I know why this happened. Or at least understand why it did.
The last weeks of May were chaotic for me, with lots of work travel in a short period of time — all leading into the weekend of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500. It’s a yearly tradition in my household, one that began on the 100th running in 2016. My father and I attend the Indy 500 every year. My husband was supposed to join us for his first 500 in 2020. That race, of course, was cancelled during the height of COVID lockdowns; when the 2020 competition finally took place in August of that year, the grandstands were empty.
Our 2020 tickets turned into 2021 tickets; we pushed again to 2022, because COVID was still rampant. It all ended with me getting COVID-19 anyway.
Dad cancelled this year, citing anticipated record-breaking attendance numbers. Over 300,000 fans were expected to show up on race day. I decided to approach the weekend by taking every precaution necessary, including testing before I went down to the Racing Capital. If I came back positive, I would cancel my plans and stay home. I was negative.
Now I’m back at home, recovering from a nasty case of COVID that I probably picked up at the Indy 500 weekend. My husband, who joined me at the race, is still in the throes of his own infection.
I thought I took all the important precautions. For weeks before Indy, I remained masked in closed spaces or anywhere I would come in close contact with strangers. That meant masks on airplanes and at airports, masks whenever I spent time with people from outside my household. I attended an Audi RS3 media event, where everyone was tested before we even entered the property. I clearly came up negative, because you can read my review of that wonderful car. When it came time to leave for the Indy 500, I had another negative test in my hands. I would finally return to Indy.
None of my cautious preparation felt like a burden. My husband is a microbiologist whose work has focused on the Coronavirus since the dawn of the pandemic. He watches the data. He’s been the go-to source of advice for my family and friends, guiding us all on how we can enjoy life outside our homes while still protecting ourselves.
But in the excitement of the race weekend, I admit — I took some liberties while I was at Indy. I was with people I knew. I let my guard down. I thought I would be fine.
I skipped the mask when I was outside. I gave some friends rides. I went out to eat twice — once outdoors, once inside at a place with lots of space between tables. My group of friends at the race, the people I spent the most time with, had all been careful too, testing negative before they arrived at the Speedway. As race day approached, IMS was getting more and more crowded, but people were on the move. I figured if I wasn’t standing next to any strangers for more than a moment, I’d be okay.
Race day was packed — official attendance was over 325,000. The crowds were almost worse than what I remember from the record-breaking 100th running. Getting anywhere felt like the same hot chore, but after two years away, the body odor and boozy breath were harder to ignore. I called my father from our seats and let him know his hunch was right: This was a packed event.
Some friends from my group could have joined the grid walk, but everyone opted to stay in the stands. Watching the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd from our Turn 4 seats, we all decided we were safer staying put. It’s almost ironic now.
The race was spectacular. I got teary-eyed as I watched the Indy 500 traditions play out, celebrations I’d been anticipating since I exited IMS in 2019, not knowing it would be three years before I returned. I tossed my hat in the air as we watched Marcus Ericsson cross the legendary yard of bricks to take the checkered flag. It was everything I missed about live racing. Everything I love about the 500.
I have no idea where I picked up the virus. A good breeze was blowing across the stands throughout the race. Maybe it helped: None of the friends we sat with got sick or tested positive for COVID after the race. My husband, unfortunately, did. He had the luck of sitting in the car with me for two hours in Indy’s gridlocked parking-lot traffic, plus the three-hour drive home. It’s possible that is exactly what did him in.
I’ll likely never know exactly how I got my case of COVID, and I’m certainly not blaming anybody for what happened to me and my husband (and some of my friends). I’m thankful both of us are vaccinated and boosted. For both of us, our illnesses have been bearable, even though I’m still fighting some lingering symptoms a week later.
Looking back, I realize I went to the Indy 500 with a false sense of security. It’s an outdoor event; I had tested and masked when I thought necessary. But over the handful of days I spent sick in bed, I kept thinking the same things to myself: I should have stayed home. I could have made it a shorter trip. I should have worn that stupid mask, even when I was just with my group of friends. Shoulda, woulda, coulda ... but didn’t.
Instead, my husband and I got a week of mild-to-moderate misery. We joke that we’ll have a little extra protection now — hopefully enough to carry us through to our next booster shot. Our natural immunity will certainly fade away well before the 2023 Indy 500. But my exasperation and guilt regarding my bout of COVID will certainly last.