It’s almost race weekend and the tiny enclave of Speedway looks virtually barren.
The usually colorful campgrounds and parking lots are empty, green grass untouched and white gravel undisturbed. There is no sign of the familiar sweet smells of food staples like turkey legs and deep fried Oreos. The traditional signs welcoming race fans to town are missing, as are the lawn chairs along the berm of Crawfordsville Road in the shadow of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 is Sunday, weather permitting. For the surrounding community of Speedway, which bills itself as the racing capital of the world, many residents will be watching from home, and they are filled with sadness.
“It’s been one of the most constant things in my life and I look forward to it every year, just the race itself,” said Tom Beaudry, a longtime racing vendor who can hear the roar of the engines from his backyard. “I haven’t missed one since I was 5. You know, it’s bittersweet hearing them running—knowing they’re running and knowing you can’t go inside.”
Inside the historic speedway are grandstands with 232,00 seats now covered in red stickers reading “Do not use.” With suites and infield crowds, the race is generally considered the largest single-day sporting event in the world each year with more than 300,000 in attendance.
This weekend, it will be zero.
New speedway owner Roger Penske couldn’t wait to show the fans what he’d done to the place after buying it and pouring millions of dollars into renovations this spring. Now the grand reopening has been rescheduled until at least October or more likely May, when the Indy 500 is usually run.
Nearby restaurants, hotels and other small businesses have lost tens of thousands of dollars and the patio parties that are all the rage in Speedway were put off.
IndyCar drivers and team owners don’t like the deafening sound of silence, either.
A.J. Foyt, one of three four-time race winners, called the fanless qualifying weekend lonely. Tony Kanaan, the 2013 winner from Brazil who drives for Foyt, described the unfettered strolls through Gasoline Alley eerie. Even two-time world champion Fernando Alonso of Spain, who will make his second 500 start from the No. 26 qualifying spot, finds the empty rows of seats discombobulating.
“When you’re out there running, you almost have the feeling that you’re testing. Most of the guys have done that here,” Alonso said. “But that was a very strange feeling for me because it was the first time I’ve done that here.”
Penske moved the race from its traditional Memorial Day weekend slot to late August, fully believing some fans would be able to attend. On Aug. 4, he backtracked and ever since, IMS President Doug Boles has been inundated with hundreds of requests for exceptions.
He’s heard from ticket-holders hoping to attend their 75th consecutive race, people such as Beaudry who haven’t missed a race since they were toddlers, even those with terminal illnesses who worry they may not see another race.
“It’s been the most difficult pat of this,” Boles said and then he paused. “It’s heartbreaking. For many people, it’s one of the most important things they do all year and I’m one of them.”
Financially, the consequences could be even worse—and not just for small businesses or those who earn extra cash by parking cars and campers in their front yards..
IndyCar CEO Mark Miles said one study he has seen called the impact of the 500 the equivalent of “having a Super Bowl in Indianapolis every year.” Closer to home, Speedway High School’s booster clubs and the town’s public library all use race weekend as their primary fundraisers.
As a result of having no fans, town officials said they estimate about 20 organizations will lose more than $272,000, including The Speedway Exchange Club, which works helps provide housing for victims of child abuse and their mothers.
“With our own club it’s about a $60,000 hit, which is almost our entire yearly budget,” club president Joshua Clay said. “We have talked to other groups about the impact to them, and it’s not pretty right now. An organization like Speedway Trails Association is going to have to make decisions about whether it cuts the grass this year.”
Clay believes it will take two to three years to recover, and the town council is asking supporters to pitch in with cash donations.
Penske penned a letter to fans Thursday, writing he misses the fans and noting how his first trip to the speedway in 1951, at age 14, shaped the rest of his life. The race’s most loyal fans may be getting some good news, too. Boles is expected to give those expecting thier personal streaks of attending consecutive races a dispensation Friday by declaring only the May races count.
And still others, like Beaudry, have another plan.
Beuadry intends to set up his souvenir stand outside the track, between turns 1 and 2 where about 100 people congregated with Boles for qualifying last weekend. The crowd is expected to grow this weekend and could expand down the 16th Street, near the track’s front entrance.
No, it won’t be the same Indianapolis 500—but it will still be memorable.
“I know my streak won’t be broken because I’ll be there,” Beaudry said. “I might not be inside, but I’ll know I was there.”