The 2019 COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic has caused the postponement or cancellation of countless events around the world. On March 26, 2020, it prompted the postponement of the 2020 Indianapolis 500. The race was originally scheduled for Sunday May 24, but it is now scheduled for Sunday August 23. This will be the first Indy 500 not contested in the month of May, and the first not held on or around Memorial Day (except 1986, see below). However, it will not be the first Indy 500 to be postponed from its originally scheduled date. Let’s take a look at the other times the Indianapolis 500 has been postponed.
Several times the Indianapolis 500 has been delayed due to rain, and on four occasions it was pushed into a second or even a third day. Multiple races have been delayed due to morning or overnight rain, but still rolled off and were completed (or declared official) on the day it was supposed to be run. A couple times (namely 1966 & 1982) a crash at the start put out the red flag, or a crash on the pace lap led to extra pace laps before the green flag. But since in those instances the command to start engines was given on-time and the field pulled away for the parade/pace laps on-schedule, they are not considered “delayed” and are not included in this list.
Despite the numerous delays, and the scheduling of the race for the last week of May, from 1911 to 2019, the race never spilled over into the month of June (or later).
The first postponement in Indianapolis 500 history came in 1915. The fifth annual 500 Mile International Sweepstakes was scheduled for Saturday May 29. From its inception four years earlier in 1911 through 1970, the race was scheduled for May 30 regardless of the day of the week. At the time, Memorial Day (or Decoration Day as it was formerly known) was a fixed date holiday. However, if May 30 fell on a Sunday, the Speedway management chose to move the race off of that day of the week. For 1915, the original plan saw it moved up one day to Saturday May 29.
Heavy rain fell during the week leading up to the race. The storms flooded the infield, and washed out some of the dirt roads that led to the track. On the morning of Friday May 28, the Speedway management announced they were postponing the race until Monday May 31. The two-day delay would allow time for the grounds to dry out a bit, and for the roads to be passable for the onslaught of fans.
According to The Indianapolis Star, about 2,000 spectators showed up at the track Saturday, unaware that the race had been rescheduled. To entertain the small contingent of fans, Ralph DePalma took his car out for a couple laps, then pulled into the pit area to do a tire changing demonstration.
In subsequent years, when May 30 fell on a Sunday, the race would be scheduled for Monday May 31, mirroring the 1915 situation. That would be the case in 1920, 1926, 1937, 1948, 1954, and 1965.
1917-1918 (World War I)
The Indianapolis 500 was not held for two years during World War I. On March 23, 1917 the Speedway management voluntarily suspended the race, cancelling the 1917 running, and subsequently the 1918 running. No races were held at the track and the AAA Contest Board suspended the National Championship for both years as well. However, automobile racing was not banned outright and some races at other tracks (non-championship races) were held. On Memorial Day of 1917, a 250-mile race was held at Cincinnati.
The Speedway was offered as a landing strip and maintenance facility for aircraft during the war. The 821st Aero Repair Squadron was stationed there, primarily serving aircraft flying between Wilbur Wright Field (Dayton, Ohio) and Chanute Air Force Base (Rantoul, Illinois).
Not a postponement per say, but in 1919 there was a small, mostly forgotten, schedule change. It was the first 500 to be held after the conclusion of World War I. Fittingly, it was titled the “Liberty Sweepstakes”, and was scheduled for Friday May 30, the traditional date. On December 6, 1918, Speedway manager Theodore E. “Pop” Myers made the official announcement, but the following day in the local newspapers, the track was sharply criticized for the decision in an editorial. They reasoned that since this was to be the first “Decoration Day” (a.k.a. Memorial Day) holiday after the “Great War”, it should be left alone in order to honor the thousands that died in the war.
One week later, the Speedway announced that they would move the race back a day, and it was rescheduled for Saturday May 31. It was moved off the Memorial Day holiday in order not to detract from the important holiday.
The race was scheduled for Saturday May 30 at 10:00 a.m., but was delayed for two hours due to rain. The race began at 12:00 p.m., and despite off and on showers during the first half, it was run to completion.
