Clark fever overshadows Pacers and Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS — 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 that 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.