Tony Stewart understands the perspective of Indy 500 traditionalists who would prefer to have the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stay silent rather than hold a race without fans.
Stewart, 49, has been one of those purists.
Growing up in Columbus, Indiana, he is a dyed-in-the-wool Hoosier who once staunchly opposed the arrival of NASCAR, Formula One and MotoGP at the Brickyard (until he didn’t after watching them all).
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So having heard the groundswell of “No fans, no Indy 500” in the days since track owner Roger Penske announced the 104th Indy 500 would be held without a crowd for the first time, Stewart has a message for the old-guard fan base.
“They don’t have to watch,” Stewart told NBC Sports. “If they’re that upset about it, turn your damn TV off. The rest of us want to watch the Indy 500. The drivers want to race, the teams want to race. Roger Penske wants the race to happen. I’m a race fan. I want to the race to happen.
“So I understand the purist part, but this is not a purist year where everything is normal. If there was some other circumstance and somebody messed this up, then you’d have grounds to complain about it. But people don’t want to sit at home and watch nothing. They don’t want to watch reruns on TV. I want to see the Indy 500 this weekend, so I’m excited about it.”
In a relief for those among us who are counting on millions tuning in for Sunday’s Indy 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC; 2:30 p.m. green flag), Stewart is expecting that even the traditionalists will be unable to avoid the Indy 500’s siren call.
“I can’t imagine any of these purists are going to not watch this race on Sunday, whether they like it or not,” he said. “Every one of them is still going to watch the race.
“The one that doesn’t watch it, if I find out, I’m going to go egg their house on Monday.”
The three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, who also has five Indy 500 starts, was making the rounds Tuesday to promote an Advance Auto Parts/DieHard contest for fans to deliver their past “Start your engines” command for use in a prerace commercial Sunday (www.CallingAllDieHards.com).
He spoke with NBC Sports about how it’ll feel to watch an emptier Indy 500, the effect of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on his racetrack and teams and why he’s pulling for pole-sitter Marco Andretti:
Q: So let’s start with your advice for fans on how to handle the command to start engines. Not many people have had that honor at IMS; should they follow the Hulman-George model for delivery?
Stewart: “I think you have to do what feels right to you. That moment that you hear that command, what does it feel like to you? I think is something that’s going to be really important to everybody in realizing the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500. If people keep that tradition in mind and have watched the Indy 500 and heard that command over and over and do it in their way, I think it’s going to be really cool.”
Q: What will it be like to watch your beloved Indy 500 during a weird time in a weird year?
Stewart: “I think there’s two ways we can all look at this. We all know why we’re in this situation and scenario. You can say the cup is half-empty and say, ‘Oh, it didn’t happen in May, and the fans aren’t there and boo-hoo.’ Or you can say, ‘Hey, Roger Penske and the state of Indiana, they figured out how to get this race in.’ It didn’t happen when we wanted, but the fans are still going to see this race. The drivers and teams are still going to race for an Indy 500. That is the important part in my eyes. So is it perfect? Is it ideal? No, not at all. Not even close. But the most important thing is we’re going to see the Indy 500 this year. Doesn’t matter when it is. In 2020, there’s still going to be an Indianapolis 500 champion crowned.”
Q: You’ve said you’ll be watching somewhere on TV after racing Friday and Saturday. Do you still have your suite at IMS?
Stewart: “No, I’m back dirt racing, so half the time I’m traveling home or going to another race on Memorial Day weekend, so I didn’t keep it. But even people that have suites can’t go. I have a friend that has a Turn 2 suite, and he can’t even go in his suite by himself and watch the race. But we understand. Even as disappointed as he is and we all are to not be able to go, we understand why, and the most important thing is getting everybody healthy again.
“There’s a lot of people who haven’t been affected by this yet from the virus side, but I can tell you firsthand that I know people that have had this virus come and hit and affect them, and if people think this is over, it’s not over yet. So we’ve got to do our parts. But at the same time to have people like Roger Penske and the governor of Indiana sit there and figure out a way to make this happen is really important to the sport.”
Q: What will it be like to watch without seeing anyone in the stands for a race that normally draws 300,000 people?
Stewart: “Watching it on TV, the only time I actually really looked at what was going on in the stands is when you’d see a pass for the lead. When you’d see a pass for the lead, you’d see the crowd’s reaction. And I felt like that was a big part of it, but aside from that, we’re going to watch 33 race cars slicing and dicing and fighting for a win. I think we’re all somewhat numb to it now from watching all the NASCAR races. We still get to watch good racing each weekend, and I think everybody is somewhat used to it by watching that, so I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a drama.
“I think you’re still going to have the grumpy old men that have been to every Indy 500 that are going to complain and gripe and get upset about it. But I think for the most part, the fans are still going to enjoy watching a good race on Sunday.”
Q: Is it a double-edged sword that the longtime fans help maintain the traditions that make the Indy 500 so iconic but yet also are so resistant to what might be perceived as common-sense alterations to those longstanding routines?
Stewart: “They don’t like change at all. I remember ’94 when NASCAR came to Indy. I was so mad because nothing deserves to be there but IndyCar. NASCAR doesn’t deserve to be there. Formula One, MotoGP. All of it. I didn’t want anything there but Indy cars. And then after I watched the first Brickyard, I was like you know what? This is pretty cool. The purist and old guard, you’ve got to love them and appreciate them, because they are the ones that truly understand the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar racing.
