I'm pretty sure that everybody in the world knows this by now,
but in case someone didn't hear it--from SportsCenter or CNN or
Pravda or Joe Blow at the watercooler--a pickup truck qualified
on Sunday for the Indy 500. A rusty '79 Ford Ranger. I'm not
kidding. I was there when it happened.
And here's how the "driver" describes the preparations he and
his good buddy Ronnie Briggs are making for the Greatest
Spectacle in Racing, on May 26. "We pro'ly was losin' nine or 10
miles per 'ar down the straightaways, just 'cause the damn
tailgate was up," reckons Bob Mackey. "But rollin' the windas
up? That was just a hunch that Ronnie had. The wind whips past
the cab now! When the windas were down, though, that damn wind
slowed us down sumpin' awful--blew them napkins and Hardee's
bags all around the cab too--and damn near ripped my hat off! If
it's hot on race day, though, you can double-damn betcha I'll
have them windas down!
"We're tryin' to figure if we should run with the air vents open
or closed, or with the radio on. I'd like t' keep up with how
we're doin' and listen to some tunes--500 miles is a long way.
But we do know the bug shield slows us down. We're fine-tunin'."
There will be no Andretti at Indy this year and no Penske, no
Fittipaldi, no Rahal. The best-known Indy Car teams and drivers
will be in Michigan, boycotting the Indy 500 and racing in the
inaugural U.S. 500 because Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART)
and Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George are fighting
over control of their sport. That's why reporters are asking a
truck driver how he'll do at the fabled Brickyard.
May 19, 1996
"Weeeeell, let me tell ya," Mackey drawls, "with the way George
has bin messin' with the Indy 500, there's barely enough cars
here to even run. We know we ain't got a chance of leadin' the
race from the git-go, but if we can finish it--and I
guaran-damn-tee ya we can finish it--then there's a chance that
all them real racers'll be broke down and out when we come
across for the checkered."
This simplistic tortoise-and-hare reasoning is what's now
passing for race strategy on Gasoline Alley. But after the
strange events on Sunday, who's to say Mackey can't win? At
about 10:30 a.m., a security guard on the Speedway infield
mistakenly allowed the truck through the gate to Gasoline Alley.
Mackey, with Briggs beside him, tooled onto the track to take a
few laps, and thousands of fans, depressed by the defections of
their favorite drivers, picked up the chant: "Let 'em qualify!"
Track safety crews were slow to respond, unsure of what was
going on, but not Gen. Chuck Yeager, test pilot, American hero
and spark plug pitchman. He quickly sortied in the pace car and
intercepted Team Truck for an escort back to Gasoline Alley,
where Mackey provided anyone who would listen with this version
of Sunday morning's events: "We were just tryin' to get in to
see a day of qualifications and pay our respects. Who knows if
there'll be any more racin' here, ya know? Anyway, on the drive
over here Ronnie kept eggin' me on to make a run for Gasoline
Alley. My head was throbbin' pretty bad from a party we'd been
at the night before, so I didn't need his whinin'. But in the
drive-thru at that Hardee's in Terre Haute he looked more
serious than that time I helped him bury his dog--hell, he
didn't even touch his second bacon-and-egg biscuit--so I knew he
was down and really wanted me to make a run for it. I told 'im
I'd do it. Hell, I bin to jail before; it ain't that big a deal.
Then when we got up here, and that old security guard was just
starin' at his feet and let us through, I stepped on the gas.
Ronnie's face just lit up, like that time he caught that
state-record bluegill. But it's that crowd cheerin' us that got
me t' thinkin' about tryin' to qualify. Damn, them folks was
So, with the overwhelming support of the drunken mob that was
fast surrounding Gasoline Alley, Mackey and Briggs persuaded
Indy officials that a couple of farm boys deserved a chance to
qualify. The turning point, most observers agree, was when
George came down to the pits to assess the situation, and
Mackey, in response to something George had mumbled, yanked a
crowbar out of his pickup, pried off the truck's rear left
fender and proudly proclaimed, "There's yer open-wheel racer!"
The fans went nuts, European soccer-style. So George shook
Mackey's and Briggs's hands and motioned for them to pull their
truck out onto the track. He'd let 'em in. And after they'd
qualified, the crowd erupted.
As George walked away from the pandemonium he'd helped create,
one longtime fan seemed to be grasping the ramifications of the
morning: "Geez, the race is screwed up this year, but these guys
in the 500 just ain't right. Hell, I got a truck! And you don't
see me out here tryin' to qualify!"
Ah, but George would've let him. He would've compromised the
integrity of the sport for him too.
David Albin teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue
University at Indianapolis.