Coronavirus
(Photo by: Joe Skibinski, courtesy of IndyCar)

IndyCar’s Coronavirus Precautions So Far: How Do The Fans Feel?

The NTT IndyCar Series became one of the first major sports to allow fans to attend an event in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic with the 2020 REV Group Grand Prix at Road America, and the 2020 Iowa IndyCar 250s the following weekend.

While both the series and the tracks themselves set out guidelines on how to stay safe at these events, Frontstretch spoke with fans who attended Road America and feel that while good efforts are being made, the bulk of personal safety decisions are in the hands of attendees.

Jay is a local fan who commuted to Road America with his family. Abby and Molly of the Fast Cars Fast Girls podcast camped at the track. All agreed that coronavirus precautions were taken but that more could have been done.

According to Abby, “All in all it felt about the same as it usually did, but with more frequent bathroom cleaning and some masks.” Jay agreed: “I think that, overall, [IndyCar and Road America] did a good job. But with a large amount of people, you can’t really control everything.”

Here are their opinions on their experiences preparing for the REV Group Grand Prix, attending the Road America race weekend, and their thoughts afterward.

Before the race

When it comes to trackside safety measures, IndyCar can make recommendations, but the bulk of enforcement comes down to the track itself. Road America’s website lists several precautions, including increased cleaning of high-touch areas, the addition of hand sanitizer stations, the erecting of sneeze guards and the issuing of personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers in high-traffic zones. The paddock was also closed to fans.

Iowa Speedway took similar coronavirus measures. Its website noted that fans who did not follow its COVID-19 policy risked ejection. That included a mandatory six-foot distance confined to previously marked areas, temperature checks in their vehicles and a questionnaire about possible symptoms. Mask wearing, however, was merely “encouraged.”

A different page of the site added that Iowa Speedway would also distribute masks and sanitizer and that high-contact areas would be frequently cleaned. Anyone who failed a temperature check would be taken to a separate area for secondary screening. If they failed again, they would be issued a refund and asked to leave. Track food consisted solely of “grab and go” preprepared meals.

Abby called Road America two weeks prior to the IndyCar event to discuss the safety measures that would be implemented, especially for the people camping. She had bought campsites with a friend and wanted to know if the track intended to reassign those sites to provide more space between them.

 “I was told on the phone that although that was their initial intention, because this was the first IndyCar race allowing fans, they had almost sold out of campsites and there would not be empty space between campers,” Abby told Frontstretch. “I was encouraged to utilize my site as best I could to create more distance between me and my camping neighbors and given suggestions on where to place my tent, etc, which I found to be considerate and helpful.”

During the race weekend

Upon arriving at Road America, fans had their temperature taken and were asked if they would like PPE to prevent spreading the coronavirus. Abby and Molly accepted the offer and received two surgical masks per person along with a three-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer. The personal hand sanitizer turned out to be a good thing; Abby noted that “we never saw a single [hand sanitizer station] the entire weekend, and we were all over that entire facility.”

Jay confirmed that Road America was offering masks and sanitizer to everyone coming through the gate, but he opted not to take them because he had come with his own. He did not mention seeing an increased number of hand sanitizer stations but did note that there were lots of signs recommending social distancing as part of the track’s coronavirus protocols. Smaller signs were placed all around the track while larger signs were placed in the first row of the grandstands. 

Everyone Frontstretch spoke to said that they saw no hard-and-fast enforcement of social distancing guidelines. No one was confronted about not wearing a mask; it was up to each fan to decide how to approach his or her health during the event when it came to masking, distancing, or making physical contact with someone.

“We didn’t see a lot of masks until the Sunday race,” Abby said. She also commented that social distancing was worse on race day than it had been on Friday or Saturday. “The stands had many people closer than they should have been…Most of the people in that stand weren’t wearing masks, including the other people in our group.”

Jay agreed that some of the more popular viewing areas “did seem a bit crowded” but that he found it “pretty easy to socially distance. People were spread out everywhere I was. We watched [qualifying] from Canada Corner, and anyone with a folding chair spread out about 10 feet apart along the fencing.”

After the race

Social media was rife with criticism about the lack of masking and social distancing at Road America—and the Fast Cars Fast Girls group took some flack for sharing photos of themselves with a large group of people. They were camping with a big family known as the PAIN Tour that travels to many IndyCar events together, and didn’t feel the need to wear coronavirus-preventing masks.

 “We were sharing two golf carts between the tent camping site and the RV site. They are all family and see each other on a regular basis at home, so they are a ‘familial unit’ and per CDC recommendations, do not need to mask when around each other,” Abby explained. “Since we were in close proximity to them all weekend, as you can’t social distance on a golf cart, we [became] part of their ‘familial unit’ for all intents and purposes.”

She also noted that everyone in the group generally stuck together and that they always wore masks when traveling somewhere or when around strangers. They all planned to quarantine for 14 days after returning from Road America unless a COVID-19 test came back negative before the end of two weeks.

Despite maintaining distance as best he could from everyone around him, Jay took a COVID-19 test after experiencing allergy-like symptoms. The test ultimately came back negative, but we spoke before he had received his results, when he felt subsumed with guilt at possibly having spread the virus. “It’s really frustrating because we did all the right things. Masks everywhere. Eating outside,” he said. It was difficult for him to fondly recall the race without a feeling of “paranoia.”

Everyone Frontstretch spoke to noted that there were times either they slipped or noticed someone else slip. Abby used the bathroom without remembering to put on her mask on a few occasions. Jay purchased IndyCar merchandise from a relatively crowded area despite feeling a little uncomfortable about it. Many concession workers and some workers at the check-in gate were observed without masks. In a handful of instances, the people we talked to noted seeing unmasked drivers interact with fans through fences.

Why go to a race at all with so many coronavirus risks? For Jay, who lives in Wisconsin, the Road America event is an annual pilgrimage, one that he enjoys sharing with friends and family. It’s a large track winding through a beautiful wooded landscape, and he felt that it would be safe to attend a race that he knew would enable him to watch on-track action from isolated locations. 

For Abby and Molly, IndyCar is a passion. Both fans attend multiple events a year not only to enjoy the racing action but to help IndyCar facilitate fan activities as well as to meet their own fans who enjoy the Fast Cars Fast Girls podcast. Knowing that it could be their only opportunity to attend a race in 2020, both jumped on the chance to do so at a venue they loved.

What comes next?

IndyCar intends to welcome fans at the Indianapolis 500 on August 23. Currently, the only extra precautions listed on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway website are increased housekeeping staff to enable more frequent cleaning, hand sanitizer stations and an attempt to reduce person-to-person contact at vendors. They have also reduced capacity for the race and have canceled many of the social events such as the yearly autograph session.

For now, that’s the best—and only—way to get at least some fans at the track.

But for those looking to attend a future race in the 2020 IndyCar season, neither IndyCar nor any racetrack can keep you completely safe from the novel coronavirus. It’s up to each individual to mitigate their own risk, and it’s next to impossible to prevent human-to-human contact when surrounded by people—some of whom may not feel as strongly about social distancing as you do.

The venue can advise you to follow a set of precautions, but enforcement is another issue, and going to the track during the coronavirus pandemic is an “attend at your own risk” affair.

The 2020 IndyCar season continues Sunday, Aug. 9 with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, OH. TV information is TBA.

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Elizabeth Blackstock is lead IndyCar writer for Frontstretch, a freelance journalist, and a novelist. She earned her bachelor's degree at the University of Texas at Austin and is currently pursuing a dual MFA/MA degree at Arcadia University. She is in love with her car, a 2013 Mazda 2.

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