Thousands return as Indy 500 kicks off for first time since pandemic

Indy 500 is back! Over 300,000 motorsport fans descend on Indianapolis speedway as 106th race kicks off in full for the first time since pandemic

  • Crowds are finally back at the Indy 500, after two years of restrictions brought on by the pandemic
  • Dubbed ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’ the event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the largest single-day sporting event in the world,
  • The venue is the world’s largest sports seating facility with a capacity of 257,325
  • The race typically welcomes more than 300,000 – except last year when it allowed 135,000 due to Covid concerns, and 2020 when no fans were allowed
  • Organizers expect a crowd of over 325,000 this year as restrictions are lifted – which will see the stadium packed to a point not seen in 20 years, organizers say 

Crowds are finally back at the Indy 500, after two years of restrictions brought on by the pandemic.

Dubbed ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’ the event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the world’s largest sports seating facility with a capacity of 257,325 –  is the largest single-day sporting event in the world, typically welcoming more than 300,000 spectators.

Organizers welcomed a crowd of over 325,000 Sunday after restrictions for the much-lauded race were at last lifted – a number that will see the stadium packed to a point not seen in 20 years, they say, with more than 70,000 fans forced to stand as a result.

In May 2020, two months before the coronavirus surfaced in the US, organizers were forced to postpone the famed 200-lap race until August. The event was later held without any fans in attendance.

Last year, fans returned to the event, but not in full force, with only 135,000 allowed to attend, just 40 percent of available ticketing. 

This year, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is allowing fans back at full capacity, as its 106th race kicks off Sunday.

Crowds are finally back at the Indy 500, after two years of restrictions brought on by the pandemic. Organizers expect a crowd of over 325,000 this year as restrictions for the race are  lifted – a number that will see the stadium packed to a point not seen in 20 years, they say

Dubbed ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,’ the event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the world’s largest sports seating facility with a capacity of 257,325 – is the largest single-day sporting event in the world, typically welcoming more than 300,000 spectators

A general view of crowds prior to the Sunday’s race at the speedway. This year, organizers are allowing fans back at full capacity for the first time since the coronavirus surfaced in early 2020

Thousands of fans are seen entering the track before the running of the 106th Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis stadium

Ahead of the race, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske penned a letter to fans proudly welcoming them back to the event.

‘Welcome to one of the greatest days of the year,’ Penske, an 85-year-old retired professional auto racing driver and entrepreneur, wrote.

‘We are so excited to open our doors wide at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) and welcome all of our fans back to experience “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”‘

He went on to tout the expected attendance for Sunday’s proceedings, which will of course revolve around the 500-lap, high-speed faceoff between the competition’s 33 drivers.

‘For the first time since 2019,’ Penske wrote, ‘there will be a full capacity crowd in attendance to watch the Indianapolis 500.’ He added that he expected ‘teams and drivers will put on a great show.’

‘With more than 325,000 fans joining us today at IMS, we are proud to once again host the world’s largest single-day sporting event,’ asserted the official, who purchased the speedway in 2020 just before the pandemic, in a deal said to be worth between $250million and $300million.

Penske, who is worth a reported $2.8billion has since invested a reported $20million in improvements to the speedway, while also guiding the track and its organizer, the IndyCar Series – which he also obtained with the 2020 transaction – through years of revenue losses spurred by the pandemic. 

‘There is nothing like the excitement, pageantry and tradition of Indy 500 Race Day,’ the billionaire businessman gushed in a post shared to social media. ‘On Memorial day weekend, there is no greater Indianapolis 500 tradition than honoring our nation’s heroes as we salute the men and women of our armed forces.’

He added: ‘We look forward to providing a world-class experience at the Speedway as we welcome all of our guests back with open arms.’

Ahead of the race, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske penned a letter to fans proudly welcoming them back to the event Sunday, after years of revenue losses spurred by restrictions brought on by the pandemic

The green flag, which signaled the start of the race, dropped at 12:45 pm ET, and the event has since been underway.

Driver introductions were held shortly before noon, along with other prerace festivities such as the national anthem and a stirring rendition of ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ by Chicago Blackhawks resident singer Jim Cornelison, his sixth such performance at the race.

NBC’s national coverage of the race – which takes roughly three hours – begins at 7 pm ET.

New Zealand racer Scott Dixon finished first in qualifying this morning, putting him in the sought-after pole position along with teammate Alex Palou who will take the second spot.

Defending champion Helio Castroneves, meanwhile, fell to the No. 27 spot, as he looks to win his fifth Indy, which would be a new record.

‘That’s what this place is all about,’ said Marco Andretti, who is starting his 17th Indy 500, of fans’ much awaited return. ‘That’s what makes us. We’re paid as entertainers, so without the fans we’re nothing. 

‘So, I’m really excited everybody’s back.’

Country music singer Blake Shelton will serve as this year’s grand marshal. 

Last year, fans returned to the event, but not in full force, with only 135,000 allowed to attend, just 40 percent of available ticketing.

In May 2020, two months before the coronavirus surfaced in the US, organizers were forced to postpone the famed 200-lap race until August. The event was later held without any fans in attendance (pictured)

Prior to the pandemic, the event – which regularly welcomed nearly 350,000 fans in the early 2000s – had seen attendance wane in recent years, making the turnout for this year’s race especially notable.  

In 2019, the race topped 60,000 spectators for the first time in nearly five years. 

The 2018 race – which was delayed to a Monday due to rain – drew only about 20,000, while the 2017 and 2016 events drew 35,000 and 50,000, respectively.

The diminishing numbers spurred organizers to shorten the race from its longheld 500 miles to 200 miles, and moved it to the speedway’s 14-turn, 2.44-mile road course – changes masterminded by Penske, who began talks of purchasing the venue in 2019.

‘The growth in attendance at NASCAR races has been in road-course races,’ said Joyce Young, a motorsports and sports marketing expert at Indiana State University. Penske ‘was seeing those trends and capitalizing on them. So, whether or not the attendance is improved from years previous, it probably can’t be any worse.

‘Penske’s not afraid to make changes,’ she went on. ‘There’s absolutely a strategy behind the changes he makes—they’re well-thought-out.’

Tune into NBC at 7 pm for the network’s primetime coverage of the race.

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