Loose is bad.
For me, that was the hardest thing to get used to at the Indianapolis 500. Everywhere else in sports, loose is good. We won because we were real loose. I knew he could get loose over (he middle. But loose is out at Indy, and I had a tough time adjusting to this.
During the trials last year, for example, car No. 89, driven by some poor devil named Phil Krueger, crashed. I saw it on the closed-circuit replay. You don't see anything for real at Indianapolis. You just keep watching those TV sets they've got set up in all the press facilities. Now, there are some psycho-social critics who say that people come to Indy just to see drivers get killed. I wouldn't know. But I do know this: If people do go to Indy for that reason, they are barking up the wrong tree, because you don't see anything at Indy except a bunch of colored blurs roaring by.
It was terrible, the way Phil Krueger hit the wall on the TV. I couldn't imagine any human surviving that. I was there in Gasoline Alley when they brought the wreck back. They wheeled it in on a sort of stretcher device; actually, it was more like what they wheel coffins down the aisle on. In fact, by then, Phil Krueger's car was about the size of a coffin.
May 30, 1982
I asked a knowledgeable veteran Indy expert, a native, what happened. "Got loose in the turn." he explained.
For an instant I brightened. Then I remembered: No, loose is bad. "Will the driver live?" I asked.
"Oh, this doesn't look like a fatal, but I'll tell you one thing: He'll sure be doing a lot of sheet time."
Sheet time! Now that is loose. And I'll tell you one thing: As far as I'm concerned, the Indy 500 is loose. Everybody told me I had to go there, had to see it. If you're in my business and you've been to the World Series and Wimbledon, the Super Bowl and the Derby, you must see an Indy, too, everyone says, because you'll get goose pimples at the start and because Indy is the quintessential American sporting event, the largest slice of Americana. I adore what usually passes for Americana. I love country music, county fairs, bumper stickers, Cypress Gardens, high school basketball, salad bars and It's A Small, Small World.
My credentials are almost all in order. Almost. You see, I don't care much about cars. I am a failure as an American that way.
One day in Indianapolis I went to an automobile memorabilia show at a motel. There was a little booth there, with a photographer, and the sign on it said ASK ABOUT A CUSTOM PORTRAIT OF YOUR CAR. I stared at that for a long time. I stared at the sample custom portraits. I was dumbfounded. To me, the sign on that booth might just as well have said ASK ABOUT A CUSTOM PORTRAIT OF YOUR FURNACE.
To me, a car is simply what is known in the Army as a vee-HICK-il; that is, something that gets you from here to there. I guess I was out sick the day they taught my generation to fall in love with cars, and I never made that class up. I don't even know what wracken pinyon steering is, and that's all you hear about these days, apropos cars. In fact, the last time I had to buy a car, I said, "A pi√±a colada for the lady and the wracken pi√±a for me."
I'm admitting my total ignorance of cars so that, if you want to, you'll have a perfect excuse to dismiss everything I'm about to say about Indy. An idiot (pervert?) who doesn't even like cars—how could he possibly appreciate the world's greatest automobile race?
I don't even know what names cars have anymore. When I go to rent a car—I'm listed in the computers as being desirous of an "intermediate," although through the years intermediates have grown to the size of Paraguay—the agent always asks something like, "Do you want a Banshee or a Terrier or a Stalemate or a Meringue?"
And I reply, "Which one is in a blue?" I like blue in cars. And this throws everybody behind the counter into a dither. Apparently, I'm the only good American who rents motorcars by color. I would like them to change "intermediate" to "blue" in the computer.
So, yes, honest to Betsy, I just don't like cars. But I've always loved the smell of gasoline. Say that for me. I wasn't entirely an innocent at Indy. Really, I only came to the Speedway with two misconceptions, which were that the place had something to do with 1) sports and 2) America.
So many of the people I met at Indy had this race in their heritage. As children, they heard oldtimers tell tales of Indy, listened to it on the radio, dreamed of that golden Memorial Day—or better, in this context, the old Decoration Day—when they might actually go to the Brickyard to see the race themselves. Again and again, the word people favored in describing their trips to Indy was "pilgrimage," and certainly there were overtones of a religous experience.
