Winter does not stop racing in Indiana, where drivers in diminutive cars go indoors to thunder after checkered flags
January 30, 1978

Say "indoor racing" in other parts of the country and the image that comes to mind is one of athletes in short pants and short spikes thumping out endless circles on board tracks. But in Indiana the same phrase suggests a far more raucous scene. One of stubby little cars charging noisily down minuscule straightaways and sliding—left front wheels spinning in midair—through tight corners laid out on the cement floors of Fort Wayne Memorial Coliseum and Indianapolis Fairgrounds Coliseum.

The brilliantly painted machines are called midgets and they look like miniatures of the cars Mauri Rose and Bill Vukovich used to drive in the Indy 500 in the late '40s and early '50s. But the drivers are full-size modern-day stars like Gary Bettenhausen, Johnny Parsons, Bobby Olivero and Tom Bigelow and Indy hopefuls like Sleepy Tripp and Billy Engelhart.

The indoor races usually draw a field of 50 to 60 cars for purses that average $5,000. If a driver is not among the 10 fastest after running a two-lap qualifying time trial, but qualifies 11th through 22nd, he still has a chance to make the feature race. But that will require skill, luck and, perhaps most of all, durability. In a pack of 12 and with the fastest cars starting last, these drivers run a 20-lap semi-feature race. The two top finishers join the 10 top qualifiers for the 100-lap final.

As the night goes on, the atmosphere inside the buildings turns almost viscous with spent fuel and the pungent smell of overworked tires. Occasionally a bay door will be opened in an effort to clear the air. If the night is cold enough the greasy cement at one end of the track freezes and suddenly cars will start skating into the walls that enclose the course.

It is racing at its wildest, almost the opposite of the 500, in which speeds have gotten so high that drivers try to keep as far as possible from other cars on the track. The midgets, however, can average only 40 to 45 mph on these one-tenth-mile tracks. That, plus the congestion, plus the elimination procedure, plus the "inverted" starts in which the fastest cars start last, plus the brevity of the races, makes aggressive driving mandatory. Often the only way to get in front with a midget is to shove it to the head of the pack. Not with polite taps on the front-runner's chromed "push bar" (midgets do not have self-starters and must be pushed by a truck to get going), but with I'm-coming-through shoves that send shudders through both cars.

The spectators, only a few feet away, have a remarkable view and a sense of almost being part of the action. Although the snarling exhaust noise ricocheting off cement walls and metal roofs keeps them from hearing a frustrated driver's curses, they can see him yelling. And unlike outdoor racing, where only the fiberglass hump of a driver's helmet sticking out of the cockpit can be seen, there is nothing hidden about indoor midget car racing. At least for those who are aware of its existence.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERMidget race cars charging around a tiny indoor track create a carnival of colors and sounds. ILLUSTRATION PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERGary Bettenhausen's Volkswagen-powered midget can lap a one-tenth-mile track in eight seconds. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERWinners of indoor races are literally put in the spotlight. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe little race cars are popular with small fans. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBilly Engelhart's left front wheel gets a free ride in the tight turns. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERBettenhausen is a regular winner in the series. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERRoll cages protect drivers in flips and serve as handy handles.