INDIANAPOLIS — John Kintonis refused to let COVID-19 derail his first Indianapolis 500 trip in years.
The firefighter left Sedona, Arizona, on Saturday morning, drove 1,800 miles to Indianapolis and arrived at Gate 1 hours before Sunday’s race just to hear the screaming engines at the Brickyard.
He savored every precious moment, from the public address announcements inside the cavernous Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the radio broadcast.
“It was worth it,” he said. “I’ve had two hours of sleep the last two nights, a 30-hour drive and it was worth it.”
Kintonis’ sentiment was a familiar one on the most unusual day in the event’s 104-race history — the sun-drenched 2.5-mile oval with nearly 250,000 seats empty, pre-race festivities scaled back and the usually energetic, colorful scenery of drivers lining up on the starting grid lacking the usual buzz.
Outside the track, it was a different scene. For the first time since practice opened Aug. 12, the streets of tiny Speedway were abuzz.
Hundreds lined the fence between the first two turns on the track’s north side, hoping to catch a glimpse of cars speeding past. Hundreds more were tailgating across 16th Street — one of the two primary thoroughfares to the track. And more fans gathered around campers, RVs and other vehicles at a parking lot on Georgetown Road, which backs up to the front straightaway.
Meanwhile, Kintonis and his new temporary neighbours found their perfect spot.
Arrow McLaren SP driver Pato O’Ward dropped by before making his first Indy start and tossed matchbox cars over the top of the fence. Two-time winner Arie Luyendyk stopped by, too, and fans hoped others might come.
“It’s a little sad, but I’m here,” said 63-year-old Greg Davis, who lives in Southern California. “And I stuck my toe underneath the fence and took a picture so my streak is still good.”
Streaks are as big a part of this race as the command for drivers to start their engines.
Davis has attended 37, including 35 in a row. Two elderly people rode around on a medical scooter with a sign on the back reading “74 in a row.” Bill Marvel, a former public relations worker at the track, showed up with a mask proclaiming it was his 76th consecutive race.
The speedway president, Doug Boles, even issued a decree Saturday in which he told fans their race attendance streaks would remain intact — if they watched or listened to Sunday’s race and returned to the track in 2021.
“This is my 57th race,” said 63-year-old Maryanne O’Neal, who lives three blocks away from the track and lived next door to a house the Unser family used to call home each May. “My dad joined Tony Hulman in ’45 and helped him organize the safety patrol. I would have been to more but they made me go home when I was a toddler because I was too wiggly.”
While 2014 Indy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay delivered a special message before driver introductions, the fan outreach started much earlier.
On Saturday, some went to the homes of Speedway residents and mingled following the driver’s meeting. Earlier Sunday, the series released a social media video with the 33 starters sitting where longtime fans normally would.
“What amazing seats we have here in the south vista,” 2008 Indy winner Scott Dixon said. “Cassie Johnston, I’m keeping your seat warm, I’m going to order some beers for next year and we’re going to have a great race. Make sure you cheer us on.”
And though O’Neal would have preferred being inside the track, she had no complaints with the view she had.
“We hear the cars all the time in town and we understand they did this for the safety of everyone,” she said. “So I’m OK with it.”