INDIANAPOLIS — Delaney Hill sees a difference this May. Customers of the Dawson’s on Main that she manages are flooding into the popular restaurant night after night — and not a penny is pinched.
(NOTE: The video in the player above is from a previous report on security changes for this year's Indy 500.)
It's a welcome change for Hill and her family, which opened Dawson's in 2006 a short walk from the southwestern corner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's good news for everyone else around Speedway, Indiana, too.
For two years, COVID-19 restrictions kept crowds away from a community whose financial health is closely tethered to that of the iconic venue nearby — particularly in May. When things are normal, May revenue fills the coffers of local eateries and wineries, vendors and businesses, even school and charity fundraisers like it’s Christmas elsewhere.
With the Indianapolis 500 finally back to full capacity, the fans and dollars are flowing back home again and spurring a much-needed economic boom.
“The year it was zero fans, it was a little bit of a ghost town," Hill said, noting IndyCar teams pitched in by ordering food in 2020. “Last year, we could see a lot more people than the previous year, but it wasn’t as exciting. This year, it’s the month of May and it feels like the month of May.”
The signs of resurgence are everywhere.
Speedway President Doug Boles said he is expecting the second-largest crowd since at least 2000 — the 2016 race was sold out — and reserved seating is nearly gone. Some 300,000 fans are expected on the grounds of the vast speedway on Sunday as the 500 resumes its role as the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
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 near capacity, too, and even rooms in Bloomington and Lafayette, each more than an hour's drive from the track, are filling up fast.
Tom Beaudry of Speedway sells souvenirs at IndyCar races and said his sales have skyrocketed this year, his first with a booth inside IMS. Track officials have seen a similar trend with Boles describing the speedway's merchandising sales as “through the roof.”
Speedway and Indianapolis officials have not conducted recent economic impact studies, so any comparison to previous Mays could prove challenging. But the locals don't need numbers to reinforce what they already know — this month is revving up to be the best fiscal May since the 100th running of the race in 2016.
“If you get out and drive on the streets, you can tell the difference,” Speedway town manager Grant Kleinhenz said. “The campers and RVs are here, the people that come and stay all month are here. The last couple of years they haven’t been here. There’s also a significant increase in energy. If you drive around and roll down your windows, it feels like you’re on the track.”
Those sentiments didn't exist when race organizers postponed the 2020 race from Memorial Day weekend to August and then kept the grandstands empty. Even last year when local health officials limited ticket sales to 40% of capacity and strongly encouraged wearing masks, it wasn't the same.
Sales were down and race fans were robbed of some of their traditional favorites like seeing Michael Hopson, the 67-year-old self-described superfan, being part of the large crowds in Gasoline Alley and pit road, or seeing autograph boards and Radio Flyer wagons converted into IndyCar designs dragged around the 2.5-mile oval.
This year, they've returned to a town as jazzed up as anyone has ever seen.
Neighborhoods near the speedway are arrayed with flags and the “welcome race fans" signs are up on Main Street.
“It's like Christmas,” Beaudry said. "I don't ever remember people decorating their yards and going all crazy like this. I think the 500 definitely has a buzz to it this year.”
Even amid high gas prices, inflation concerns and lingering supply-chain struggles, fans are spending big bucks. Some vendors 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 grim scene in 2020.
With the Indianapolis 500 back at full throttle, the Speedway marketplace is thriving.
“It’s what we depend on and we’re going to have larger numbers than ever before,” Hill said, referring to May revenue. “I think people are ready to be out and spend money no matter what because they’ve been inside so long — and it's the first normal May in a while.”