INSIGHT: How IMS pulled off the biggest sporting event of the post-pandemic era

The 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 featured an estimated crowd of 135,000 to watch Helio Castroneves capture a remarkable record-tying fourth victory.

But, how?

How was IMS able to pull off the biggest sporting event since the start of the pandemic?

When COVID-19 brought everything to a standstill in early March of 2020, the sporting world held out hope the stoppage would be brief and fans would be able to return in a matter of a few months. To that end, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced on March 26 it was moving The Greatest Spectacle in Racing moved from its traditional Memorial Day weekend to August 23. Despite the change, IMS was forced to run the Indy 500 without any fans in attendance, leaving the sound of 33 engines to echo off of metal bleachers normally occupied by a boisterous crowd of roughly 300,000.

“August was really difficult last year, because in March, when we made the decision to move the race from May to August, we really believed that by the time we got to August, the pandemic would be gone and we’d be able to manage our way through it,” IMS President Doug Boles tells RACER. “At that point in time, nobody knew how long it’d go. People sort of believed that in summer things would get much better anyway, so we felt pretty good about the August date. As we got closer and closer, we got to a point where we thought we’d have everybody. Then it was 50 percent. Then it just got to the point where we couldn’t have fans. That was challenging for everybody.”

Boles’s heartbreak was shared by Roger Penske, who had just finalized the purchase of IMS and IndyCar back in January of that year.

“It was challenging for a lot of us because we so badly wanted to put on an Indy 500 for Roger with people (in attendance),” Boles says. “He’s obviously been to a bunch of Indy 500s, won the race, but he’d never seen it from this side of the fence where you’re actually putting the event on and seeing the smiles on people’s faces. So that was really, really challenging. We had a little bright moment then in October, when we were able to have fans here for the doubleheader that we had – the Harvest classic. At that point in time, I think we really believed, ‘OK, this is good. We’ve gotten through August. We’ve gotten through October. We’re going to be fine for May in 2021.’ And then as we got into late January and early February, we started realizing that things were going to be a challenge.”

Despite the race date being moved back three months, the dramatic finish to last year’s 500 played out in front of empty stands. Cantrell/Motorsport Images

It indeed was a challenge as various government regulations and guidelines were in a state of constant flux. Finally, on April 21, just 40 days prior to the May 30 race, it was confirmed this year’s Indy 500 would be open to fans at 40 percent capacity.

“That’s why we really delayed making any announcement, because we wanted to give ourselves every opportunity we could to host as many fans as possible here,” Boles says. “When we ended up making the decision at the end of April and the announcement we’d have 40 percent, that was bittersweet also because we wanted to have more people. But at the same time we felt like, ‘OK, at least we got people. It’s still a good crowd, and it’s sort of the bridge from zero to hopefully 300,00- plus in 2022.’”

To put into perspective what Boles and the rest of his staff at IMS accomplished this past weekend, here’s the rundown of other events, date and attendance:

* The Super Bowl (February 7, 2021) – 24,385

* The Daytona 500 (February 14, 2021) – 30,000* estimated.

* The Kentucky Derby (May 1, 2021) – 51,838

* The Indianapolis 500 (May 30, 2021) – 135,000

“We credited everybody for their tickets going from 2019 to 2020, and then 2020 to 2021,” Boles says. “Our turnaround time really became a problem beginning in January when we realized that things might change, and then in February, when it seemed more and more like it was. The challenge for us really became at that point in time (was), every day that went by in the late winter, early spring that we didn’t announce what we were going to do, was one less day that our team could put together an event. So really, we planned this year’s Indy 500 in about five weeks when normally we’re taking nine or 10 months. That was a big challenge in our ticketing team.

“Even before we made the announcement, we were going through every kind of different scenario: 75 percent, 50 percent, 25 percent. What kind of spacing would we have to have? A whole variety of things to try and think through how it could look, so by the time we made the announcement, we’d have a jump on it. Our ticket team has really worked nonstop since June of last year when they started going through all these different scenarios leading in August. So that’s the biggest challenge.