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‘Greatest spectacle in racing’ goes on even in a pandemic

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — There was always going to be an Indianapolis 500 this year –with full attendance, limited attendance or, where Indianapolis Motor Speedway finally landed, with no fans at all.

The race is simply too important to become yet another 2020 cancellation, even if it means closing the gates for the first time in 104 years.

The garages open Wednesday for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” an event long woven into the nation’s fabric as a Memorial Day weekend celebration. There have been only two pauses in race history, during World War I in 1917 and 1918, then from 1942-45 during World War II.

The pandemic pushed the race off its traditional date to Aug. 23, and new owner Roger Penske and the speedway staff will do their very best to honor the tradition of the treasured event.

Penske earlier said he would pull the plug on the race if fans could not attend, and he tried, all the way until last week, to open the gates to his new showplace. There was an 88-page plan along with confidence the Indy 500 could safely socially distance 25% attendance at the sprawling speedway with more than 250,000 seats.

Ultimately, the coronavirus was deemed too dangerous for Penske to expose himself, the speedway or the community that has supported the Indy 500 since 1911.

The race itself? It is critical to the survival of IndyCar beyond being a a source of pride for the state of Indiana.

“There was no way we were not going to run the race. That was never going to be an option,” Penske said.

When he said he wouldn’t hold the race without spectators, the pandemic looked different in Indiana and surrounding Marion County.

“The numbers started to go the wrong way,” Penske said. “I think the world has changed, the state has changed, the city has changed, Marion County has changed from when I said that. Typically you make your best decision on the information you have.”

The financial numbers have got to be horrific for Penske, who in January bought IMS from the Hulman-George family that had owned the national landmark since 1945. Penske’s businesses are private companies, so whatever losses he’s taken are not public. It’s believed he paid about $300 million for the speedway, the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500, and he’s spent another $15 million on capital improvements.

He’s cut the purse in half for the Indy 500, a reversal from February when he pledged an additional $2 million to make a $15 million pot. Penske is undoubtedly bleeding money from the purchase, which makes him responsible for both the race and with helping IndyCar team owners survive.

“This isn’t a 2020 investment and then we are getting out. Our family can own this for the next 75 years,” Penske said. “The financial impact is what it is. I’ve worked hard to build a company that’s got a solid base and that’s why we bought the track. There are always speed bumps you deal with in business and this is one that is unexpected, but all four wheels are still on the car.”

Plans call for as normal an Indy 500 as possible. Both the national anthem and “Back Home Again in Indiana” will be live, and a flyover is in the works.

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