This was all so foreign to me, coming, as I do, from the effete old East, where races are things only thoroughbreds run. Indy? Until I went to the 500, Memorial Day meant only two things to me: headlines appearing, year after year, saying HOLIDAY ROAD DEATH TOLL MOUNTS, and the fact that now beaches and pools were officially open for the summer. Yes, to be sure, as a kid I'd always looked in the paper the next morning to see who had won the race and—more important—to discover which shimmering Hollywood beauty had been lured to Indiana to kiss the grimy winner in Victory Lane. To me, she invested the annual cliché Wire-photo with more credence than did the obscure driver. Linda Darnell, the kisser in 1949, still occupies an athletic antechamber of my memory, comfortably lounging there with Al Gionfriddo, Jack Fleck and Conn McCreary.
And then when LIFE magazine arrived a few days later, there always would be a two-page black-and-white ad for Firestone tires, with a picture of the winning driver in his car. The winner always rode on Firestones, which impressed me. I didn't know at the time that most years Firestone was the only tire at Indy, just as Goodyear is today. Firestone then, as Goodyear now, finished last in the 500 every year, too, but that point was never brought to the attention of the impressionable readers. The ad also supplied the winning speeds of the past winners, and all in all I learned more about the 500 from the paid Firestone advertisement than I did from anything else that appeared in the free press. This should have told me something early on about Indy and commercialism.
I also marveled at the great hordes that always attended this event. The crowd, estimated each year at upwards of a quarter-million people, was much larger than any that attended a World Series game or the Rose Bowl or the Kentucky Derby or any of the other famous American sporting events that were within my ken and whose attendance was certified, live, on television, more often than not by Mel Allen. A blind faith in Linda Darnell will take you only so far.
The Speedway now has seats for 238,000. On race day, another 80,000 or more souls populate the infield, so that I imagine that the preacher who gave the prerace invocation last year was not far from the truth in calling the mob "the largest assemblage of humanity on the planet earth." Yet things are so spread out at Indy—the track is 2½ miles around, and a nine-hole golf course is tucked away in one section of the infield—that the sense that there's a huge crowd on hand is diminished when you are there. Alas, you only truly appreciate how many folks go to Indy when you're stuck in traffic trying to get to the damn place.
Understand, though, that the vast majority of the fans who migrate to Indy each May are solid, God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth types, like Jack Middleton of Naugatuck, Conn., who runs the memorabilia collectors' show in downtown Indianapolis every year before the race. Jack and several friends—and now his teen-age daughter Mari—pile into a car each year after work on Friday and drive straight through, 15 hours, to Indy, where they stay in the same nice little motel several miles out in the bushes. They sit in the same seats on the first turn, and they never fail to have a wonderful time. They meet old friends. They swap car talk. They love the race and the sport. I like what Thomas Binford, the Speedway's chief steward, says: "I can't justify racing. You either like it or you don't. It's just the way it is."
Fine. Unfortunately for so many people like Jack Middleton, who do love racing, their waters are fouled by scores of thousands of creeps who inundate the Speedway, and, philosophically at least, assume command. To swell the precious attendance figures, the people who run Indy will apparently let their customers do most anything they want.
Slop and swill decorate the place—and not just the simple trash we can expect at most large modern folk gatherings these days. At Indy, you must pick your way through piles of discarded chicken bones and barbecue meat fat, as well as the more conventional no-deposit, no-return wastes. The night before last year's race, 75,000 friends of racing roamed the streets of Speedway (the suburban municipality where the track is located), overwhelming the 27 cops on the local force and their reinforcements from neighboring communities. Forty-eight arrests were made.
On race day, the mood in the infield seems ugly compared, say, with that at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, which is just as steamy and packed, but where the atmosphere is light and mischievous.
At Indy the cars roll by generally unwatched by the infield denizens. Most of the radios are turned to rock, not the race. Unlike other athletic events, where the fans have a great emotional involvement with the outcome of the competition, there appears to be little rooting interest among most of the Indy spectators, and as you and I know all too well, an idle mind is the devil's workshop. So it is in the infield at Indy that one thought seems to prevail: "Show Us Your Tits."
That is a common cry. Signs expressing this sentiment are prominently erected all over, and graphic T shirts and buttons making this appeal may be purchased from shops and vendors outside the Speedway. Twice I watched as well-endowed young ladies were so affable as to go along with the request, and on both occasions they appeared lucky to escape with their lives, let alone their bosoms.
