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135,000 Masked Fans Expected At Indy 500

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Indy 500 is back. Last year, the race featured the typical roaring engines, but no roaring fans. The pandemic forced organizers to postpone the event and then hold it in front of empty grandstands. Well, not this year. 135,000 masked fans are expected. It will be the biggest crowd for a sporting event since the start of the pandemic. Joining us now to talk about it from the media center at the speedway is NBC motorsports reporter Nate Ryan. Welcome.

NATE RYAN: Thank you for having me, Ailsa. It's a pleasure to be here.

CHANG: Pleasure to have you. All right, so let's just start with the crowd. I mean, beyond the masks, how is the Indy 500 aiming to be COVID-safe this year? We're talking about 135,000 people, right?

RYAN: Well, the good news, Ailsa, is that Roger Penske, the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, told us today that there are 235,000 seats at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He went and had someone count them for him over the past year.

CHANG: (Laughter).

RYAN: And they also say that they're expecting the crowd to be about 60% vaccinated. The speedway has been very aggressive with doing vaccinations. Roger Penske told us that 90,000 people have come through the speedway over the past couple of months to get vaccinated. So, yeah, they feel pretty confident about having 135,000 people here and being safe.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the race itself. I mean, it's supposed to be a really deep field this year, right?

RYAN: It is. And, you know, the narrative this year in IndyCar, Ailsa, has been that this is a changing of the guard. The veterans of the IndyCar series are under threat from this band of 20-somethings, and two of them will be starting on the front row in positions two and three in Sunday's race on NBC. And that is Colton Herta, who is a 21-year-old who drives for Andretti Autosport, and Rinus VeeKay, who is last year's rookie of the year, a 20-year-old Dutchman. And a lot of people in IndyCar see this youth movement, this cadre of young drivers, as a pathway toward getting more young fans.

CHANG: So cool. Well, besides these young drivers, the story that a lot of people have also been following this year has been of Paretta Autosport, which is, like, the first ever majority-women team to qualify for the Indy 500. How was this team assembled, and what are their prospects in this race?

RYAN: Well, they are starting last in the field. They went through a very dramatic situation last weekend in which Simona de Silvestro, who is a woman and the only female driver in this year's field - she was the last person to make the race in qualifying. It's a very dramatic situation. But it was great to have Simona de Silvestro make this year's race, and as you mentioned, she does it with Paretta Autosport, which has a full-female pit crew. They have a lot of women in key positions in competition, in strategy, in engineering, in marketing.

And this is because the principle of this team - a long-time motorsports executive - her name is Beth Paretta. She wanted to go out and start a team that was very much full of women and comprised mainly of women. And the motto of the team is essentially, you know, if you see it, you can be it.

CHANG: Yeah, that is awesome. And finally - OK, something I have been dying to know - what is the deal with the winner of the Indy 500 drinking milk? Like, are they gulping down whole milk?

RYAN: Well, they can if they so choose.

CHANG: (Laughter) Ugh.

RYAN: (Laughter) They've been doing this for decades. And drivers are allowed to choose what kind of milk that they want, whether it is...

CHANG: Oh.

RYAN: ...Skim or 2% or whole milk.

CHANG: Or chocolate?

RYAN: And - no. Actually, a driver tried to choose chocolate this year, and they said no. And also, unfortunately, not on the list this year is buttermilk.

CHANG: (Laughter).

RYAN: Rinus VeeKay and another driver wanted to drink buttermilk because there was a...

CHANG: Really?

RYAN: Yeah, there was a winner a few years ago who chose buttermilk. But, again, buttermilk...

CHANG: That's bold.

RYAN: ...Like chocolate, is not one of the options this year. So...

CHANG: (Laughter).

RYAN: ...I think most drivers went with whole or 2%, and I don't think anybody chose skim milk this year. So there's your milk story.

CHANG: (Laughter) Nate Ryan covers motorsports at NBC Sports. Thank you so much for joining us today.

RYAN: Thanks for having me, Ailsa. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.