to come back in 2021.”