INDIANAPOLIS — THIS is the merry month in which Indianapolis transforms itself from just another mid-sized Midwestern city into the mecca of auto racing. For three hours this Sunday (May 27) some of the world's top drivers will race 200 laps around a 2 1/2-mile oval track to try to win the Indianapolis 500. It is, arguably, the most famous auto race in the world.
But for all its speed, high technology, and international fame, this event is surprisingly hometown and people-oriented. Talk with former Indy 500 drivers and you find out less about the cars they drove than about the people they met. Scratch the dedicated Indy 500 fan and like as not you'll find someone who follows drivers rather than engines. Twenty-five families have had two or more representatives in this race.
``I have a bookkeeper in my company who lives, eats, and breathes the 500-mile race,'' says Howard (Howdy) Wilcox, whose father was first across the finish line in 1919. ``She literally loves the sport and loves the people in it. And I think the people in it have a lot to do with it. You see, it's not just the guy driving the car. It takes a number of competent, dedicated people to keep that car on the track.''
Why such loyalty to a track with places like ``Gasoline Alley'' and ``the Snake Pit?'' (More on these later.)
``There's not an easy answer to that,'' says Donald Davidson of the United States Auto Club (USAC), which sanctions the event. ``But it is a tradition. It's a tradition that goes back almost beyond the memory of anybody that's living.''
Mr. Davidson is USAC's historian and statistician. He probably has memorized more facts about the Indianapolis 500 than anyone else. Five years ago, he began giving Indy 500 lectures at a local university; they now attract 60 to 70 students a year.
One of those students is Perry Fague, an insurance underwriter who will be attending his 23rd race. ``The thing about the Speedway that makes it unique is that you can get real close to the competitors,'' he says.
``I heard the engines all my life,'' adds Carl Brodnik, who grew up close to the track on the northwest side of Indianapolis. ``It was really hard when you could hear 'em in school.... My cousins and I still meet at my mom and dad's house and walk over to the track first day of qualifications and save about 30 seats for the rest of the family.''
Mr. Brodnik doesn't attend the race, just the qualifications. ``I basically just like the speed and the camaraderie out there,'' he says.
Until the early 1970s, when the race came into its own, many of the drivers would spend the month of May with local families. On race day, they'd walk to the track and then leave to return to full-time jobs as mechanics, gas-station attendants, and the like.
``The drivers used to be what I call blue collar,'' says Bob Laycock, who runs the Indy 500 press room. These days, ``your race car drivers - most of them - come with a briefcase and college degree. It's a lot more serious.'' His eyes still fill with tears when he recalls two drivers who stayed at his house and then later lost their lives in races, one at Indy and the other at another track.
As the 500 grew up, so did the automobile industry.
The track was originally conceived in 1909 as a testing facility for automobile manufacturers, many of whom were in Indianapolis. Over the years, the automotive innovations developed for the Indy race cars have found their way into passenger cars, among them improved engine combustion chambers, hydraulic brakes, shock absorbers, low-pressure tires, and superchargers. In the first Indy 500 in 1911, Ray Harroun attached the first automobile rear-view mirror to his Marmon Wasp and went on to win the race.
``I think we look back and we see the progress that's been made in automotive history,'' says Duke Nalon, an Indy 500 Hall of Famer watching this year's drivers take their practice laps. ``It's a lot faster than what we used to run.''
When Mr. Nalon won the pole position for the 1949 race, his qualifying speed was 132.9 miles per hour. This year's pole-sitter, Emerson Fittipaldi, qualified with a four-lap average of 225.3 miles per hour, a new record. At the start of the Indy 500, the cars line up in 11 rows of three cars each. The fastest car in qualifications gets to ``sit on the pole,'' which is the inside spot on the first row.
Nalon finished third in 1948, when races were a grueling four-hour affair. Because the track was paved in brick (it is still sometimes called ``the Brickyard''), drivers were jostled badly during the 500. Even by the late 1930s, when sections of the track started to be repaved with asphalt, the ride was so bumpy that driver Henry Banks couldn't make out the instrument gauges on his car.
``I used to have to read them on the front straightaway,'' recalls the Indy Hall of Famer. ``I couldn't see them on the backstretch, they were shaking so bad.''
In those days, the 500 was virtually the only sporting event in the city. Since then, Indianapolis has acquired professional basketball and football teams and become a center for amateur sports.
Ironically, many Hoosiers don't like the race. ``There's a lot of: `Oh my goodness! The month of May is coming. Let's leave the country,''' says John Bigelow, an artist at the Indianapolis Star, the city's major newspaper.
``People make fun of it,'' adds Mr. Fague. On race day, he says, perhaps a quarter of the 400,000 people in attendance care what's going on on the track. The rest are there to be seen - or for ``something else.'' A lot of the something else (including drunkenness and nudity) has happened in a part of the infield in the first turn called the Snake Pit, because of the rowdy spectators it has attracted.
``You name it and it happened'' there, Mr. Laycock says. But ``it's not as much of a problem as it used to be.'' Gasoline Alley, incidentally, is the nickname for the area where the drivers make their pit stops to refuel, change tires, and the like.
On race day, millions of television viewers will see sleek, shiny cars speeding around the track and pulling into the pits, with the winner taking the checkered flag. But for a lot of Hoosiers, the race conjures up a whole lot more.
``You show me a bigwig who's from here and they have a 500 story - because they've all been,'' says Indy 500 historian Davidson. ``There are some who maybe don't care about it. But you'll find that most people have a soft spot for it, whether it's that they sold newspapers at the track as a kid or they've gone [to the race] for the last 40 years. And maybe they don't go to another race all year and maybe they pay no attention to racing. But by golly, they go to the 500.''