Tony Stewart, probably like most people, knows the 2020 Indianapolis 500 on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, NBC) is going to look and feel totally different compared with past years. And that goes for the drivers at the track and the fans, whose only option this year is to watch from afar.
Typically, the Indy 500 is a massive production with a celebration throughout the whole month leading up to the race — and that month is usually May. There are parades and concerts and other racing-related competitions, like to see which team has the best pit crew. And by the time race day rolls around at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which has a capacity of at least 350,000, fans flood the massive grandstands and infield to create what Indy 500 pole winner Marco Andretti recently described as an “electric” atmosphere.
“Honestly, it’s not going to have that same feel, but nothing has this year,” said Stewart, a NASCAR team owner who raced full-time in the IndyCar Series in 1997 and 1998 and made five Indy 500 starts. The 1996 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year and pole winner spoke to For The Win recently while promoting Advance Auto Parts’ “Start Your Engines” DieHard battery campaign encouraging fans to do their own command that could air on NBC’s pre-race coverage.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the festivities have been canceled, the grandstands will be empty and the race is in August instead of its traditional Memorial Day Weekend slot. But Stewart noted that the absence of some elements that make the race so special could give actually drivers a unique advantage this year.
“This year for these guys, I feel like it’s going to be a lot easier because you’re not going to have all that build up and all that hype,” he said. “And it’s going to make it a lot easier for them to just focus on driving the race cars.”
Tony Stewart at practice for the 1998 Indy 500. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Things like driver introductions and the performance of the famous Back Home Again in Indiana song will still happen like usual. But it’s, obviously, going to be a bit quieter at the iconic 2.5-mile track this year.
Stewart continued explaining why he thinks that will ultimately help drivers:
“There’s a lot of pageantry that happens on race day. You have local high school [and] college marching bands. You have all of the military support. There’s just a lot of pomp and circumstance that happens on race day. The singing of Back Home Again in Indiana — there’s no other race that there’s a song part of pre-race like that. Just everything about it. …
“Having been there as a driver, it used to drive me crazy. I did five Indy 500s, and literally, by the time it was time to get in the car, I was an emotional wreck. Just nervous and everything because I grew up in the state of Indiana, so knowing all these things and then being there a part of it was incredible.
“So when they finally give that command to start your engines, that was finally the part where one that motor fired, then you actually start to calm down a little bit. Your adrenaline is still going up, but you actually physically calm down in the race car because you’re in an element you’re comfortable with.”
But Stewart was also clear that he believes all the missing details about this year’s Indy 500 won’t diminish the value of the race at the end of the day.
“To sit there and have the opportunity to put your name in the history books winning the Indianapolis 500, whether there’s nobody there or it’s packed, I don’t think anybody cares,” he added. “We would love to have it, but I don’t think it’s going to take anything away from the guy that wins the race.”
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