Dear Indianapolis 500 fans: We missed you

Automorbit, Sport – Indianapolis Motor Speedway had never looked better than it did on a sunsoaked Sunday morning. Not in the past few decades, at least. Roger Penske, its loving new caretaker and steward, spared no expense in sprucing up the hallowed grounds of the racing cathedral he grew up worshiping in. The decades-old walls wore fresh coats of paint, the new pavement around the venue glistened in the morning sun; and the well-manicured grass was as pristine as, well, the newly renovated bathrooms.

All that was missing … Ah. You don’t need anyone to tell you what was missing. You already know. It’s the same thing that’s been missing from every significant sporting event that’s taken place in this country over the past few COVID-19-plagued months.

The Racing Capital of the World had never looked better, and you weren’t there to see it in all of its glory. A shame, but a predictable one, to be sure.

If there was an odds-on favorite heading into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, it was that the lack of 300,000 roaring race fans was going to make a spellbinding event feel like a shell of its glorious self.

There was no upset. This day felt the sting of your absence.

The electricity of race day morning, the buzz of anticipation that envelops all 250-plus acres of IMS just wasn’t there.

“In Gasoline Alley,” eventual winner Takuma Sato would later say, “there was no energy in it. It was a little sad.”

Without fans, all the frills, the pomp and circumstance felt empty.

Take Jim Cornelison’s goosebumps-inducing rendition of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.” As he has been the past three years, Cornelison was in exquisite form — belting out the somber song with his beautiful, booming voice.

But, as he finished, when his thunderous final note should have been met with thunderous applause, there was in its stead, only a light smattering.

This is a song, when sung ahead of the world’s great motor race, that has been known to reduce grown Hoosiers to tears. Track president Doug Boles has often referred to the final few seconds of its singing on race day morning as his favorite moments of the whole year.

Yet when Cornelison hit that last note Sunday, the absent camaraderie of hearing that song alongside hundreds of thousands of your friends doused the emotion of the moment.

Though no one’s fault, the moment just wasn’t worthy of Cornelison’s magnificent effort. And it wasn’t worthy of the magnificence of the 500.

While we’re on the subject of finishes, Takuma Sato, too, deserved a better one. I’m not talking about the yellow vs. red flag controversy, though the processioned finish under caution certainly helped sap some of the emotion from Sato’s crowning moment.

I’m talking about what followed, which was the most subdued celebration Victory Lane has seen in years — maybe ever.

Before we go further, however, it needs to be repeated that none of this is anyone’s fault. Penske made the only decision he could. Backed into a corner by a vicious and unrelenting virus, he had no choice but to banish fans from the race — for their own good and the safety of the Indianapolis community. He and his determined team at IndyCar and IMS put on a show — the best one they could under the circumstances. And that is, of course, admirable.

But as Sato’s team owner Bobby Rahal said after winning his second 500 as an owner (third including his own 1986 victory) the feeling Sunday and throughout August of racing in an empty cathedral was “eerie.”

“Weird,” Rahal said Sunday night. “No one likes it. … I hope our fans enjoyed the race on TV. But we know it’s not the same thing as being here.”

After a sensational 500 miles, Sato deserved the opportunity to bask in the adulation of hundreds of thousands of fans who would have gladly showered it upon him. Now among an elite class of 20 drivers who have conquered the Great Spectacle in Racing twice, fans would have relished the chance to pay their respects to such a champion.

But there was no curtain call lap around the track in the pace car. It didn’t even look like many of his colleagues had a chance to walk up and congratulate him, a sort-of unwritten tradition — at least for well-liked winners. When Sato earned his long sought- after redemption in 2017, he later beamed with pride when talking about the people — former boss A.J. Foyt chief among them — who made their way to him amid the pandemonium of his great triumph. It filled him with great joy to celebrate with his peers.

He didn’t get that chance on Sunday.

Instead, when he was announced as the Indianapolis 500 champion over the IMS loudspeaker well, suffice it to say that any other year, the decibel level wouldn’t have even been worthy of the 31st place finisher.

Sato ran through the traditions — the wreath, the milk, kissing the bricks — while having to summon the excitement from within himself and his jovial team rather than being able to feed off the energy of an ecstatic crowd.

There are worse fates, surely, but it is sad for Sato and his supporters that they couldn’t have a celebration worthy of the enormity of the moment.

And it stings for Indianapolis that it couldn’t celebrate the champion.

Alas, the silving lining is that day will come again. This virus, despite its best efforts, cannot keep winning forever. With any luck, fans will start being able to attend sporting events again soon en masse.

Hopefully, by the time next May rolls around — only eight months away! — this 104th running will seem like a distant memory.

One man who hopes so, who deserves it, is Roger Penske. This surely was not what “The Captian” envisioned when he took the reins of his beloved IMS last year. When the boy who used to come to this track with his father made that dream come true, he surely pictured hundreds of thousands of screaming fans celebrating a newly crowned champion in his renovated racing palace.

For Penske, that day can’t come soon enough. Before instructing drivers to start their engines, Penske left fans watching around the world with a message of hope about their future together:

“We can’t wait to see you next year,” he said. “We’ll be back home again in Indiana in 2021.”

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