Curiously, though, there is a peaceable atmosphere in some parts of the infield. Candy apples and cotton candy do a brisk trade, and booths selling film are conveniently located, just as in Disneyland. It's not grass of any sort that one smells—and not gasoline, either—but skin simmering in coconut oil and meat over charcoal. Even the leather-jacketed motorcycle set inclines toward hibachis, though of the petite sort: the better to be transported on bikes. Altogether, much of the infield describes a grotesque suburbia, as might have been painted by Bosch.
Moreover, once you get away from the beered-up hordes near the turns and over toward the golf course, the air is nearly pastoral. Well into the '81 race, just as Danny Ongais' car crashed, turning into a fiery bomb, I encountered quiet kids happily chucking a baseball around, people napping under trees, a few modest lovers contemplating the world and one another, even some joggers and one fellow roller-skating. They were so far away from the action—both in distance and in frame of mind—that none had seen or heard Ongais explode into sheet time.
Why do these people do it? Why do they fight through traffic for as many as three hours to pay to get into an event they can't see very well, assuming they want to see it? Nobody could ever really tell me. It had just always been the thing to do; it was the place to be on Memorial Day in Indiana. In a nutshell: pilgrimage.
And the Speedway just keeps counting all the bodies. Currently there is no live TV for fear this might draw some of the mobs away. Yet strangely, although attendance is so important to the 500, official figures are never released. Maybe the announced numbers, unquestioned for so long, are fraudulent. Or suppose that one year only 314,000 showed up instead of the 315,000, or whatever it was, of the year before? Why, that might cast aspersions on Indianapolis. So instead of an official tally, the track officials—get this—hand out a crowd "estimate" that is conjured up by the local police. Cops are notorious the world over for inflating the size of crowds they control, but at the 500 everybody prints their annual estimate as gospel.
Indianapolis is really a junior partner of Detroit and Akron, and commerce is much more involved with automobile racing than it is with any other sport. Nowadays, businesses routinely entertain clients at sports events, but nowhere is the entertaining more lavish than at Indy, where suites on the second turn fetch up to $30,000 in yearly rent. And that's the swankest aspect of the grubby marketplace aura that presses down on the whole scene.
Not only the cars but also the drivers and anybody even remotely associated with the race have been turned into moving billboards. Here, for example, is what just one driver, a journeyman named Gary Bettenhausen, was wearing advertisements for: Valvoline, Champion, Monroe, Diehard, Bear, Loctite, STP, Premier, Ideal. About the only place on his person not rented out for ad space was his fly.
As a matter of fact, except for the leather crowd, just about everybody at Indy dresses in logoed caps or T shirts or, preferably, both. The most inspired creation in this area, professional division, is one Linda Vaughn, who perfectly combines Indy's fascination with big-breasted women and billboard fashion. Linda is blonde, as you might expect, and a 42D, in round figures, and she has been Miss Hurst Golden Shifter for the past 14 years. She's a fixture at Indy. Among her many Hurst Golden Shifter outfits is a mink jacket made in a checkered-flag pattern. "I dress for the sponsors, the racers, the crews, their families and the fans," Vaughn explains, "so I need a versatile wardrobe." She has been such an unmitigated success in this regard that now there are six Hurstettes, all constructed in her image.
Shilling at Indy is as audible as it is visible. The P.A. announcer is unlike any other of his species in sports. Last year it was his job to tout Goodyear and Buick Regal, the pace car, to his captive, paying audience. When not spouting those two names over and over, he would start working the crowd in the manner of an oldtime carny barker: "He's really turning it on. All eyes are on him. Thanks for being here today. We just know you're going to love the show. Over four and a half hours of action. Ladies and gentlemen, we've still got some fast cars back there sitting, ready to run. Here's Danny Ongais, whose very name means speed!" These days Indy fans are conditioned to responding to what the P.A. announcer tells them, rather than what they think they see with their eyes. At the time trials, the spectators wouldn't cheer when a fast car came speeding by; instead they would wait until after the car had passed out of sight and the announcer screamed what speed it was making. Bobby Unser, who won the 1981 race, at least the last time I heard, told me, "Most fans here have no idea how fast the cars are going."
