INDIANAPOLIS – Chris Hill didn't expect the Indy 500's August run to help make up for the financial losses his Speedway restaurant, Dawson's on Main, suffered this year.
After all, the novel coronavirus pandemic still rages.
So when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced on Tuesday that the race would take place without fans in attendance due to growing concerns about the coronavirus, Hill wasn't surprised. It was just another "shot in the gut," he said.
"I can't say that it wasn't anticipated by us," he said. "We were certainly hoping there would be a race with fans, but the good thing is there's still going to be a race, and that's what's important to the community and the track. Certainly, it takes a little bit of shine off of it."
The Indy 500 is typically a financial windfall for businesses in the region, generating an estimated economic impact upward of $336 million, though official figures are unavailable.
Still, with new cases of COVID-19 tripling in Marion County, Indiana and the positivity rate for the virus rising since June 26, business owners and government and tourism officials say IMS' decision to host the event without spectators in person is no surprise to them.
"We know that clearly in the short term there will be economic impact pain felt by virtue of not being able to welcome any visitors into the city and into the iconic oval," said Chris Gahl, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Indy. "Yet ultimately, we firmly believe in order to keep the Indy 500 healthy, pumping the brakes this year is not only necessary but the right move to make."
'Throw this whole year out of the window'
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people — from across Indiana and states abroad — attend the Indy 500 and spend money at restaurants, hotels, museums and theaters.
But for the first time in its 104-year history, fans won't be in the grandstands watching the race live.
"From a business standpoint, it's obviously a tough day," Hill said reflecting on the matter. "It just kept going down and down and down as far as the attendance. I have to kind of say that I was kind of forecasting it — that this was a possibility, and obviously it happened."
The race typically takes place during Memorial Day weekend. However, the Indy 500 was rescheduled to Aug. 23 due to the pandemic.
In June, IMS owner Roger Penske, IMS President Doug Boles and Penske Entertainment Corp. President and CEO Mark Miles said in a letter to ticket holders that the venue would allow attendance up to 50% capacity, roughly 175,000 fans.
In July, the track announced that it expected about 25% fan capacity.
On Tuesday, zero.
The Indy 500 is like the Super Bowl for Hill, who opened his Speedway restaurant 15 years ago. May, when the race is typically held, is one of his more prosperous months.
This year the business started losing money in March when it was forced to close for a while due to the coronavirus. He said his business hasn't really come back.
"Throw this whole year out of the window," said Hill, who is trying to remain hopeful that fans will come in to watch the race on television, which won't be blacked out this year. "Who knows what business will be like that day."
Miles away in Downtown Indianapolis, the no-fans news also did not surprise George Stergiopoulos, a co-owner of Giorgio’s Pizza downtown and The Greek Islands restaurant off South Meridian Street.
“I think for all restaurants, especially sit-down restaurants or restaurants that have seating, you know, the 500 is a big boost for the economy of Indianapolis,” he said. “And I think we’re all going to suffer without having people in the stands.”
He said his Greek Islands restaurant usually increases business by 25% due to the race, and he expected business would have increased even more at the downtown pizzeria under normal circumstances.
Making the best of a bad situation
The town of Speedway thrives on the 500. Race attendance supports restaurants and other local businesses and fundraisers.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed just like every Indy 500 fan," said Connie Harris, executive director of the Greater Speedway Area Chamber of Commerce, in a telephone interview. "We understand the decision and are supportive, but it really affects our town. We're just like everybody else. We're going to make the best of a bad situation."
Although Speedway officials held onto hope that the event would fully take place this month, they acknowledged that in-person attendance is not feasible at this time.
"We have all held onto hope that we could see some normalcy in August with fans in the stands, parking cars in our yards, and racing families returning home to Speedway," Town Council President David Lindsey said in a statement. "We have watched the staff and leadership at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway take every precaution possible to get us back on track both literally and metaphorically."
Town officials are encouraging residents to support local businesses and restaurants. In the same statement, Jacob Blasdel, the town's clerk-treasurer, urged residents to do their part to shop locally to ensure that businesses are open next year.
The local chamber has partnered with IMS and Susan Decker Media to promote 500 Fan Fuel, an event that encourages local race fans to watch the race at their favorite bar or restaurant or order carry-out meals offered from Aug. 10-23. A website for the event goes live Wednesday and will carry menus from participating restaurants.
"We're trying to just make the best out of a bad situation and help our local businesses, but I'm sure everybody on Main Street is really deflated," Harris of the chamber said.
Short-term pain vs. long-term pain
The way Gahl sees it, the long-term health of the Indy 500 and concerns for public health supersede the short-term economic pain that could result from IMS' decision.
"When you say the word Indianapolis, the Indy 500 comes to mind," he said. "It's what we're most known for. It's the foundation block of our brand and our city. "
That brand, he added, points to the city's resiliency and hospitality.
"That doesn't go away because of one race having no fans in the seats, but rather it speaks to how seriously we're taking the pandemic as a city and the short-term pain we're willing to go through for the long-term health of the event."
Gahl said Visit Indy received inquiries for August hotel stays and other lodging when the race was postponed and later reduced to half capacity.
"There's a bit of backtracking now to notify guests that the event is not happening with fans," said Gahl, unsure how many people will still come to Indianapolis.
The announcement also came as no surprise to Mike Wells, president of the REI Investments group that co-owns the Indianapolis Marriott.
The downtown hotel already has been closed for just over 100 days but might have opened if the event continued at reduced capacity, he said.
“I think at the end of the day considering everything that’s been ongoing the last couple weeks, they’re better safe than sorry,” Wells said of the decision.
The hotel typically sells out all of its 650 rooms for the race.
But in 2020, Wells noted, it’s just another event that is canceled. The industry will likely have to hold on until business picks up in the distant future, he said, perhaps the second quarter of next year.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indy 500: Local businesses react to decision to not allow fans