Sports

Caitlin Clark fever races through Indy to overshadow Pacers and Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS — (AP) — Caitlin Clark had yet to even be drafted by the Indiana Fever before fans openly called for her to be given an honorary role at the Indianapolis 500.

She's been a resident of Indianapolis for just about a month and is already one of the biggest stars in the city with a full-size of Clark's image lined the Hyatt Hotel near the arena. Little girls donned her No. 22 jersey and painted their faces with a “C” on each cheek.

“You can't ask for a better home opener. This is what gets people excited,” Clark said before Thursday night's game against the New York Liberty. "As you look around you soak it up and I couldn't have scripted it any better.”

Clark held two lengthy interview sessions — one following a midday shootaround, the other about 90 minutes before tipoff against the Liberty, last year’s WNBA runner-up.

And it wasn’t just some run-of-the-mill stuff either.

“This is such a new thing,” Fever coach Christy Sides said, looking at a crowd of about three dozen reporters. “I mean, there’s never been this many people in this media room, so we’re all still trying to figure it out ourselves. We just want to make sure we’re taking care of our players, taking care of Caitlin.”

Her WNBA home debut comes deep into preparations for Indianapolis' truly big event, the 108th running of the Indy 500. Anticipation to see the No. 1 overall draft was so high that drivers were checking their daily schedules seeking room to try to see Clark play at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

"Of course I know who Caitlin Clark is — everybody does. She's like the most marketed woman in the world right now," said driver Colton Herta, who is sponsored by Gainbridge. Clark in March signed with the company as a brand ambassador, and Gainbridge is the presenting sponsor of the May 26 Indy 500.

Even though tickets still remained 90 minutes ahead of Thursday night's game — secondary sales sites have seats that start at $3 but run over $1,000 — there were plenty of fans who wished they were going to see Clark.

Calvary Lutheran, an Indianapolis private school which brought 42 middle school students to the speedway Thursday on a field trip, screamed their answer in unison when asked if they'd rather be at the track for an Indy 500 practice day or Clark's debut.

“FEVER!” they shouted.

A few of the students then raced to the concession stand to retrieve 11-year-old classmate Blessing Li, an aspiring basketball player and, per her classmates, an “obsessed Clark fan.” A few even accused Li of crying as she spoke of Clark's inspiration for young female athletes.

“Girl power!” Li exclaimed about Clark's impact. “She's just so great.”

The line to enter the fieldhouse started forming long before the gates opened at 5:30 p.m. local time, and when the seats started filling, there were red T-shirts with Fever numbers everywhere, many, of course, featuring Clark’s No. 22.

Matthew Hacker, Chloe Lundy and Tyler Crawford made the 3 1/2-hour drive from London, Kentucky, to Indianapolis on Thursday for their first in-person glimpse of the WNBA’s newest star. They bought their tickets a month ago when it became clear Clark would become Indiana’s selection with the No. 1 overall draft pick and they weren’t disappointed.

They watched Clark warm up from the front row after getting in line around 4 p.m.

“I like the recognition she’s brought to women’s sports," Lundy said. "Like I never watched women’s basketball until she came along. She was just so awesome.”

Fans in attendance held up signs that read “We love you Caitlin” and “Her Time to Play.” Gainbridge also took out a full-page ad in the Indianapolis Star welcoming Clark to the city.

Penske Entertainment, owner of the speedway, IndyCar and the Indy 500, has used Clark at series events before. She was a guest of Hy-Vee at the inaugural 2022 race at Iowa Speedway and returned last year as Grand Marshal.

But getting her involved in the Indy 500 has proved to be a more difficult task.

Series officials want nothing more than to include Indy's newest star in the pageantry of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” but the Fever play in Los Angeles on next Friday's “Carb Day” and then in Las Vegas the night before the race. The only gap in Clark's WNBA schedule comes this Sunday, when the Indy 500 pole is decided.

Clark's first home game is being marked by a souvenir ticket that has the technology to save a photo on a QR code for a forever keepsake. The Fever hosted a pregame party at Bicentennial Unity Plaza for ticket holders that included a DJ, face-painting, games and caricature and balloon artists.

Clark had 20 points while setting a record with 10 turnovers in a WNBA debut in the Fever's season-opening loss to the Connecticut Sun. The game had record viewership with an average of 2.1 million viewers on ESPN2, ESPN+ and Disney+ to top ESPN’s previous mark of nearly 1.5 million viewers for a 2004 game between the Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut.

In Clark's lone preseason game in Indianapolis, the Fever set a preseason attendance record at 13,028 spectators. The Fever averaged just over 4,000 fans per game last season.

Clark was excited to see the turnout against the Liberty.

“Any time you can have a real home opener and have the support that we've had, our preseason game was tremendous and now we get to play for real,” Clark said. “I think it's just going to be loud. We're going to need to use the environment to our advantage and I think just learn to move on and get ready to play. Embrace it and enjoy it because it is special, too.”

The vibe around Indianapolis is electric as the NBA's Pacers remain in the playoffs during Indianapolis 500 preparations for the first time in a decade. Many current IndyCar drivers are regulars at Pacers games and Clark attended one of the games against the New York Knicks in a suite with her Fever teammates.

The Pacers are down 3-2 headed into Friday night's game in Indianapolis.

But even the Pacers have taken a backseat to Clark's arrival in Naptown. Indy native Conor Daly, one of IndyCar's biggest ambassadors, is wearing an Indy-themed helmet in the Indy 500 that includes the Fever logo for the first time.

When the Fever drafted Clark, Daly looked into becoming a season-ticket holder.

“The whole city feels very sporty, that's the best way to put it. The electricity, every time I turn on ESPN, there's something about the Pacers or Caitlin Clark,” Daly said. "I keep waiting for a third segment about the Indy 500, but it's just awesome to be from here right now.

“I noticed that if you want season tickets for the Fever, they went up a lot,” he continued. “I did my research for about three weeks trying to get them. And every two days they'd message me and say ‘Now it’s this (higher) price.' But we did do our research on becoming Fever season-ticket holders.”

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AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.

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WNBA: https://apnews.com/hub/wnba-basketball

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AP Motorsports: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing

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