Roger Penske to Indianapolis 500 fans: 'I wanted you here'

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Ryan Hunter-Reay leads a group of cars off pit lane during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

INDIANAPOLIS – Roger Penske will not pretend he is not disappointed he can't open the gates to spectators for his first Indianapolis 500 as steward of the iconic event.

Penske purchased Indianapolis Motor Speedway in January and spent an additional $15 million on capital improvements for an enhanced fan experience. He has had to close the sprawling facility to spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic. Without fans roaming the property and celebrating at downtown Indianapolis establishments, the buildup to Sunday's race has lacked the energy that elevates the Indy 500 into a world-class event.

Penske opened Thursday's media day for the field of 33 drivers by sending a letter to the Indianapolis fan base.

“I will miss you on Sunday,” the letter began. "I wanted you here. For Indianapolis and Indiana, in general, the Indy 500 means so much ... but given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Marion County, running the race without fans was the right decision.”

The letter reiterated that Penske, just the fourth owner of the speedway, purchased the property for future Penske generations and that hosting the 104th running in front of empty grandstands protects the health of the fans and the future of the Indy 500. No admissions or concessions sales means the Indy 500 will be a massive money loss for Penske, but it has been canceled only twice, during World War I and World War II. It has never been held without spectators.

The financial losses for hosting an empty race and paying out some $7 million in prize money is the cost that comes with Penske's emotional attachment to the Indy 500. His teams have won the race a record 18 times, including the last two years.

His affection for the speedway was clear in the letter to fans as he noted his father first brought him to the race as a 14 year old in 1951. Penske was hooked.

“Lee Wallard won it. I was able to put on a helmet and sit in a race car. I’ll never forget that experience,” Penske wrote. "That special day shaped the rest of my life and made me who I am. It’s why I care so much about the Speedway and IndyCar racing. It’s why the fan experience will always be my top priority.

“Thank you for understanding, and I look forward to seeing you next May.”

Penske then signed off: “And drivers – start your engines.”