A fully vaccinated Roger Penske is hard at work at Indianapolis Motor Speedway preparing for a full season of racing that will include spectators at his showcase event.
There will be fans at this year's Indianapolis 500, Penske said Monday, but how many remains a moving target based on COVID-19 restrictions. More than 170,000 tickets already have been sold for the May 30 race, he said.
His first Indy 500 as owner of the historic property was held in front of empty grandstands last year.
“We’re not making any predictions at all because anything I would say today could be completely wrong,” Penske said. “Our goal is to have 250,000. I mean, that’s what we want to have. It’s outside. We’ve got the biggest stadium in the world here and it’s a matter of where we’re going to be with the CDC and the governor and the mayor, so I don’t have any number that I’d want to hang my hat on.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway boasts about 250,000 permanent seats with additional space in suites, hospitality areas and an infield that all combined can accommodate at least 400,000 spectators on race day. Penske spent $15 million on upgrades to IMS after closing on his $300 million purchase of the property in January 2020, two months before the pandemic upended his debut as owner.
The 500 was pushed from its traditional Memorial Day weekend date to August and limited to competitors only. Penske wasn't able to open the gates to his showplace until October, when 10,000 fans a day were allowed onto the sprawling grounds for a late-season IndyCar event.
Penske noted Monday that the positivity rate for COVID-19 for Marion County, where Indianapolis Motor Speedway is located, was 3.1%. The NCAA Tournament currently is being played in Indianapolis and surrounding areas, and Penske said he believes the Kentucky Derby — about 120 miles away — will cap attendance at 50% capacity.
The speedway has hosted vaccination events that Penske, 84 and inoculated — “I hit the top age bracket, so that’s one time the age worked out,” he joked — believes will bolster attendance options for the Indy 500.
“We did 16,000 in three days and we’re getting ready to do a mass vaccination in April,” he said. "We haven’t worked out the details yet with the state, but we think there’s an opportunity to make a big impact here, where we could give back to the community.
“With the size of our facility and what we were able to accomplish just in three days, we think we can really help this whole area here — the city of Indianapolis and the surrounding counties.”
Penske also believes IndyCar will have spectators at all 17 races on its calendar.
There have been slight schedule changes already, with the Grand Prix of Long Beach moving from April to September because of restrictions in California, and the season opens April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park at Atlanta. Barber, St. Pete and Texas Motor Speedway, the first three events on the schedule, all have tickets for sale.
Other topics addressed Monday, the day after Ryan Blaney gave Team Penske its first NASCAR Cup Series win of the season:
Brad Keselowski in NASCAR and Will Power and Simon Pagenaud from IndyCar are all in contract years, but Penske said early talks on extensions have started. All three have won series championships for Penske, and Power and Pagenaud are both Indy 500 winners.
“We’re in discussion with all of them,” Penske said. “With COVID we haven’t been able to get together, but we’ve had conversations with Brad before. I think we’re moving in the right direction. There’s no reason we wouldn’t renew, for sure.”
NASCAR did not permit team owners to enter the garage because of the pandemic, so if they attended, they had to watch from a suite on the other side of the track. IndyCar did grant access last year, and NASCAR this season has opened one roster spot inside its bubble for each team. Penske said he attended the Daytona 500 and the race at Las Vegas but has yet to enter the garage.
“In both cases I either had to make the decision to be down in the garage on the box, or be up in the suite, where we had some of our sponsors, so I elected to do that,” he said. "Maybe I’ve been in the wrong bubble, but that’s been my status so far for the first six races.”
THE DAYTONA 500 DISASTER
Team Penske was in position to win the Daytona 500 in February with Keselowski and Joey Logano running 1-2 on the final lap. Logano attempted to block Keselowski's pass for the win and it triggered a multicar crash that also collected Austin Cindric in a third Penske car.
He said he's had conversations with all the Penske drivers and a plan will be made before the series races at Talladega Superspeedway, which has similar conditions to Daytona.
“I’m going to sit down with them face-to-face, all of them, before Talladega so we’re all running on the same page,” he said. “I think we just have to make an agreement on just exactly how you want to play ball if you get into that same situation as we had with two of us running as well as we had with a half-mile to go, and then end up with three cars in the trash bucket."
The IndyCar television contract with NBC expires at the end of this season and the network is doing away with its NBC Sports channel that hosts much of the series's content.
NBC said earlier Monday it was moving some of its NASCAR content to its Peacock streaming service, but Penske acknowledged he's “not really an expert” on streaming options. He wouldn't discuss where IndyCar could land in 2022.
“We certainly want to have a broadcast partner as we go into the future, and if that entails streaming and other aspects of what might be available, we’re looking at all of those," he said.
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