SPEEDWAY – It’s easy to imagine the Indianapolis 500. All the sights and all the sounds are familiar to every race fan.
But imagine the unimaginable at the Speedway. Imagine a race day when hundreds of thousands of fans had to flee in fear of their safety. That’s what nearly happened 10 years ago at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A tornado touched down on race day in 2004 within 10 miles of IMS. In Indianapolis, the F2 tornado damaged a nursing home, an elementary school and numerous homes on the southeast side.
The weather delayed the race for hours that year and forced track officials to shorten the 500 as the severe weather came dangerously close.
“It was black, the wind was picking up, it started hailing and if it was our time, it was our time, that’s what everybody said–it’s in God’s hands,” remembered race fan Mike Lollar.
Fans in 2004 were ordered to shelter in place under the grandstands and wait for the storm to clear.
“We got a lot of wind and rain, but if the tornado would have come though the Speedway, it would have been really bad.”
Track officials agree the Indianapolis Motor Speedway got lucky that day.
“Obviously, a tornado not hitting the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we were fortunate. It was south of here, but I recall standing under the Tower Terrace with hundreds of thousands wondering what was going to happen,” said IMS President Doug Boles.
Tragedies like the State Fair stage collapse and near tragedies like the one at IMS have forced track officials to come up with new safety protocols for severe weather.
“We still have the PA’s obviously, we have the video boards, but we also have social media now. We do have a lot of ways to reach out to our fans and let them know something is coming and how to handle it,” said Boles.
Track officials admit with an outdoor event as big as the Indianapolis 500, there’s no way to eliminate the threat of severe weather. There’s just an obligation to prepare for it.
“It’s not frustrating, it’s just one of those unknowns with an outdoor venue that you have to deal with,” said Boles.