INDIANAPOLIS (NewsNation) — The only drawback that Takuma Sato could find in winning the Indianapolis 500 was the absence of fans.
The coronavirus pandemic that forced the race to be delayed from its typical Memorial Day weekend date also caused it to be run without fans for the first time in 104 editions. It created an eerie scene as Sato took the checkered flag under caution with runner-up Scott Dixon and teammate Graham Rahal flanking him along with thousands of empty seats.
“Of course we missed the fans. We’re just so fortunate to perform as a sport so that millions of people watching on TV at home could have some energy,” Sato said. “I’m very glad to be part of that.”
His team owner, Bobby Rahal, admitted that it was a bit strange driving into Indianapolis Motor Speedway without the typical gridlock on the nearby roads. But the 1986 race winner also said that he was so focused on what was shaping up to be a thrilling duel between Sato and Dixon to even notice the complete lack of crowd noise.
“In all seriousness, we’ve said this time and time again, it’s eerie. It’s weird. Nobody likes it,” Rahal said. “I hope our fans who watched it on TV really enjoyed the race. I know it’s not the same thing as being there but I think everybody understands the situation that exists and we have to make the most of it.”
The speedway, now owned by Roger Penske, tried to make it up to fans throughout the week. Drivers delivered gifts to some longtime ticket-holders, and there was a special flyover Sunday by the Air Force’s famed Thunderbirds.
The drivers also went to great lengths to recognize ticket holders heartbroken that generational streaks of attending the Indy 500 are being snapped Sunday. All 33 made individual surprise visits to local fans; they also recorded messages to select ticket holders from their actual seats.
Penske planned to give the command for drivers to start the engine. He’s the fourth owner in speedway history and completed the purchase from the family of the late Tony Hulman in January. The Hulman-George family owned Indy for 75 years and controlled the command since 1955.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.