Whenever they spot a microphone, the drivers themselves seem to become incapable of speaking without invoking brand names. In effect, the drivers—A.J. Foyt, the only four-time Indy winner, being the possible exception—have become indistinguishable from other automotive accessories. Every popular American sport except automobile racing has offered up heroes in the last few years whose recognition factor has extended far beyond their own athletic territory. In racing even the best drivers are presented in such a tawdry way that they appear to be nothing more than empty helmets, crowded sandwich boards. I suspect that for the general American public the most famous name in racing is still Andy Granatelli, and he has been out of the sport for years. But in a game that is based so much on the commercial, Granatelli was the most commercial of all, and, hence, the undisputed champion.
The drivers appeared most human when, the morning before the race, all 33 qualifiers were lined up, seated in order, on a little grandstand erected at the finish line. As a group, they were pale and withdrawn, obviously uncomfortable being put on display without being wrapped in their protective garments and steel machines. Unlike other professional athletes who learn to take command in a crowd, even to relish milking it, the drivers seemed uneasiest when they were singled out in any way. They would wave to fans, but barely, quickly and bashfully, and what distinguished them most was their shyness, a collection of 33 average-sized white men, mostly middle-aged, almost all American, nearly homogeneous in dress and attitude.
I came away with the distinct impression that auto racing is somewhat apart from the rest of the athletic world. Race fans seem much more likely to care only about their own love, unlike most sports fans, who follow a variety of games in addition to their favorite. Likewise, few members of the general sports press carry auto racing in their portfolio, leaving it to a tight cadre of specialty journalists.
Read this from the "Speaking of Speed" column by George Moore in The Indianapolis Star, and then call me on my 800 number and translate it into Esperanto for me: "This basis is double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, an arrangement in which it is possible to achieve maximum valve area per given amount of displacement. Some other factors such as the use of aluminum for the heads and block for lightweight [sic], a short five main bearing crank, and this year updated fuel injection which has but a single butterfly valve in the induction system instead of the individual valves at the intake ports are going to make it a tough engine to beat."
May I offer a suggestion? You want to get to know Indianapolis—or Indenapplis, as the natives call it? You want to see real honest-to-goodness Americana? Then skip the Speedway and concentrate on the "500" Festival Memorial Parade. It's always held the day before the race in downtown Indianapolis. It's crowded, but it's not dirty; it's promoted, but it's not commercial.
In an editorial about the parade—an editorial about a parade?—the Star praised it as follows: "Unique, special, spine-tingling...spectacular, colorful, breathtaking...[symbolizing] variety, verve, nerve, pride, individualism, teamwork and freedom...the festive humanity of the nation's heartland showing off right in the middle of the nation's heartland.... The '500' Festival Parade conjures up the thrills and personalities of an epic past, blends them into the excitement of the present and opens the way to the dreams of tomorrow."
God only knows what the Indenapplis editorial writers have in reserve for the cure for cancer and the Second Coming.
And, of course, all that stuff the paper claims for the parade is nonsense. The wonderful thing about parades is precisely that none of them can ever get any better. The science of building floats, not to say the art, came to a grinding halt years ago. One float in the "500" Festival Parade was actually labeled "America and Apple Pie." The music was The Stars and Stripes Forever. Beat that. No way.
Of all the celebrities in last year's parade, The Oak Ridge Boys got the biggest hand. Wilma Rudolph and Tai Babilonia represented women's sports on one float. All the drivers, excepting Foyt and the Whittington brothers, who thumbed their noses at the parade, rode in open-topped cars. The people packed around the World War II monument at Vermont and Meridian actually cheered enthusiastically for both the governor and the mayor. Miss Hurst Golden Shifter was also a popular display, about on a par with the Iranian Hostage float and a Spanish-American War veteran in an antique car. The grand marshal was Joyce DeWitt, and I was advised that she was third banana on a TV series. Everybody else knew exactly who she was. Also they knew who Kent McCord was. Big hand for Kent McCord.
The '81 parade was prime-time America. And the Goodyear blimp was overhead, certifying it. If the blimp is somewhere, then that's reason enough why we should be there, too. By January 1989, if the Goodyear blimp isn't at the inauguration, it won't count.
