Roger Penske reversed course and decided not to let fans in the Indianapolis 500 later this month. Round 104 of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is the first without a spectator to appear 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.
Cases have continued to rise – steadily in Indiana and specifically in Marion County, where the speedway is located – and Penske told The Associated Press on Tuesday that reversing spectator 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 a 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 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 don’t want to compromise the ability to run a successful race either. ”
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 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.