Indy 500 plan for spectators during pandemic shows it's possible to move too fast in auto racing

Sporting News

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a big place. It's large enough to accommodate a golf course, the world’s most famous oval race track and, on a good day for the Indy 500, more than 400,000 spectators.

There will be nowhere near that many in attendance for the 2020 event, but there likely will be far more than anyone who has lived through the past three months might have guessed.

IMS plans to open the stands to 50 percent capacity for the Aug. 23 Indianapolis 500 became clear in a letter to ticket holders made public Friday. The race, conducted for more than a century around Memorial Day weekend, will be delayed nearly three months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Whereas spectator sports in Europe have been played without spectators since Germany’s Bundesliga returned in May, and both the PGA Tour and NASCAR have competed without in-person audiences, the Speedway apparently plans to have roughly 125,000 people in the stands for this year’s 500.

This plan is, to say the least, ambitious.

Nah, that’s just being nice.

It’s absurd.

The state of Indiana only contains two cities with populations larger than 125,000, and neither of those is squeezed into an area of just 560 acres. NASCAR’s design to allow fans for a July 15 all-star race at Bristol Speedway in Tennessee includes spacing 30,000 around a track that holds 162,000. When Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith spoke in May, he discussed possibly including just 22,000 spectators at Ohio Stadium, which holds 104,944.

There have been a lot of histrionics in sports media about the feasibility of returning to competitive sport in the United States while incidents of coronavirus continue to spike in various parts of the country. Some suggested the PGA Tour shut down because a few caddies tested positive this week. And radio host Daryl Ruiter tweeted this when it was announced that an event as meaningless as Pro Football’s Hall of Fame Game — the Hall of Fame Game! — was canceled.

Maybe he was kidding. Professional sports can, and will, be conducted safely in the U.S. In fact, they already are, as NASCAR has shown since resuming its racing schedule May 17 at Darlington. There has been nothing to indicate, however, that allowing large gatherings is a prudent decision. Which is why Broadway is dark, rock stars aren’t on tour and the NWSL is starting its 2020 season this weekend without audiences in place.

IMS president Doug Boles told ticket holders the intent is to accommodate about half of their tickets “in or near your current seating location.” Those who would like to keep more than half their tickets may be permitted but could have to move elsewhere in the stands.

“We’re committed to running the Indy 500 on Sunday, Aug. 23 and will welcome fans to the world’s greatest racing venue,” Boles said in an IMS release. “We will be limiting attendance to approximately 50 percent of venue capacity, and we are also finalizing a number of additional carefully considered health and safety measures. We’ll unveil the specific details of our comprehensive plan in the coming weeks.”

That plan already includes this, according to the release: “Individuals in high-risk groups are encouraged to consider staying home and returning in 2021.”

MORE: May without Indy 500 was "weird as weird can be"

The 500 typically is a massive event in its city: concerts, a parade, the popular qualifying runs and usually an accompany road race that is conducted within the Speedway grounds and partly on the track. Losing it would be a blow. Which is why it always seemed likely the race would go on.

And because the track is so vast, it also seemed tenable to accommodate audiences of moderate size. It would be a blow to those excluded who have made the 500 such an important part of their annual schedule. But there have been many greater sacrifices made by Americans because of this pandemic.

Opening to 50 percent capacity, though, seems a needless exercise in hubris. We have seen what a similar approach has wrought on a larger scale in such states as Arizona, Texas and Florida. Indiana has not been overwhelmed by the coronavirus, but never has it been entirely suppressed. The state has had 60 percent more cases per capita than neighboring Ohio, and 63 percent more deaths.

Speed usually is the entire point in Indy Car racing.

This time, though, things are moving too fast.

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