Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles stays optimistic and is focused on July and August races.
A.J. Foyt spent more than month-straight this spring on his Texas ranch, riding bulldozers to clear some land, all the while dreaming of being back in his second home. And with Memorial Day weekend nearing – the one that made the Foyt family name a brand that will live on long after he’s gone – those emotional pangs are growing stronger.
Texas in May, it’s just not the same. Nowhere near, in fact.
The tug of Indiana, Indianapolis, Speedway and IMS, they’re as magnetic as ever this Friday afternoon, and Foyt is thinking about skipping town on his private jet to step foot where his heart’s meant to be.
“Just to be there, on Memorial Day,” he said. “I guess I’ll just have to wait till they’re back racing there, but I’ll definitely be back, unless I’m six-feet underground.
“That’s how people know me, from Indianapolis. I’ve won a lot of 500-mile races, but nobody knows about them. They know about me from here. Indy’s what made A.J. Foyt. A.J. Foyt didn’t make Indy.”
Others around the IndyCar paddock are coping. Some with a positivity that’s focused on August or a laser mindset already honing in fast on the season-opener at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6. And for still others, there’s apathy, whether it be a survival instinct or disbelief. But one thing’s certain: The lack of an Indy 500 this weekend is a unique experience all its own.
‘It’s like the twilight zone’
For historians of the sport, particularly ones who grew up in central Indiana and sat in the metal bleachers hauling coolers full of sandwiches and fried chicken, a weekend with the 500 is a perfect chance to dig back into races of years’ past.
Dennis Reinbold says he hasn’t yet lived his favorite Indy 500 “because our team hasn’t won one,” but it doesn’t mean there won’t be cars roaring across his television screen Sunday afternoon.
“We’ve been watching classic races on YouTube,” said the team owner who attended his first race as a fan in 1970. “It’s not like the live competition you’re used to for this month, but (the race) is going to happen, and we’re looking forward to being there and participating, but in the meantime, this is a good carryover.
It’s a chance for Reinbold, not to remind himself of what’s not there, but of what’s to come.
“It’s not frustrating,” he said. “It’s part of the history here in the city. I took Donald Davidson’s class a long time ago, and I’ve read so many books on the history of the 500, and there’s just not enough knowledge you can accumulate.
“I grew up hearing cars from my house, and just being a part of this community, with what happens during the month of May, or August, it’s good enough.”
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But it’s not “good enough” for everyone. Though Bobby Rahal, the 1986 race winner and current team co-owner, was one of several 500 veterans to sacrifice an appearance at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in the late 90’s and early 2000’s during open-wheel racing’s split, to have it uncontrollably snatched out of its rightful place in the calendar feels indescribable.
While he’s relished the chance to organize his garage and pour over his racing memorabilia inventory back home during this extended offseason, it’s nowhere near worth being forcibly separated from where he’s spent nearly half his life this month.
“It’s just odd,” Rahal said. “It really just feels weird, frankly, and I’m missing it not being there. I don’t know what to do this weekend. Probably cook out, and maybe watch some races, but I’m not too sure, cause I can’t remember what it’s like.
“It’s like the twilight zone.”
Basking in the glory
In mid-March, Simon Pagenaud drove himself home from the failed race at St. Petesburg, Fla., a 10-hour trip back to the Charlotte-area, alone with his thoughts.
In part, due to being extra cautious with his health, but also, to prepare mentally for the worst.
This offseason had been a whirlwind of excitement sparked by the unbridled joy of winning his first Indy 500 in 2019. The media tour, the 2020 ticket reveal – all of it was supposed to lead into a chance to become the first driver since Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves in 2001-02 to defend his 500 title.
And when news broke of the postponement of the year’s first four races, with the Indy 500 squarely in danger, Pagenaud needed more than just a moment to think about what that might mean.
“I was so concerned we were not going to race at Indianapolis in 2020,” he said. “For me, (that race) is the No. 1 priority. Nothing else matters. I want to win that again.”
