Drivers get on track at empty Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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Pato O'Ward, of Mexico, walks back to the garage area during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal walked through Gasoline Alley tapping away on his phone, no fear of bumping into anyone as he took a break during the first day of Indianapolis 500 practice.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a ghost town. The coronavirus pandemic forced the speedway to proceed with “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” without spectators and their absence was clearly noticed.

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Students on field trips weren't roaming freely through Pagoda Plaza. No souvenirs for sale through the midway. Bronze Badge Holders couldn't even come to the track, let alone the wait for their favorite drivers outside the garage stalls. The grandstands sat empty. And, Chuckie Lynn, the longtime IMS fixture who sells the Indianapolis Star while riding a bicycle through the paddock, was nowhere to be found.

The show is going on at Indianapolis, but it certainly isn't the same.

“It's just weird to be able to walk literally through here and not get stopped 100 times and sign a bunch of autographs,” said Rahal. “You can literally just stroll through here. This thing can still be just as exciting and wonderful as it always is, but the vibe is just different.”

The daily buildup to the Indy 500 — stopped only twice before, for World War I and World War II — has always been part of the allure of the event. Indiana residents come from all over the state from the opening day of practice and the crowd continues to swell until race day, when at least 300,000 pour into the venue.

The parties have been canceled and the drivers are adjusting to the 2020 version of normal.

For Scott Dixon, it meant he didn't need to make sure his pocket was full of Sharpies to sign autographs as he made the walk to pit lane. Tony Kanaan did not hear a roar from the crowd as the popular Brazilian typically does as he climbs into his car. Will Power walked around the facility without any interruptions.

“It's a real pity, man. Just shows you how much the fans mean to this place,” Power said. “They make the atmosphere and without them, it's just kind of dead. It's easier to focus, but you would much rather have fans here. It's part of the Indy 500 experience.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay said it felt more like a test day at a race track, when teams are typically in an empty venue learning as much as they can about a car without distractions. The Indy 500 has never been this way — fans came even during the Great Depression — and Hunter-Reay found the feeling “very strange.”

“This is a race without spectators, because we're going to have our fans watching the race, but without spectators, without energy, it's just completely different,” Hunter-Reay said. “I guess we all have to look at the big picture and swallow that pill right now.”

As the pristine IMS grounds sat empty, the cars sailed around the oval for the first time since Roger Penske purchased the speedway in January. Penske made his way up and down pit lane early in the day greeting teams and surveying the scene and Honda drivers set the pace in the first full practice session.

James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti were atop the leaderboard for Andretti Autosport, followed by Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing and then Hunter-Reay, another Andretti driver.

Fernando Alonso, making his third attempt to close out motorsports' version of the Triple Crown, was the fastest driver in a Chevrolet at fifth.

There were no on-track incidents but Kanaan had to get into A.J. Foyt Racing teammate Dalton Kellett's car to help the rookie get up to speed. Ben Hanley of DragonSpeed USA never got on track Wednesday as his team was still working on the car.

“We’re a bit delayed at the moment but we are trying to do everything as efficiently as we can,” Hanley said. “We don’t want to rush it and make a mistake. It’s frustrating to hear all the other guys on the track, but we are being patient. I’d rather the guys take their time and everything is 100% when we hit the track.”

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