On the same weekend the IndyCar Series returned to action—without in-person spectators but with a big TV audience—series owner Roger Penske vowed fans would be in the seats by the time the Indianapolis 500 takes place in August.
Penske said if fans aren’t allowed to attend the 104th running of the Indy 500 on its scheduled date of Aug. 23 because of the pandemic, the race would be moved to October.
“Trust me, we are going to run [the Indianapolis 500] with fans,” Penske told online motorsports publication Racer on Saturday night prior to the IndyCar season opener at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. “We’re on for fans in August and planning on it and we feel good. It’s still almost three months from now and I think we’ll be OK. But we will run it only with fans.”
The pandemic has disrupted Penske’s first year as owner of iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar Series, which suspended its season March 13 just 48 hours before its opening race in Florida. The schedule has been overhauled, his beloved Indianapolis 500 moved to August from the Memorial Day weekend date it held for 73 years, and Penske has spent nearly six months focused on improvements for his newest properties.
However, the virus-fueled sports drought has created a desire for televised competition, helping boost viewership for Saturday’s season-opening race.
NBC Sports said Sunday that the Saturday night prime-time telecast drew nearly 1.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched IndyCar race outside the Indianapolis 500 on any network since 2016. It was the biggest audience for an NBC telecast of any IndyCar race away from the Brickyard.
Five-time champion Dixon sped away in the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Honda on a restart with three laps left for a comfortable 4.4-second winning margin over a pair of Team Penske drivers, 2017 IndyCar champ Pagenaud and polesitter Josef Newgarden, the defending and two-time series champion.
The only spectators at the track—where the grandstands can seat well over 100,000 people—were those with access to the condos overlooking Turn 2.
Penske got to watch the opener from a suite—his first time off the pit stand and on the other side of the fence since his teams failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1995.
His relocation is partly for safety. At 83, Penske is considered at high risk for the coronavirus and he will avoid large crowds by working inside the paddock from a transporter separate from the rest of his team.
Penske said he is at IMS at least two days a week overseeing massive upgrades. He is involved in every detail, from freshening public bathrooms to paving parking lots, lowering television monitors and creating a lift to an elevated winner’s circle.
Fans won’t get a true sense of the changes to the national landmark built in 1911 until at least August.
Its first event, a doubleheader between NASCAR and IndyCar Series, will run July 4 weekend without spectators. In making that decision earlier this week, Penske said it moves the speedway closer “to execute with full fans” for the Indy 500.
“We really wanted to go forward with fans but it wasn’t realistic,” Penske said. “If we had fans and had any problems, that would absolutely close the door on for us for the 500.”
Penske said he travels from his Michigan home to Indianapolis twice a week and wears gloves and a mask while working. His Bloomfield Hills office is a three-minute drive from his home and he said a nurse is on site and “everybody has to go through a temperature check.”
Penske, a cancer survivor who received a kidney transplant in 2017, said Penske Corp. practices social distancing at work and at its North Carolina race shop.
“I’ve been at home with my wife and have been careful on any interface,” he said. “All my transportation has been from Pontiac Airport to Indianapolis and back. I’ve not gone downtown. I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m not, you know, in trouble.”
He said most of his meetings are done over Zoom and are scheduled in shifts throughout the day so he can conduct business globally.
“We start early in the morning in the U.K., then we do our U.S. businesses and then we talk to Australia at night. It’s been a good tool,” he said.
The coronavirus has given Penske additional time to raise the speedway to his standards. All work on the track was halted early in the pandemic under stay-at-home orders, but moving the 500 to August allowed time for capital improvements.
He often likens his visions for the speedway to pristine Augusta National.
“Every time I walk around I find something else to do,” he said. “I thought there were only so many chapters in the book. Every time I get to the last chapter, there’s one or two more to look at. Time is always beneficial.”
He said new video boards at the speedway would not have been in place for the 500 if had been run in May as scheduled.
“I’ve never been more excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. “The future is very, very bright. I’ve never been more motivated, never been more excited.”
Penske said he is proud of IndyCar’s top two leaders, Mark Miles and Jay Frye, for getting the season on track.
He said both worked to get the series’ foreign drivers back into the United States in time for the opener, and, Penske believes IndyCar’s teams have largely weathered the financial shutdown.
“They’re all ready to go racing ourselves. No question about it,” he said.