Officials share Roger Penske’s optimism for fans at Indy 500; say IMS made call last year

Indy 500 fans 2021
Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

While declining to specify capacity, local officials are confident the 2021 Indy 500 will have fans again and credited Indianapolis Motor Speedway leadership with making the call to run the race last year with empty grandstands.

IMS owner Roger Penske was bullish Monday about welcoming back fans May 30 for the 105th Greatest Spectacle in Racing but declined to estimate how many, saying the goal was its roughly 250,000 capacity.

Dr. Virginia Caine, director of the Marion County Public Health Department, said during a Thursday news conference with Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett that it was “very difficult” to determine capacity but added “we’re much further ahead in the game compared to last year when we were at a similar situation related to the Indy 500. So we’re hoping to be very optimistic. I’m a fan of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and they have such an outstanding team and the consultants that they’ve brought to bear related to our safety.

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“And they were the ones who made that tough decision about no spectators last year. So they’re very conscious related to the safety of this community. They look at the science as well as us on the evidence. So we’ve enjoyed a collaborative relationship in terms of reviewing all the data and analysis and its impact on our community. We’re very pleased to have the opportunity of being able to consent to continue a very major attraction in our community, but we also want to make sure we have a very safe event happening in our community. If we’re looking at numbers and how we’re trending, I believe we’ll have fans at the Indy 500.”

Race winner Takuma Sato takes the checkered flag of the 104th Indy 500 ahead of Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

Last year, the Indianapolis 500 was delayed three months to Aug. 23 with plans originally for a limited crowd. But because of local and state health concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the decision was made to hold the race without fans.

In noting that Marion County positive rates had shrunk to well under 5 percent, Penske said the race being held outdoors was a major selling point, a stance echoed Thursday by Hogsett during the news conference.

“We all acknowledge that because of what we understand of the virus, outdoor environments are safer,” Hogsett said. “By the time of Memorial Day weekend, we’ll have had many more weeks of increased vaccine distribution, which I think will certainly play in an important role in decision-making as we go forward. We’ll have data that tells us unequivocally whether these large events we are currently hosting has caused any kind of significant uptick in positive cases, and we’ll continue to work with leadership at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Their team is top notch in every way.

“I know that Roger Penske, Mark Miles, Doug Boles and Allison Melangton really put a priority on the public health and safety of their fans as well as those who will attend from Indianapolis. We’ll continue to work with their team. We’ve got some time and some results that will be available to us that we may not have access to do right now.”

Roger Penske said 170,000 tickets have been sold for the 105th Indy 500 but declined to make predictions Monday “because anything I would say today could be completely wrong. Our goal is to have 250,000 (roughly full capacity for the speedway). That’s what we want to have. It’s outside. We’ve got the biggest stadium in the world here and it’s a matter of where we’re going to be with the CDC and the governor and the mayor, so I don’t have any number that I’d want to hang my hat on.

“It just shows you the interest in the race and we’ve got a lot of people that are waiting, and we have our (general admission) and what else we normally do on that weekend, but I think the good news is we’re going to have the race and it will be limited or be open based on what the current numbers are.”

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night / DB3 Inc.

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.

Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)