INDIANANPOLIS – (AP) – As the minutes drew near the green flag, Roger Penske picked up the pomp from a pole overlooking the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which he owned. Then he checked his watch.
It’s time to open the doors and bring in thousands of Indianapolis 500 fans with checkered flag masks and shorts and let them go.
“I’m ready to go. We waited a year and a half for this,” said Penske.
The largest crowd in the world for a sporting event showed up in joyous power on Sunday, 135,000 of them filled the grandstands at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was only 40% of capacity – that was the number considered safe during the pandemic – but it still felt like a full house.
The pork fillet line? Long. The merchandise shop lines? Long enough to stretch outside of the store and mesh with the concession lines. Pit road. Packed up. Parking spaces. Full. COVID-19 concerns. About none.
The spokesman urged fans to greet the field of 33 cars as they raced down the famous track on the warm-up lap. Thousands upon thousands of fans took off their hats and shouted at the drivers. Banned from the track last August when a delayed Indy 500 became an empty Indy 500, Sunday’s race seemed to serve as a symbolic milestone that the sport is really back and open for business in the United States.
Indy fans and dignitaries mingled with NFL players, pro wrestlers, and social media celebrities at the Brickyard. Josh Richards, who has 25 million Tik Tok followers, hit 100,000 views within 30 minutes of posting a video from the grid. Indy is entering a whole new era – long gone are the days when Mrs. Brady and Gomer Pyle were the focus – and so are fans watching for the first time lineup intros and other hype videos around the track Added boards stared at on a 30 LED display since 2019.
The celebrities are being overworked and so are the sponsors. Former NFL tackle Russell Okung is an investor in driver Rinus VeeKay’s Bitcoin-sponsored car and told team owner Ed Carpenter the cryptocurrency would invest in the racing team “forever”. There was a QR code on the car that led directly to the website conversion between US dollars and Bitcoin.
“We’re making history right now,” said Okung.
If he wanted a real feel for 500s history, he could have walked further down pit lane, where team owner Beth Paretta watched her predominantly female team with driver Simona de Silvestro being given the finishing touches. Paretta, who is supported by Penske as part of his pursuit of diversity, said four female team members would be part of the crew beyond the wall.
“The greatest achievement is when each team integrates women into their teams because women can do most of these jobs,” said Paretta. “You can certainly do it very well. We’d like to do a few races later this year and hopefully more next year. “
Danica Patrick was once believed to usher in a generation of women riders after finishing third in Indy in the spring of 2009. Retired Patrick worked for NBC and was still pulling a crowded crowd in front of the pagoda, the speedway’s most visible landmark. She also drove the pace car.
“This Is Us” star Milo Ventimiglia’s first trip to Indy was a quick thrill – Mario Andretti drove him over the famous track in a two-seater ride the day before the start of the race.
How fast did Milo and Mario go?
“Quick,” said Ventimiglia with a laugh.
Tyler Gargas, 21, of Crown Point, Indiana, attended his first Indy 500 in 10 years and shared a tailgate seat with his mother in 18th place in the parking lot.
Point 18? This is Penske’s personal place, named in honor of his Indy 500 career victories as a longtime team owner. Lynn Gargas wore a Graham Rahal t-shirt and was holding her Miller Lite in an Indy 500 Koozie – with two coolers on her feet.
What if the captain told you to move?
“Well, the house is his,” said Gargas.
About a few hours later the place was filled with a company car.
Through vaccinations – including more than 90,000 on the Speedway itself – Penske and Speedway officials have all these fans cleared for IMS. Justin Brammer of Noblesville, Indiana said he was not hesitating to attend his first Indy 500 and said the event had proven that exercise can be done safely.
“Hopefully this will give other people across the country confidence that if we can do it, everyone will be back to normal,” he said.
Oh, and Indy is just getting started.
“Let’s just be sure that we’ll finish the race and blow the roof off the pitch next year,” said Penske.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in any way without permission.