Fans are back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, after the pandemic put the brakes on last year’s activities.
Thousands of people passed through the gates Saturday to see IndyCar’s GMR Grand Prix. For most it was their first time back to the track for a race since 2019.
Carl Irwin and his two grandsons were among those soaking in the atmosphere on the plaza inside Gate 1. They traveled together from Morgantown, West Virginia for 13 consecutive Indianapolis 500s before missing last year’s. Irwin said they watched it on television in August, but it wasn’t the same.
“There’s nothing like being here. We have a routine,” Irwin said. “We park at the Famous Tomato. We go to Charlie Brown’s. We stuff ourselves on breakfast, and then we come to the track and roam around and watch the races.”
This year some new protocols were added to that routine. Masks were required attire, social distancing was encouraged, seating was limited to certain areas of the grandstands, and the souvenir and concession stands were cashless.
COVID-19 vaccinations were also available for fans inside the facility. Stations offering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were set up near three gates.
Je-Anne Poole, one of the registered nurses working at the Gate 1 vaccination clinic, said some people stopped to inquire about the shot. One person had received a vaccine by noon on Saturday.
“You know most of us vaccinate a lot and it’s very rewarding to be able to do that,” Poole said. “So you know I do think that this is special that we get to be inside the track when there’s activity going on and to be able to do it here, it’s just very rewarding.”
Poole said the stations will be set up throughout the rest of the month for spectators to have a chance to get a shot while watching practices, qualifications, or the Indy 500 race.
After racing last year in front of empty grandstands, IndyCar drivers were happy to have the fans back -- even if they were masked and a little farther away. Saturday’s winner Rinus VeeKay said the interaction made the victory feel even better.
“It's definitely an awesome way to win. We had our first real driver parade and driver intro. It was awesome to just greet the fans before the race and see everyone super excited,” VeeKay said. “It's definitely more surreal to win when there's fans around.”
With the Grand Prix complete, attention turns to preparations for the 500. Attendance is capped at 40 percent. IMS has never divulged the exact capacity of the cavernous facility, but it’s estimated that about 135,000 fans will attend the race, making it the world’s largest sporting event since the pandemic began.
IPB News reporter Samantha Horton contributed to this story.