Indianapolis 500 reverses course, will be closed to fans this year

Simon Pagenaud leads the field through the first turn on the start of the 2019 Indianapolis 500.
Simon Pagenaud leads the field through the first turn at the start of the 2019 Indianapolis 500. The 104th running of the iconic race will take place Aug. 23 with no spectators present because of the coronavirus crisis.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Roger Penske has reversed course and decided not to allow fans at the Indianapolis 500 later this month. The 104th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” will be the first without spectators.

It was a flip for Penske, who purchased the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway in January and has spent every day since upgrading his new showplace to prepare for his favorite race. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the race to change dates for the first time, from Memorial Day weekend to Aug. 23.

Penske had initially said he wouldn’t run the 500 without fans. But as the pandemic continued to spread across the nation, the decision was made to limit capacity to 50%. The speedway then lowered that number to 25% and presented an 88-page manual on how to safely host 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 the reversal on the spectator policy was “the toughest business decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

“We didn’t buy the Speedway for one year, we bought it for generations to come, and it’s important to our reputation to do the right thing,” Penske said in a telephone interview.

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He said the financial ramifications of not hosting spectators — even at 25% capacity, the mammoth facility could have held about 80,000 people — played no part in his decision. Rather, the continued increase of COVID-19 cases in Marion County made shutting out spectators the responsible decision.

“We need to be safe and smart about this,” Penske said. “Obviously we want full attendance, but we don’t want to jeopardize the health and safety of our fans and the community. We also don’t want to jeopardize the ability to hold a successful race.”

Although the speedway, which can hold at least 350,000 spectators, has the space for social distancing, Penske did not want to put fans or competitors at risk.

IU Health, the state’s largest healthcare system and a partner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said last week it opposed fans attending the 500.


“Until we sustain 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.”

Penske, just the fourth owner of the national landmark, has spent roughly $15 million on renovations to the historic property that he eagerly awaited showcasing for fans. His doubleheader weekend with IndyCar and NASCAR in July was held without fans and access to the property was limited to the competitors inside the facility.

He said “the place looks even 50% percent better than it did in July” and takes solace that the IndyCar paddock will be able to get a closer look at the upgrades when the track opens next week.