Indy 500 will have no fans in attendance for the Aug. 23 race

Indy 500 no fans
Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

The Indy 500 will be run with no fans Aug. 23 as Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced its grandstands will be closed for the 104th running of the signature race.

The track released a statement with the update Tuesday, two weeks after laying out a plan to have a limited crowd for the Indianapolis 500. IMS initially announced June 26 that the Indy 500 (which will be shown at 1 p.m. ET on NBC) would have a 50 percent capacity crowd.

All on-track activity during August, including practice (which will begin Wednesday, Aug. 12) and qualifying, instead will be closed to the general public. The rest of the August schedule will happen as planned, though the Associated Press reported the pit stop competition on Carb Day has been canceled. Practice and qualifying will be covered fully via NBC Sports Gold, NBCSN and NBC.

DAILY SCHEDULE: Click here for all on-track activity in August at Indy

INDYCAR ON NBC: Viewing schedule for the rest of the season

“This tough decision was made following careful consideration and extensive consultation with state and city leadership,” a track release said Tuesday. “As dedicated as we were to running the race this year with 25 percent attendance at our large outdoor facility, even with meaningful and careful precautions implemented by the city and state, the COVID-19 trends in Marion County and Indiana have worsened. Since our June 26 announcement, the number of cases in Marion County has tripled while the positivity rate has doubled.

“We said from the beginning of the pandemic we would put the health and safety of our community first, and while hosting spectators at a limited capacity with our robust plan in place was appropriate in late June, it is not the right path forward based on the current environment. We encourage Hoosiers to continue making smart decisions and following the advice of our public health officials so we can help get Indiana back on track.”

Fans with tickets to this year’s Indy 500 will receive credit for the 2021 Indianapolis 500 and will retain their seniority and their originally assigned seats.

The news comes three days after the NTT IndyCar Series postponed its race weekend doubleheader at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to September or October because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

IndyCar added races last week at Mid-Ohio, World Wide Technology at Gateway and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course because its Portland and Laguna Seca rounds were canceled.

The pandemic has made for a tumultuous year for IndyCar (which was forced to delay its season opener to June 6) and at IMS, which was purchased (along with the IndyCar Series) by Roger Penske last year.

The iconic team owner has spent the year spending millions to put special touches on the speedway that he has idolized since his Midwestern childhood. But Penske hardly has had the chance to showcase the upgrades without being allowed to open the grandstands of the 2.5-mile track this year.

Penske initially said the race wouldn’t be held unless there was a crowd. He told the Associated Press in a Tuesday interview that choosing to race without fans was “the toughest business decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

Indy 500 no fans
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, shown during an aeroscreen test last October, will hold the Indy 500 for the first time without fans Aug. 23 (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

“Penske Corporation made a long-term investment to be the steward of this legendary facility,” IMS said in the statement. “While we were very excited to showcase the investments and enhancements we have made in the guest experience, we know we have reached the right decision. As much as Roger Penske and everyone associated with the 500 wanted to race with fans this year, we ultimately reached this conclusion in partnership with the state of Indiana and city of Indianapolis.

“Our commitment to the Speedway is unwavering and we will continue to invest in the Racing Capital of the World. We encourage everyone to watch this year’s race on NBC and we look forward to welcoming our loyal fans back to The Greatest Spectacle in Racing on May 30th of 2021.”

After the Indy 500 was postponed March 26 for the first time to Aug. 23, the track played host to an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader race weekend without fans July 4-5. There was optimism building, though, that limited crowds would be allowed this month at the Brickyard. Instead, it will be the first time in a century-plus of history that its mammoth grandstands will be empty for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway had released new Indy 500 fan guidelines July 21 that included 25 percent attendance for the race and mandatory face coverings for all attendees at the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500.

The following day, the speedway released a nearly 100-page health plan with protocols for the race. While the updated plan eliminated the 500 Festival Parade downtown and Legends Day at the speedway, IMS president Doug Boles said the track would allow fans for practice and qualifying sessions.

In late June, Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials had said they were surveying fans and expected a crowd limited to 50 percent of capacity.

The Indy 500 sold out its centennial race in 2016 and has drawn crowds of roughly 300,000 annually. In a Coffee With Kyle sitdown Jan. 31, Penske told Kyle Petty that Indianapolis Motor Speedway had 230,000 seats, and that 78 percent of its ticket allotment had been sold by then, including all of the track’s suites.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”