The race was scheduled for Friday May 30 at 10:00 a.m. At about 6:59 a.m. on the morning of the race, a fire broke out in the garage area, and swept through the southern bank of Gasoline Alley. The revolutionary rear-engine car of George Barringer was being fueled with gasoline in one of the garage stalls, while somewhere in an adjacent stall, one of the Joel Thorne cars was being worked on with a welder. The gasoline fumes caught fire, and it spread quickly.
Seven men reported received burns or cuts, but no one was seriously injured. Barringer’s car was destroyed along with two other cars that did not qualify for the race. About a third of the southern bank of garages was burned to the ground, along with various tools, equipment, and other supplies.
It took firefighters nearly two hours to put out the flames, and the race day traffic jams made it difficult for the fire trucks to reach the scene. The Speedway gates, which had opened to spectators at 6 o’clock, were shut for about two hours until the blaze was under control. An estimated $100,000 in damage was caused by the fire.
Miraculously, all of the other cars that qualified for the race were evacuated and spared – some precariously – and the race lined up with 31 cars. Sam Hanks (who crashed during a practice run on Thursday) withdrew and received 33rd place. Likewise, Barringer’s car was also withdrawn, and he was credited with 32nd. The race started at about 11 a.m. and ran to its completion. The ashes continued to smolder throughout the afternoon. Later that summer, the entire garage area was demolished and rebuilt.
1942-1945 (World War II)
The 30th Indianapolis 500 was scheduled for Saturday May 30, 1942. Ticket order forms were made available in November 1941, but with escalating hostilities abroad, rumors began circulating that racing may be suspended. After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States was thrust into World War II.
On December 29, 1941 Speedway president Eddie Rickenbacker announced that the 1942 was cancelled, and the race would remain suspended until the conclusion of the war. The Speedway gates were closed, and the facility fell into a state of disrepair. The race was not held from 1942 to 1945. Rickenbacker sold the Speedway to Tony Hulman in November 1945, and after a six month renovation, the race returned for 1946.
The 40th Indianapolis 500 in 1956 was nicknamed “Cagle’s Miracle”. In the days leading up to the race, torrential rains flooded the Speedway. The grandstands were filled with standing water, parts of the track were underwater, the access tunnels were flooded, and the infield was a muddy quagmire. Though the rain finally ceased, it looked impossible that the race could be held as scheduled.
Speedway superintendent Clarence Cagle and his crew worked for 48 hours straight to pump the flood waters out of the Speedway. Cagle reportedly went without sleep, and miraculously the track was passable come race day. On Wednesday May 30, the race was held on-time as scheduled.
In 1967, the 51st Indianapolis 500 was scheduled for Tuesday May 30. Despite threatening skies, the race started on-time at 11:00 a.m. local time. Rain began to fall after 18 laps, and the red flag was put out halting the race. Rain continued to fall and for the first time in history, the race was carried over into a second day.
On Wednesday May 31, the race was resumed at 10:00 a.m., and picked up on lap 19. Despite cool temperatures early on, the race was run to completion.
In a one-time adjustment, the 1970 race was scheduled for a 12:00 p.m. start, a departure from the then-familiar 11 a.m. start time. Morning rain, however, delayed the start by about 25 minutes. On the final pace lap, Jim Malloy suffered a suspension failure and smacked the outside wall in turn four. The start was red flagged, and the field was halted in order to clean up the incident. The crash delayed the start about another half hour.
The race was scheduled for Monday May 28 at 11:00 a.m. In 1971 and 1972, the race was scheduled for the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. For 1973, the race was moved to Monday, the Memorial Day holiday itself. This was done for two reasons. It allowed the 500 Festival Parade to be held on Saturday (and to be televised) as previously it was held on a weekday in the evening. Fans had also been complaining that holding the race on Saturday was inconvenient for those people that had to work on Saturdays.
On Sunday May 27, the Public Drivers Meeting was held, and later in the afternoon and evening, severe thunderstorms swept through the region. Tornadoes even touched down Sunday night in the Midwest.