Of all the things at the Speedway itself, what I liked best was the guy who waves the checkered flag and all the other various colored flags at the start-finish line. His name is Duane Sweeney, and he showed me a terrific style, great wrists. Best of all, of course, he doesn't make any noise.
The weekends before the race itself are handed over to qualifying. (Surely you are familiar with Carburetion Day, the Arbor Day of the athletic world.) During qualifying, nothing happens for minutes, even hours. Then, suddenly, they rush a car out and it zooms around the track a few times, and then everybody listens to the P.A. to find out if they've seen something worthwhile.
After a driver has completed his run, he pulls his car up in the pits for photos. Quick as a flash he yanks off his helmet and puts on a cap that says GOODYEAR across the front. And then he strikes a pose. It's the damnedest thing you ever saw. Every driver strikes the same pose, perched up on the back of his seat, one leg bent just so, looking pouty and coy, exactly like a Hollywood starlet, circa 1947, posing for stock cheesecake.
In fact, the old Brickyard has stood still in many ways. Only the cars move fast here. There are virtually no blacks in attendance. I actually saw women in honest-to-goodness miniskirts—the old kind, not the new ones that are making a comeback among the disco crowd. At the Speedway Motel, the 500's prime hostelry, many people eat in the restaurant with their hats on. The Speedway logo is preciously dated: a tire with little bird wings coming out of it, to suggest speed. It reminded me of the old comic strips in which, whenever anybody lost any money, dollar bills would be shown flying away on the same sort of little wings. The men on the Safety-Patrol (hyphenated for some-reason) wear yellow shirts with the winged tires on them.
But loosest of all is the Indy trophy. Naturally, this incredibly ugly award is a freebie, donated by a company (Borg-Warner). It has bas-relief heads of all the winning drivers around its base. The top features a large male nude, a Grecian Duane Sweeney, waving a checkered flag. And you think Miss Hurst Golden Shifter looks foolish.
Alas, beyond the six-figure first-place money, the trophy is about all the winning driver gets now. Unser refused the traditional bottle of milk even though the winning driver gets $2,500 if he drinks it and there is no longer a movie star to buss the winner's sweaty countenance. Instead, he is whisked, posthaste, out of Victory Lane, out of his own car, the winning car, and interviewed while perched on the pace car.
I had been told again and again that no matter what sporting preferences a person might have, the Indianapolis 500 was bound to raise goose bumps. Especially at the start. Even Jackie Stewart, who raced and won all over the world, told me there was nothing like the start at Indy—all those people, the place and the noise, the memories. I asked him exactly what happens.
"You get goose bumps," Jackie Stewart said.
So I wanted some, too. On race day I got up before six o'clock at my hotel—$104 for a room posted at $40, three-night minimum required, a highway robbery discreetly overlooked when it comes to tabulating Indianapolis' lowest-in-the-country crime rate. At a quarter to seven, four miles from the track, I was already fighting bumper-to-bumper snail traffic. By the time I at last reached the Brickyard a wave of humanity was breaking upon the place. All the establishments in the immediate area had, in deceitful self-defense, posted signs saying that their toilets were out of order. For sale everywhere were T shirts, belt buckles, earrings, fireworks, assorted cowboy gear and SHOW us YOUR TITS buttons. Everybody carried something to eat and drink.
At last, as the race neared its traditional 11 a.m. starting time, Phil Harris sang Back Home Again In Indiana. Then thousands of balloons were released to the heavens. "Drivers to your cars, drivers to your cars," I heard over the P.A. system. And soon after that: "Gentlemen, start your engines."
I gazed out across the track and the infield, over this incredibly American assemblage, red, white and blue and loud all over. Then, under cover of the roar, the bestickered cars began to move out, and just as they started to find their way, the P.A. shill started talking over the din, telling us about Goodyeartires and the Buickregalpacecar, and the whole way around the pace lap he kept that up until I understood where we nearly had come to: SHOW US YOUR GOOSE PIMPLES buttons.
Looking back, what frightens me and makes me sad is that I'd hoped Indy would be good and real, America and Americana, something to be proud of. It had never occurred to me that when we talk about the barbarians being at our gates, those gates might actually be the portals of the Speedway.