Racing without Fans in the Stands

June 18, 2020

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The wind rolled over empty grandstands, the sky was empty of fighter jets, and everyone from team owners to pit crew members wore masks. On May 16, 2020, NASCAR, America’s favorite form of racing, reintroduced the country to live motorsports at Darlington Speedway in South Carolina. And the social distancing measures paid off – there were no apparent Covid-19 cases among those who participated.   

Indy Car began its season June 9, 2020 at Texas Motor Speedway without fans. The ratings for live and IRacing simulations have been so high that NBC decided to move the broadcast from its sports channel (MSNBC). June 9 was racing’s first primetime broadcast on a major network since 2013. Jon Miller, President of Programing said, “America has a thirst for live sports, so we’re thrilled to showcase the spectacular racing of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in primetime on the [NBC] broadcast network.”  

Scott Dixon collected his 47th IndyCar win that day. He now stands third behind two all-time Automotive Hall of Fame champions, 2007 inductee A.J. Foyt (67) and 2005 inductee Mario Andretti (52). The New Zealander was all smiles as he slipped on his mask following the victory. He requested the chance to do the “smokey donuts” with his race car, but was denied, as it would risk damaging the engine. This ritual is typically intended to give fans something to whoop and cheer about. Not for an empty grandstand!

What does the lack of the crowd mean to the racers and the teams? When asked how it felt to win, Kevin Harvick who won the first NASCAR race without fans, said, “Awkward … usually, you get out of the car and the crowd is screaming and yelling … it was like, well, I don’t really know what to do here.” The 52-time Cup Series race winner added that he did not know whether to put on a mask for his post-race interview. 

Speaking about his first Indianapolis 500 win, racing legend Bobby Unser shared this, “The only thing louder than my engine was the fans …400,000 fans rose in a thunderous wave … with each lap the crowd got louder and louder stomping their feet. My excitement was greater than I ever imagined … I had just won my first Indy.” Fans make a difference. 

The first ever NASCAR/IndyCar double header July 4 weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be run without fans. NASCAR has not announced when fans will return, but has scheduled eight more Cup races between now and August. 

As for the Indianapolis 500 event, 2015 Automotive Hall of Fame inductee Roger Penske told RACER Magazine this week, “Trust me, we are going to run it with fans, we will only run it with fans.” It has yet to be determined whether the event will be held August 23, or if it will be moved to October. 

During a May 5, 2020 interview with Mario Andretti, I asked about the IRacing simulated competitions that have taken off during the quarantine. Mario replied, “SIM racing is certainly keeping fans entertained during the pandemic. I’ve even tried it myself. But we’re all looking forward to getting back to real racing.” If you want to hear more of Mario’s comments, check back soon for a video of our exclusive interview with him.

The roar of the engines, the reactions of thousands of fans, these make racing thrilling. The experience of a live competition brings exultation and consequences, the appeal for most fans. We are all looking forward to the return of the live racing experience.   

Brian Baker
Vice President of Education
Principal Historian
Automotive Hall of Fame 

Thank you to George Levy of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America for his help in preparing this story. 

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