“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will have a little bit of a different feel this year.
For starters, it’s going to be run in August, not May. Plus, despite the sounds of cars burning rubber at about 370 kph around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, things are also going to be a lot more quiet.
The roar of the engines will return to the famed track later this month, when the Indianapolis 500 is finally run on Aug. 23. The race is being held almost three months to the day later than originally scheduled — a delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Obviously this year is (a) very different circumstance, very challenging,” 2017 winner Takuma Sato said during a videoconference call on Thursday. “We should be really happy and appreciate Indy 500 is still (being held). Can’t wait to be back in the car.”
While organizers avoided having to cancel the race altogether, the situation with the virus means the 104th edition will be the first ever without fans. The 2018 race reportedly drew over 300,000 spectators, according to the the Indianapolis Star.
“Under the circumstances there’s not much choice,” Sato said. “We respect the decision (IndyCar owner) Roger Penske made. We support it. I think to 2021, hopefully everything will be ready … go back to the 250,000 (the number of permanent seats) people.
“I think (the) TV audience will be as many as it should be. We are all excited. From the drivers’ point of view, same. The atmosphere is a bit different. Once (you) get in, the visor down, driving, I think it’s nothing really different.”
The decision to run the race behind closed doors was announced on Tuesday.
“Obviously, ideally we’d have fans there,” Rahal driver Spencer Pigot said. “It’s going to be different not having people standing outside the garages, Gasoline Alley, cheering for you as you walk out onto the grid. It’s going to feel a lot different.
“Obviously the decision was made for the greater good of the community.”
Sato, the only Japanese driver with a podium finish in both Formula One and IndyCar, will be trying to win the 500 for a second time and become the 20th driver with multiple victories.
The coronavirus has thrown a constant element of uncertainty into his season, as it has with other drivers. Virus protocols have impacted the way teams prepare before races and added a new wrinkle into a sport where a second here or there can mean finishing first or way back in the pack.
Sato has made six starts this year, with four top-10 finishes. The 43-year-old Tokyo native has led 49 laps.
“On one side it’s great for watching (and) maybe fans are excited for the racing,” Sato said. “It’s completely unpredictable.
“The other side is preparation is extremely important. It is just a challenge. It’s very difficult. Once you’re driving it’s the same scenario, but for the preparation, less testing, engineer doesn’t have time to analyze all the data, makes it (a lot) harder.”
Drivers have also had to adjust to a schedule that’s been revised many times.
A season that was supposed to have started in March began in June. After six races, and more postponements and cancellations, the series is on hold until the 500.
“For me, obviously it’s been a lot of waiting,” Pigot said. “I was supposed to do my two races in May. Now one was in July and the next is at the end of the August. It’s been a little strange being kind of in the car then out of the car, in the car again, with such big gaps in between.”
Then on Tuesday, they learned they’ll have to adjust to an 500 that might feel like a ghost town in some ways without the usual crush of spectators.
The news of a 500 behind closed doors sent shock waves through the sport and garnered strong reactions from both fans and drivers alike. However, once the visors go down, it figures to be business as usual.
“Once you’re in the moment and you’re locked in, as Takuma said, when I’m racing wheel-to-wheel with Sebastien (Bourdais) or anybody else last year, I’m not looking at the grandstands, right?” said driver Graham Rahal.
“A couple of my buddies play in the NHL. I’ve been talking to them. I asked them the same, What is it like to play without fans? ‘To be honest, once we start playing, I didn’t even think about it.’ The same for us. That’s even in a much closer environment than even Indy.”
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