On Monday May 28, morning rain delayed the start of the race until 3:00 p.m. local time At the start, a massive 11-car accident immediately halted the race. Salt Walther’s car touched wheels with another, and flipped up into the catch fence, sending debris and burning fuel into the grandstand, injuring 11 spectators. Walther’s car also significantly damaged portions of the fence. The race was red-flagged, and the start was negated. Safety crews attended to the crash scene, and repaired the fence, but rain began to fall again. Walther was critically injured, but he would recover. The race was postponed and rescheduled for 9:00 a.m. the following day.
On Tuesday May 29th, rain fell in the morning, delaying an attempt at a start until 10:15 a.m. On the second parade lap, rain began to fall, and the track was red-flagged. The cars were halted on the mainstretch to wait out the shower. Rain continued to fall most of the day Tuesday, and washed out the rest of the day. Around 2:00 p.m., the race was postponed until Wednesday.
On Wednesday May 30th, morning rains again delayed a start attempt until 2:10 p.m. At that time, finally, the race got underway. On the 59th lap, Swede Savage suffered a tremendous accident at the exit of turn four, and the race was red flagged. During the red flag, a pit crew member was struck and killed by a fire truck in the pit area. Over an hour after the accident, the race was resumed. On the 129th lap a light rain began to fall, and the yellow came out with Gordon Johncock leading. After 133 laps, at about 5:30 p.m., the rain started to fall much harder, forcing the race to be stopped. Officials declared the race official, and the tragic race was over with Johncock the winner.
The 70th Indianapolis 500 was scheduled for Sunday May 25 at 11:00 a.m. EST. Race morning dawned overcast and cool, and rain began to fall. Twice the rain stopped and twice the track was nearly dried, only to have rain fall once again. At about 3:35 p.m., the race was rescheduled for the following day.
For the first time in history, ABC Sports was set to broadcast the race live flag-to-flag on network television. On Monday May 26 (the Memorial Day holiday), steady rain washed out any chance for the race. With a questionable weather forecast for Tuesday, and the possibility of running the race on a weekday afternoon, in front of empty grandstands, with no live TV coverage. After a lengthy meeting with series officials and network executives, a decision was made to postpone the race until the following Saturday.
On Saturday May 31st, sunny skies greeted the competitors and fans. The race was scheduled for 11 a.m. EST, and the command to start engines was made on-time, much to the delight of the fans. However, on the final pace lap, Tom Sneva veered off course and hit the inside wall, bringing out the red flag and delaying the start for another 35 minutes.
This would end up being the first Indy 500 not held on or around Memorial Day.
Morning rain delayed the scheduled start of the race by about 55 minutes. The track was dried, and the race was run to completion without further interruption.
Rain fell on the morning of the race, but the start was only delayed by about five minutes.
Rain fell on the morning of the race, but again the start was only delayed by a few minutes. After the command to start engines was given, a miscommunication by officials saw them shut the engines off when it appeared to be raining again. Within a few moments, however, the engines were re-fired and the field pulled away for the parade and pace laps. The race was run to completion without additional delay. Although a post-race downpour soaked the departing spectators.
The 81st Indianapolis 500 was scheduled for Sunday May 25. Morning rain delayed the start of the race. The cars were placed on the grid at 11:43 a.m., but at 11:59 a.m. heavy rain began to fall, and the cars were wheeled back to the garage area. At 1:30 p.m. officials postponed the race until Monday.
On Monday May 26, the race began at 11:00 a.m., but rain halted the race after only 15 laps. The race must complete at least 101 laps to be considered official. At 12:35 p.m. the cars were returned to the garage area. Speedway officials were challenged with a situation similar to 1986. The only difference was that the race had already begun. Instead of waiting until Saturday, the Speedway opted to resume the race on Tuesday.
On Tuesday May 27, under sunny skies, the raced picked up at lap 16, and was shown live on ABC-TV. There were some complaints, but the officials felt it necessary to race on the “next raceable day.” The race was resumed and completed without further delay.
Morning rain delayed the start of the race by 35 minutes. While crews were drying the track, a stray dog escaped on to the track, which captured the attention of fans for a few minutes. The race was run to completion.
Rain delayed the start of the race by 3 hours and 10 minutes. Most of the cars had been pushed into their positions on the starting grid shortly after 10:00 a.m. At 10:07 a.m. rain began to fall, and the cars were quickly wheeled back to the garage area. Twenty minutes later, the rain stopped, and track-drying efforts began.
