IMS and IndyCar owner joins insider Nathan Brown on a special edition of Pit Pass Live. Indianapolis Star
When Roger Penske announced he was taking control of the Indianapolis 500 seven months ago, he made his highest priority abundantly clear:
Sunday, Penske and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway doubled down on that concept, confirming the Indy 500 will have fans or it won't run in 2020.
If he and his team manage to pull it off — even if they're unable to pack in 300,000-plus fans in and around the 2.5-mile oval track — Penske's first Indy 500 this August (or possibly October) will look, feel and function unlike any of the 103 previous editions of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
The key question to get answered, according to Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage is: “(Race) regulators really want to know this: How are you going to get people in?”
The answer? Apps. An app could provide assigned gates and times to enter facilities, use the restrooms, go to the concession stand and leave.
While the details for the Indianapolis 500 have not been unveiled, Gossage provided specifics this weekend of his plan for the track's July 18-19 NASCAR weekend. It's the best example of what a fan-attended racing and large-scale entertainment event is likely to look like for the near-future.
And IndyCar may already have the perfect partner to design a plan to address the worries of local and state governments.
An app to control movement
Even Penske couldn’t have known in February how important internet connectivity would be for fans at any races he’ll be able to host in the latter-half of 2020. The owner of IMS announced in mid-February the addition of Verizon 5G wireless connectivity that would span from short-chute to short-chute. The news came alongside Penske’s rollout of various cosmetic, structural and technological upgrades his team announced Feb. 14, 100 days until the originally scheduled 2020 Indy 500.
“It’ll be the first time 5G has ever been available in a racing facility,” IMS president Doug Boles said in February. “For those folks that have 5G-enabled devices, we’ll have an opportunity to see what it’s like to get that information on your phone."
Coverage of IndyCar's opener:
- Scott Dixon dominates at Texas Motor Speedway, wins IndyCar's return to action
- Insider: Why IndyCar left lapped cars alone on final restart in Genesys 300
- What it was like for IndyCar's opener at Texas to run without fans
- NBC delivers IndyCar's most-watched non-Indy 500 since 2016 in season-opener
Gossage said that several tech companies are working to develop mobile apps that would be at the center of fan movement at any track with significant attendance.
“And these apps will tell (fans) that, according to your ticket, you have to go to ‘Gate 3’ to come in. Not Gate 2 or 4. And with your seats, you’re allowed to come in between 12:15-12:40 p.m. That’s it. Not 12:10 p.m. or 12:50 p.m., but in that one window.
“And when you sit in those seats, you’re going to be allowed a certain period in order to get up, go to the restroom, the concession stand, what have you. And when the event’s over, you’ve got such-and-such window when you can leave, cause you have to stay put while ‘they’ are leaving, so you don’t have masses crossing.”
At face value, the prospect makes sense. As the NBA plans to hold the rest of its 2019-20 NBA season in a fan-less Disney World bubble, and college football programs like Purdue are already announcing plans to limit fan attendance at football games this fall, it’s simply hard to imagine a race held in August, or the October backup date, with the prospect of free-moving hordes of fans.
And let’s be honest – there’s only so much corralling Yellow Shirts can do with their whistles.
But is it more idealistic than realistic? Gossage seems to think so, though it may come down to how much you, as a fan, want to be back watching in-person.
“As a consumer, if I’m going to a Cowboys game, don’t tell me I can’t get a beer (when I want),” he said. “Or what if I’ve got to pee?
“But I do think you’re going to see all sports go to digital ticketing – that way, we don’t have to handle it and send it to you, and then you touch it, and then our ticket folks take it. You’re gonna use your phone.”
In 2019, IndyCar signed on with what appears to be the ideal tech partner to provide such a solution when it flipped title sponsors from Verizon to NTT, a global tech company.
IndyCar's perfect partner
In recent weeks, NTT Data has quietly boasted through its social channels of how it’s used its 120,000 employees to innovate in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and its partners’ attempts to return to a sense of normalcy.
“COVID-19 disrupted businesses worldwide, but leaders who quickly pivot to the long-term transformation necessitated as a result of the pandemic will perservere,” said NTT Data Services CEO Bob Pryor in a news release. “As our communities continue to be tested, we will leverage our inherent capabilities and global partnerships to deliver insights and solutions that empower our clients to safely return to as close to normalcy as possible.”
Part of what NTT Data calls its “pandemic response portfolio” are sensors that can be placed near the entrance of a facility that provide thermal temperature scans rather than having a person with a handheld devicescanning foreheads before allowing entry to certain areas. The platform is also designed to sound alerts when too many people are congregated in a small space, or when someone isn’t complying with a mask-wearing rule.
These possibilities would be in addition to NTT Data's announcement on May 21 of how its technology would improve the fan experience and safety for the Indy 500 on Aug. 23.
Along with the 100-foot media wall at the base of the Pagoda – which will provide fans with nearly 150 data points per car, multiple live feeds on-track and machine learning technology that will predict drivers’ next moves – NTT Data’s technologies will provide information that would make it easier to find less busy gates and tunnels as fans moved around the track.
Both NTT's competition-based data gathering, as well as its public safety strategies, are tied together in the company's Accelerate Smart platform, which IMS says "will allow for an even more data-driven approach to both the spectator experience and safety."
"We'd be happy to have this in place any year, but it's even more valuable in 2020 as we prepare to host fans at IMS for the Indy 500 in late August," said Alex Damron, IMS vice president of corporate communications.
It’s unclear, though, how such technology might be additionally adapted specifically for IMS’s need to be able to have fans present to hold what will be Penske’s first Indy 500 in-charge.
“The future of sports will be driven by the ability to use technology to enhance fan experience, safety and convenience," a news release said. "NTT is helping IMS and IndyCar find new and exciting ways to blend tradition with innovation, and ultimately preserve and further The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’s history of discovery and progress.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at @By_NathanBrown.