The Pay Less Little 500 presented by UAW has endured a lot of obstacles in its 72-year history, but perhaps none as big as the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The pandemic had a direct impact on the race itself, and brought a different feel to it this year, as one could expect.
As is always the case with the Little 500, there were plenty of story lines heading into this year’s event, including the temporary date change and the absence of a couple of notable drivers due to a USAC National Midget Series event in Sweet Springs, Mo.
When COVID-19 swept the country in early March, almost every racing event was cancelled or postponed until later in the season, including the Indy 500. The Little 500 surprisingly stayed the course at first, with intentions of keeping its Memorial Day Weekend date.
As the pandemic worsened, and the state of Indiana added restrictions, Anderson Speedway owner Rick Dawson had no choice other than to move the date of the race to later in the year.
The new temporary Labor Day Weekend date he chose ensured that the Little 500 would not be paired on the same weekend as the Indy 500 for only the second time in the history of the event.
One of the most notable differences this year was the reduced number of fans allowed to attend the race. Since 2015, the race has been a sell-out or near sell-out each year. But this year state of Indiana guidelines would only allow for a 50-percent capacity.
Due to a limited number of tickets available, the race was sold out by race morning. With a total purse more than $125,000, 2020 was going to be a challenge for promoter Rick Dawson – with half of the ticket sales the event normally generates.
THE LITTLE 500
1 – Bobby Santos III
2 – Shane Hollingsworth
3 – Tyler Roahrig
4 – Kyle O’Gara
5 – Eric Gordon
6 – aBrian Tyler
7 – Caleb Armstrong
8 – Kenny Schrader
9 – Jerry Coons Jr.
10 – Mickey Kempgens
11 – Johnny Gilbertson
12 – Ronald Wuerdeman
13 – Tommy Nichols
14 – Kody Swanson
15 – Scott Hampton
16 – Brian Gerster
17 – Aaron Pierce
18 – Shane Butler
19 – John Inman
20 – Kyle Hamilton
21 – Derek Bischak
22 – Doug Dietsch
23 – Dakoda Armstrong
24 – Chris Neuenschwander
25 – Chris Jagger
26 – Cory Setser
27 – Russ Gamester
28 – Billy Wease
29 – Christian Koehler
30 – Bryan Gossel
31 – Justin Harper
32 – Jacob Wilson
33 – Jeff Bloom
With a limited number of tickets available, the race had a bigger live stream presence this year on FloRacing, with a much larger audience than in previous years.
In addition, Must See Racing, the official sanctioning body of the Little 500, is providing a tape-delayed broadcast of the event on MAVTV’s popular SPEED SPORT program.
Kody Swanson has all but dominated the Little 500 since he began participating in 2015. He had never finished outside of the top 10 in five starts and had won three of the last four events with two different teams. He was a heavy favorite to pick up a fourth Little 500 victory entering the event.
After capturing the pole for the race two days earlier, it appeared his odds were getting better as race time approached.
The Little 500 has become pavement sprint car racing’s only true all-star event, and draws teams from almost every series and region of the country. Despite COVID-19, the car count appeared to be identical to that of 2019. The event drew five drivers from the state of Florida alone.
One of the most unique sights at the Little 500 is the pit area. Sprint cars don’t make live pit stops outside of the Little 500. Virtually every teams uses refueling towers similar of those used in the NTT IndyCar Series. Most are built by the teams themselves, although a few use actual IndyCar Series fueling towers.
Another interesting sight found during Little 500 pit stops in recent years is the use of air jack systems. Many of the top teams now use a pneumatic air jack system that lifts the 1,500-pound sprint car in just three tenths of a second and eliminates the hydraulic jack altogether.
More and more teams appear to be employing this system and it is a topic of debate.
At an estimated cost of $3,500 to install, some teams refuse to make the investment, arguing that it would only be used once a year, and that it makes it impossible to be competitive. Teams that currently use them insist it helps with more efficient and safer stops, eliminating the standard hydraulic jack and the hazards that come with it.
The theme of the 2020 Little 500 was pit stop strategy. Teams are getting more serious about pits stops in the Little 500, and it is creating quicker and more fluid stops.
In recent seasons, the race has been won or lost in the pits, and 2020 was no different. Calculating when to make your final stop, and how many tires to change, annually puts the race into the hands of the crew and makes it a true team effort.
Defending champion Kody Swanson got the jump at the start of the race and led the first 140 laps, but was pressured early in the event by Tyler Roahrig.
Roahrig clearly wanted to lead some of the early laps and took over the top spot on lap 141. The leaderboard showed five different lead changes between Roahrig, Swanson, Caleb Armstrong, Shane Hollingsworth, and Bobby Santos III over the next 326 laps.
Santos completed his final pit stop on lap 403 and exited the pits on the lead lap after an impressive and swift pit stop. Santos was shown in second-place, but quickly fell to third after Swanson passed him coming down the straightaway with an inside pass on lap 417.
It appeared as if Swanson was honing in on a fourth Little 500 victory as he set sail for race leader Hollingsworth.
But seven laps later, Swanson’s bid for a fourth Little 500 victory came to a halt when he exited the speedway under green with engine issues. The hood quickly came off Swanson’s car and it was apparent his night was over.
A final caution flew on lap 459, and it allowed Santos the chance to line up behind race leader Hollingsworth on the restart. That was the break Santos needed.
He powered past Hollingsworth going down the backstretch on lap 468 and cruised to his first Little 500 victory in his seventh career start.
“It’s unbelievable. I thought I should have won this thing a couple of times before,” Santos proclaimed in victory lane, referring to his two previous second-place finishes. “This is special. I’ve been wanting this win for a long time. We’ve been close so many times. This one’s for Dick.”
He was referring to car owner Richard ‘Dick’ Fieler, who couldn’t be present because of a family emergency.
“I’ve made mistakes in this race before,” Santos continued. “We haven’t run it right a couple times. But this year I felt we ran a smart race and had a good car. We made good decisions at the right time. Our stops were great and we hit on something at the end. Anyone can say what they want, but I’ve got the best team on pit road. I challenge anyone to beat us in the pits. There isn’t a better group of guys going over the wall than I have and it showed tonight.”
With another Little 500 in the books, we can only hope things return to normal next year. But regardless of how COVID-19 has affected the world in 2020, it couldn’t put a stop to the Little 500.
That’s a testament to how important this race is to fans, teams, and Anderson Speedway owner Rick Dawson. And due to the temporary date change in 2020, the wait is just less than nine months before we’ll do it all over again.