INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Delaney Hill sees a difference in May. Customers of the Dawson’s on Main she manages flock to the popular restaurant night after night – and not a penny is pinched.
It’s a welcome change for Hill and his family, who opened Dawson’s in 2006 just steps from the southwest corner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is also good news for everyone around Speedway, Indiana.
For two years, COVID-19 restrictions have kept crowds away from a community whose financial health is intertwined with that of the iconic venue nearby — especially in May. When things are normal, May revenues fill the coffers of local restaurants and wineries, vendors and businesses, even school and charity fundraisers like it’s Christmas elsewhere.
With the Indianapolis 500 finally back at full capacity, fans and dollars are coming home and spurring a much-needed economic boom.
“The year there were no fans, it was a bit of a ghost town,” Hill said, noting that IndyCar teams participated by ordering food in 2020. “Last year, we got to see a lot more people than the year before, but it wasn’t as exciting, this year it’s May and it feels like May.
Signs of resurgence are everywhere.
Speedway President Doug Boles said he expected the second-biggest crowd since at least 2000 — the 2016 race was sold out — and reserved seating has nearly disappeared. Some 300,000 fans are expected to hit the sprawling speedway on Sunday as the 500 resumes its role as the world’s biggest one-day sporting event.
Chris Gahl, senior vice president of marketing and communications at Visit Indy, said the city’s roughly 8,400 downtown hotel rooms are nearly sold out and at least 4,000 local Airbnb properties have been booked. . Hotels in suburban Indy are also close to capacity, and even rooms in Bloomington and Lafayette, each more than an hour’s drive from the track, are filling up quickly.
Speedway’s Tom Beaudry sells memorabilia at IndyCar races and said his sales have skyrocketed this year, his first with a booth inside IMS. Track officials saw a similar trend, with Boles describing freeway merchandising sales as “through the roof.”
Speedway and Indianapolis officials have not conducted recent economic impact studies, so any comparison to previous May months could be difficult. But locals don’t need numbers to reinforce what they already know – this month is shaping up to be the best May since the race’s 100th edition in 2016.
“If you get out there and drive the streets, you can make a difference,” Speedway City Manager Grant Kleinhenz said. “Campers and RVs are here, people who come and stay all month are here. For the past two years, they haven’t come here. There is also a significant increase in energy. If you drive and roll down your windows, you feel like you’re on the track.
Those feelings didn’t exist when race organizers postponed the 2020 race from Memorial Day weekend to August, then kept the grandstands empty. Even last year, when local health authorities limited ticket sales to 40% capacity and strongly encouraged the wearing of masks, it was not the same.
Sales slumped and racing fans were deprived of some of their traditional favorites like seeing Michael Hopson, the 67-year-old self-proclaimed super fan, being part of the big crowds in Gasoline Alley and pit road or seeing road signs. Autographs and Radio Flyer wagons converted to IndyCar designs trailed around the 2.5-mile oval.
This year they returned to a city as vibrant as no one has ever seen.
Neighborhoods near the freeway are decorated with flags and “Race Fans Welcome” signs are posted on Main Street.
“It’s like Christmas,” Beaudry said. “I don’t remember people decorating their garden and going crazy like that. I think the 500 is really on the rise this year.”
Even amid high gas prices, inflation concerns and ongoing supply chain difficulties, fans are spending big bucks. Some sellers might struggle to keep shelves full, but Beaudry is restocking with extra inventory he ordered months ago and stored in warehouses — a far cry from the gloomy scene of 2020.
With the Indianapolis 500 back in full swing, the Speedway market is booming.
“It’s what we depend on and we’re going to have bigger numbers than ever before,” Hill said, referring to May earnings. “I think people are ready to go out and spend the money no matter what because they’ve been inside for so long – and it’s been normal May Day for a while.”
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