As he waits, the defending champ plans to watch Sunday’s NBC special “Back Home Again”, where he and Alexander Rossi relive Pagenaud’s success and the latter’s letdown in a four-hour cinematic production.
It’s a fitting consolation. And it means he gets to spend a few more months basking in the glory of being the winner before he has to put it all on the line again.
Tony Kanaan knows the feeling, and maybe that’s why he’s been able to put a smile on amidst missing maybe his favorite time of year. That time, he said, is all about a location – not a date. And that date, Aug. 23, is coming.
“I’ve been trying not to get into this ‘sad May’ feeling, because there’s hard times for everyone. There’s a lot bigger problems than not running the Indy 500 around the country,” he said. “Once we get there every year, we drivers don’t know even what day of the week or month it is.
“Today, I thought to myself, ‘It was supposed to be Carb Day,’ but there’s still going to be a Carb Day, and it’s Aug. 21. We’re going to go on.”
For Kanaan, Sunday is a special treat. In the spirit of watching old races, he’ll treat his four kids and his wife Lauren to his triumph in 2013. It’s the first chance, Kanaan said, for his four-year-old son Max to finally watch and connect how his dad landed the Borg Warner trophy that sits in the family’s living room.
“His mom is on the broadcast, and I think he’ll find out some cool things about it,” Kanaan said. “And I still have the milk bottle from that race. I think we’ll toast with some milk.”
But their fellow drivers, the ones who haven’t yet tasted the milk, their focus is elsewhere. Anything but Indy.
For Graham Rahal, who finished on the podium at IMS back in 2011 but suffered a bitter end to his Sunday a year ago, getting caught up in a crash in Turn 3 with less than 25 laps to go and finished 27th, the focus is Texas.
“I’ve seen last year’s race. I know how it ends, I’m good,” he said. “It’s weird. I haven’t been in that frame of mind for so long. I’ve been focused on Texas, once we knew that was what was to come. As weird as it is, it’s the truth.
“It’s always an honor every chance you get to go (to IMS). But that’s still going to happen this year.”
For Conor Daly, who finished a personal-best 10th a year ago in the 500, Sunday is more about keeping his mind occupied, whether its Texas, or his series of upcoming simulator tests with Carlin and Ed Carpenter Racing.
Because even with another 500 to look forward to in August, its absence in May is maddening for the driver just getting back into a full-season program.
“There’s not a lot we can do. You still can’t have a party outside, right? It’s gonna be tough. I don’t want to think about it that much or dwell on it, cause I’ll just sit here, burning annoyed, because we can’t do anything,” he said.
Daly does plan to tune into the NBC broadcast, though.
“I want to support anything people are doing. I’m all for it, but I’ll just need to get through another day, get to Texas and get this show on the road.”
A trip six months in the making
If Foyt does hop on his jet with the nose pointed toward Indianapolis, he’ll have company when he arrives.
Because the man that bought the keys to IMS six months ago wasn’t about to let even a global pandemic keep him from his second home.
Talk about a track making someone’s racing career. With 18 victories for Team Penske since Mark Donohue’s in 1972, no one has basked in the glory of the Racing Capital of the World more.
And, Penske jokes, he gets to once again, come Sunday.
“It’s going to be my 19th win!,” Penske laughed in reference to watching Pagenaud prevail on Sunday’s NBC special.
But before he gets comfortable in a chair inside the Pagoda with Mark Miles and the rest of his Penske Entertainment Corp. cabinet, this weekend’s trip has a special meaning for Penske. Since the announcement of his purchase in early November, May 24 was supposed to be a culmination of the first chapter in IMS’s new era.
It still will be, he says, because the person who’s watched him toil over this newest endeavor will finally be able to place eyes on what exactly his near-weekly trips and multi-million dollar investment has been for.
“First thing, I’m going to bring my wife down from Detroit,” he said. “Because she’s seen me down there at least a day or so each week, to show her what we’ve been doing.”