“We were prepared to go racing with a crowd probably of 50,000 people in downtown St. Pete."
“INDYCAR was planning to start the 2020 season with a street race in St. Petersburg, Florida on the weekend of March 13-15. The traveling circus, as I like to call the sport, arrived in St. Pete at various times ahead of the first practice. Some of us were on a plane the night before, some of us were on a plane that morning, some of us were driving to the event. The point is, we were scattered as important decisions were being made, and we were all racing to catch up to the developments.
We were prepared to go racing with a crowd probably of 50,000 people in downtown St. Pete along the waterfront. Then we started getting word of issues related to what we now know in our vernacular as “the pandemic.”
Then that day, the 12th, the NCAA announced it was canceling its national tournament. That was really a head scratcher for me. I didn't understand why it would be a problem for basketball players who had been around each other, you know, for nine months. But, at the time we didn’t have enough scope to comprehend it properly.
INDYCAR competitors don't interact like basketball players who lean and sweat on each other and who breathe in each other's faces. They are race car drivers who are in their single cars and the crews are largely separated by distance anyway. And our fans are outside, not in a closed-in arena.
So, at first we thought, “Well, we can still stage this race, we're an outdoor event. We can continue to be around each other when we're outside, so there's no need to worry.” It wasn’t until much later that we all learned about hotspots.
Then we started thinking that maybe we could still have the race, but just not accept spectators. We already had all the TV components set up, so we could still have the race and televise it. Again, our competitors are generally socially distanced by virtue of being around their own cars and wearing all of the safety equipment (helmets, fire-proof uniforms, etc.).
It became pretty clear, though, within the first few hours of deliberation and executives meeting that, we, as a sport, couldn't hold even an outdoor event in the middle of March in 2020. What that did was create a ripple effect through the sports world.
We were scheduled to have 17 events during the course of the year, including the 104th edition of the Indianapolis 500, which was set for May 30. All those events in March, April, and May were either canceled or pushed back to later in the 2020 calendar. What ended up happening was we started the season in June and we pushed the Indianapolis 500 to August 22, which gave us more time to understand the ramifications of the pandemic and to adjust accordingly. Instead of doing 17 races in 2020, we were able to stage 14 because some of them dropped off the calendar. It was just impossible, for example, to hold races in California during that period.
At any rate, we scheduled the Indianapolis 500 on August 22 with the hope that we could still have fans attending. Typically, we have more than 300,000 people attending the race, and they come from all 50 states and all over the world.
But how do you bring 300,000 spectators into a facility even as large as Indianapolis Motor Speedway? We have 16 gates, four or five tunnels, an enormous amount of property. And you're bringing people from all different directions in high volume. How do you test them? How do you provide sanitizer? How do you provide masks? How do you properly space them? The number of logistics to consider is just incredible, but the staff soldiered on with various plans for numerous possibilities.
It became clear as mid-July arrived that we still couldn't hold the “500” with fans in spite of our tremendous efforts to socially distance the grandstands, to make proper arrangements for sanitation, to provide masks, and so forth. So, all that work in June and July essentially just had to be shelved.
Then we had to make the decision. Do we have the Indianapolis 500 as a television show or do we just postpone it? Given the importance of the “Super Bowl” of open-wheel racing being held, and the ramifications of it not being held, we made the decision that the race must go on, and the show must go on. We held the Indianapolis 500 in a theater, if you will, with NBC delivering a terrific live show hosted by Mike Tirico. For the first time in its history, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was held without fans in the grandstands.
It was a very hollow type environment. The race is normally very colorful when you put 300,000 people packing the grandstands, the infield, in various suites, and so forth. And in this particular case, much like our world in general, the race was very gray, based on the color of those grandstand seats. So, we ran an Indy 500 without spectators, but our fans were still connected through television. It became a pretty good show, as good a show as you can put on in an empty arena.
We continued the season and eventually found something of a rhythm as a television product. We did the best we could, just like most sports entities that were severely impacted.
We made it through. We are fortunate to have an owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES – Roger Penske -- who is a brilliant man with vast resources and a diversified company, and that allowed us to weather the storm. I think had we not had the strength and the depth of resources that Penske Corporation provides, we might not have exited the pandemic, or survived the pandemic, as well as we did."
Curt Cavin, longtime Indianapolis Star journalist now working at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (January 2021). [Curt's story is included in the book "Who We Are Now: Stories of What Americans Lost and Found During the COVID-19 Pandemic."]