At 11:55 a.m., the track was nearly dry, but it began to rain again, this time for over 45 minutes. Track drying efforts resumed at 12:40 p.m., and the race was expected to begin around 2 p.m. The track was dried quickly, and the command to start engines was made at 2:01 p.m. Just seven minutes after the checkered flag waved, rain doused the victory lane celebration.
Less than an hour after the gates opened at 5:00 a.m., rain began to fall delaying the start of the race. The rain fell off and on until 10:32 a.m. After the track was dried, the race began at 1:10 p.m.
On the 22nd lap, a light rain started falling, and the yellow came out. After six yellow laps, the red flag was displayed, and the cars returned to the pits. Track drying efforts began, and the race was re-started at 3:30 p.m. On the 174th lap, a light rain began to fall, and the yellow flag was put out, After 180 laps were completed (20 short of the scheduled distance), the checkered flag was displayed ending the race.
The rain began to fall heavier, as a severe thunderstorm entered the area. An F2 tornado touched down just six miles south of the track, missing the Speedway and the thousands of spectators. Amid lightning, the victory lane celebration took place in the covered area underneath the Pagoda.
References & works cited
- “500-Mile Speed Classic Put Off Until Monday (Part 1).” The Indianapolis News 28 May 1915: Page 1 via Newspapers.com clipped 27 March 2020
- “500-Mile Speed Classic Put Off Until Monday (Part 2).” The Indianapolis News 28 May 1915: Page 1 via Newspapers.com clipped 27 March 2020
- Nussbaum, Lowell. “No Confusion In ’15 Race Delay.” The Indianapolis News 01 June 1967: Page 33 via Newspapers.com clipped 19 June 2019
- “Sixth 500 Mile Race Here May 30.” The Indianapolis News 07 December 1918: Page 10 via Newspapers.com clipped 04 May 2015
- “Memorial Day (Editorial).” The Indianapolis News 09 December 1918: Page 6 via Newspapers.com clipped 03 May 2015
- Sturm, Willian F. “Speedway Race Date is Changed to May 31.” The Indianapolis News 16 December 1918: Page 17 via Newspapers.com clipped 04 May 2015
- Sturm, Willian F. “Showers Fail To Stop Event Despite Delay.” The Indianapolis News 30 May 1931: Page 20 via Newspapers.com clipped 15 April 2015
- “$100,000 Fire Destroys 3 Racing Cars And South Section of “Gasoline Alley”.” The Indianapolis Star 31 May 1941: Page 5 via Newspapers.com clipped 27 March 2020
- “1942 Speedway Rules Unchanged.” The Indianapolis Star 02 July 1941: Page 18 via Newspapers.com clipped 06 April 2016
- Bostwick, Mary E. “Old Speedway Office Lively Place Again; Orders Pour In.” The Indianapolis Star 03 February 1946: Page 3 via Newspapers.com clipped 06 April 2016
- Miller, Robin. “Persistent rain postpones race.” The Indianapolis Star 26 May 1986: Page 1 via Newspapers.com clipped 02 June 2017
- Miller, Robin. “Rained-out ‘500’ reset for Saturday (Part 1).” The Indianapolis Star 27 May 1986: Page 1 via Newspapers.com clipped 01 April 2020
- Miller, Robin. “Rained-out ‘500’ reset for Saturday (Part 2).” The Indianapolis Star 27 May 1986: Page 1 via Newspapers.com clipped 01 April 2020
- Koenig, Bill. “Waiting for the race that wasn’t.” The Indianapolis Star 27 May 1986: Page 1 via Newspapers.com clipped 02 June 2017
- Patterson, James L. “Balloons prove bust due to quick release in pre-race festivities.” The Indianapolis Star 27 May 1991: Page 1 via Newspapers.com clipped 01 April 2020
- “The Talk of Gasoline Alley”, WFNI, 3 May 2011.
- “The Talk of Gasoline Alley”, WFNI, 23 May 2013.
- “Trackside With Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee”, WFNI, 25 March 2020.