(AP) – Roger Penske has reversed course and decided not to allow fans in the Indianapolis 500 later this month. Round 104 of The Great American Race will be the first without a spectator to show up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway every year, even during the Great Depression.
It was a flip for Penske, who bought the iconic Speedway in January and has spent every day preparing for his favorite race since the modernization of his new venue. For the first time, the pandemic forced the race to change dates from Memorial Day weekend to August 23.
Penske had originally said he wouldn’t drive the 500 without fans. However, as the pandemic continued to spread across the country, it was decided to limit capacity to 50%. The Speedway then lowered that number to 25% and presented an 88-page manual on how to safely accommodate spectators.
News from #IMS:
We are sorry to announce that the Indianapolis 500 will be held on August 23rd without fans. This difficult decision was made after careful consideration and extensive consultation with state and city leaders.
Full details: https://t.co/mlC19YG6Ng pic.twitter.com/YryckwCjJ1
– Indianapolis Motor Speedway (@IMS) August 4, 2020
Cases have continued to rise – steadily in Indiana, and especially in Marion County, where the speedway is located – and Penske told The Associated Press on Tuesday that reversing audience policy was “the toughest business decision I’ve ever made in my life. ” “”
“We haven’t bought the Speedway for a year, we’ve bought it for generations to come, and doing the right thing is important to our reputation,” Penske said in a telephone interview.
He said the financial consequences of not receiving viewers – which even with 25% capacity in the mammoth facility could have accommodated around 80,000 people – did not play a role in his decision. Rather, the continued spike in COVID-19 cases in Marion County made the lockdown of viewers the responsible choice.
“We have to be safe and smart,” said Penske. “Of course we want full participation, but we don’t want to endanger the health and safety of our fans and the community. We also don’t want to endanger the ability to run a successful race.”
As part of the 25% fan capacity plan introduced two weeks ago, spectators who purchased badges that gave them access to the garage and pit lane were to be granted access to the infield. Although the speedway, which can hold at least 350,000 spectators, offers room for social distancing, Penske did not want to endanger fans or competitors.
The situation worsened last week when IU Health, the state’s largest healthcare system and a partner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, spoke out against fans of the 500.
“Until we maintain better control of this virus and its spread,” IU Health said in a statement, “we strongly encourage IMS to consider an alternative to running the Indy 500 with fans in August.”
The letter was blinded by Speedway officials who had worked with health officials on the comprehensive safety plan that included the compulsory wearing of masks at all times within the Speedway.
IU Health said it “appreciated” the speedway’s safety plan, but the risks remained too high to accommodate a large group of fans.
“We have concerns about the risk of infection beyond the scope of the IMS plan, including social gatherings, travel, restaurants, bars, lodging and other event-related activities,” said IU Health. “This could lead to an increase in COVID-19 infections as cases and hospitalizations continue to increase daily.”
Penske said the IU health letter was “disappointing” but did not force his hand. Instead, it just came down to how the coronavirus spreads in Indiana.
“The number of cases in Marion County has tripled while the positivity rate has doubled. We said from the start of the pandemic we would put the health and safety of our community first and with our robust plan to accommodate viewers with limited capacity. ” Location was appropriate in late June, it’s not the right way forward based on the current environment, “Speedway said in a statement.
The first inkling that Penske’s group was waffling came on Monday when the speedway confirmed to the AP that the training opening day, which was scheduled for next Tuesday, had been canceled. The first day of training is now August 12th. The only other change to the schedule is the elimination of the pit crew competition, which traditionally takes place on Carb Day two days before the race.
The pandemic wiped out the IndyCar schedule. The series was discontinued just two days before the scheduled start of the season on March 15. The schedule has seen numerous changes since then, with a west coast swing to Portland and Laguna Seca being canceled last week, and twin heads added to Midhea, Mid in Ohio, Gateway in St. Louis and the street course in Indianapolis.
Then, days after the latest schedule updates were announced, the Mid-Ohio events scheduled for the coming weekend were postponed. IndyCar has only hosted six events since the season resumed on June 6th. Limited spectators were allowed at Doubleheaders on Road America in Wisconsin and at Iowa Speedway, where Penske had to be the race organizer for the event.
Penske, only the fourth owner of the national landmark IMS, has spent around $ 15 million renovating the historic property he was eagerly anticipating for fans. His double header weekend with IndyCar and NASCAR in July took place without fans and access to the property was restricted to participants within the facility.
He said “the place looks 50% better than it did in July” and takes comfort in the fact that the IndyCar paddock will be able to take a closer look at the upgrades when the track opens next week. As for fans?
“Look, this is a long-term investment for us for many generations to come,” he said. “We will keep improving the speedway, the competitors will see it for the next two weeks and we believe this decision regarding the 500 is in the best interests of protecting the 500 going forward.”
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