“But at the same time, they and everyone else has to understand this is not a traditional year. There’s so many things that just flat have got canceled all together. But yet, we’re still going to run the Indy 500. I’d like to tell them just to chill out and watch the race and enjoy it, and if they’re that upset about it, literally don’t watch it.”
Q: How fortunate has IndyCar and IMS been to have Roger Penske at the helm during the pandemic?
Stewart: “Well, I think Roger is definitely the perfect guy to steer the ship for sure. I guarantee you this is not what he had in mind for his first year owning the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but I do believe if you had to pick one guy to put in a crisis situation like this and make the Brickyard happen and make the Indy 500 happen, it’s Roger Penske. He’s the right guy to do this. (The NASCAR July 4 weekend of) having an Xfinity race on Saturday on the road course and having the Cup race on the oval. I think it’s brilliant to sit there and see all of that and have two iconic races on two different layouts on two different days I think was incredible. That’s the kind of vision that Roger Penske has. So I think that one weekend alone showed exactly why Roger Penske is the right guy for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
Q: Can you empathize with Roger’s plight as the owner of a racetrack (Eldora Speedway) and sprint car racing series (All Star Circuit of Champions)? What’s it like navigating a pandemic in those roles?
Stewart: “An absolute nightmare. Eldora, we’ve had one race so far. We just did an announcement we’ll have an All-Star $50,000 to win sprint car race at Eldora. But it’s still all no fans. To do that it takes good partners and FloSports is a great partner that streams all of our All Star races and Ollie’s Bargain Outlet Store and Mobil 1 help out with that and help us put on an event like this even though there’s no fans to help generate that income.
“It’s been tough. Eldora has been sitting all year. That part has been terrible. The All Star side with the sprint cars, at the beginning it was trying to figure out when we could go racing as much as what states can we race in, so literally we had a nine race in 11 days trip to Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Louisiana. Going to places we’d never been to with the series just to try to get races in. Jared Frood does all of our scheduling and should be entirely bald by now from pulling his hair out. It’s not been a fun situation for any of the short track traveling series, whether pavement or dirt, it’s been extremely hard depending on what states are open and aren’t. So we’re getting races in, but the amount of work it’s taken behind the scenes from our series officials and Jared to get racetracks to book us, it’s been a huge undertaking. So I’ll be happy when all this is over.”
Q: You’ve said the Indy 500 matters more to you than anything in life. Does it still hold that sway over you?
Stewart: Yeah, the sad part is it’s not a goal anymore (as a driver). That’s the hard part is that part of my life and time has passed unfortunately. It’s not realistic for me to go back and do it. I said a couple of years ago I’d entertain the idea of doing it. But I’ve got so much respect for the drivers and the cars and teams there, it’s not like it used to be in the ‘70s and ‘80s where guys could just show up, get in a car and get up to speed, get qualified and go race. It’s way more technical than that. Just to think that you could show up and get in a car, those days are over.
“Kurt Busch did a good job with it (running the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day in 2014), but I’ve run that race. I don’t want to go there just to say I’m running the race. If I went, I’d want to know I have a shot to win the race. I don’t think you’re going to beat those guys at their own game if you’re not doing it as much as they are. They are tough. The competition is tough. The margins are so small, you’re not going to just get in there and be up to speed with those guys and be as on your game that you have to be like those guys are right now.”
Q: So you sound at peace with no longer having a shot to win the Indy 500?
Stewart: “Well, I don’t have a choice (laughs). It’s not necessarily an at peace thing as much as I just don’t have a choice. But when fans go, ‘Why not? You could still do it!’ Well, I hope that answers the question of why because I respect the drivers who run these things so much and what it takes for those guys to be at their peak performance and up to speed with exactly how those cars operate, and the controls that they have inside the cars that I didn’t have before. To try to get up to speed and learn all that and be as good as those guys are at making those adjustments, you’re just not going to get to that level in one weekend.”
Q: Many of the prerace traditions will be vacated this year. What do you like the most about race day at IMS and how will it feel to see some of that missing?
Stewart: “It’s definitely not going to feel the same. But if not feeling the same means still doing it, I’m OK with it not feeling the same. The race needs to happen. The pageantry that goes on around it, most of it is for the people that are there. It’s not going to feel the same, but I don’t think anyone expects it to. There’s a lot of traditional things that aren’t going to happen this Sunday that we’re used to, but it doesn’t have to happen. The moral of the story is we’re going to run the Indy 500 and watch a great race.”
Q: What are your predictions for Sunday, knowing that pole-sitter Marco Andretti is a good friend of yours?
Stewart: “Marco’s probably the guy I’m closest to in IndyCar. So to see him get the pole and see him having a good month, everything seems to be clicking for him. I’m really pulling for him this weekend and hoping he can finish this thing off and break that streak. That’s the guy I sentimentally want to win for sure. Most of all I just want to see a really good race. But I’m hoping when it’s over, Marco’s in victory lane. We may not celebrate at the Speedway itself, but I can promise if he wins this thing, we’re going to have a big celebration for him.”