Summer is saved! Tens of millions of Americans travel for Memorial Day weekend as COVID rules relax

The Indianapolis 500 is set to become the largest sporting event since the pandemic hit in early 2020 with a reduced-capacity sellout crowd of 135,000 expected to attend Sunday’s race, event officials have announced.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway worked with the Marion County Public Health Department to determine that 40 percent of venue capacity will be allowed. The speedway is the largest sporting facility in the world with more than 250,000 grandstand seats and the ability to host close to 400,000 on race day throughout the entire property.

Other large sporting events have included more than 73,000 fans at the bout earlier this month in Arlington, Texas, between Canelo Álvarez and Billy Joe Saunders and 78,000 for a cricket match last month in Melbourne, Australia. But the Indy 500 will dwarf those totals this weekend.

 NBC averaged 3.67 million viewers and a 2.3 rating for last year’s Indy 500, won by Takuma Sato in August when the race was moved away from Memorial Day weekend because of the pandemic and held without spectators for the first time in its 104 runnings. 

IMS also lifted its usual local blackout last year because spectators were not permitted.

The infield’s raucous ‘Snake Pit’ will be closed and all the traditional pre-race concerts will not be held, including on Friday’s Carb Day. There will be suite seating and the Pagoda will be open to those with tickets, but the midway will be closed.

Sunday’s race comes at a crossroads for the sport.

NBC Sports heads into its third Indianapolis 500 not ready to wave the checkered flag on its partnership with Roger Penske’s open-wheel racing series.

IndyCar’s current deal with NBC Sports is in its final season and contract negotiations are unclear. There have been reports Penske will take a higher rights fee from a new partner and that NBC has fallen out of the running on a renewal.

Sam Flood, executive producer and president of production of NBC Sports, said Wednesday the network wants to keep the racing series.

‘We love IndyCar, we love the Indy 500, we love the partnership we have and hope we can continue that partnership,’ Flood said. ‘All I know is we are fans of this relationship and want it to continue.’

ABC aired the Indianapolis 500 for 58 years in a deal that ended in 2018. The IndyCar television package was often split between networks, but not until NBC took over the entire schedule in 2019 did the network also get its first crack at ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’

NBC Sports counts IndyCar among a hefty motorsports programming schedule that includes NASCAR, IMSA sports cars, MotoGP and Supercross. If another network wants to wrest IndyCar away from NBC, Flood said his team set a standard in coverage that would be tough to beat.

‘The bar is very, very, very, very high,’ Flood said.

IndyCar this year has a record nine races on NBC but practices and qualifying have been shifted to its Peacock streaming service. Penske has been tight-lipped on what he wants for the series as he heads into his third year of ownership, and he is admittedly still learning about streaming services.

For now, Flood plans only to continue putting forth the best production possible from NBC Sports.

Leigh Diffey will again be lead announcer on Sunday alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Mike Tirico will host the studio show for a third year with Danica Patrick, while s even-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has joined the coverage team.

There had not yet been an announcement on the local television blackout for the 105th running on Sunday. IMS is permitting 135,000 spectators – about 40% of capacity at the vast facility – to attend the race.

‘As partnership, and as the growth we’ve meant to the sport, and working with the team at IndyCar, we’re really proud of all we’ve accomplished over these years and hopefully continues in the future,’ Flood said. ‘That’s the way we proceed into this season, planning on being partners for a long time to come.’

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