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For Fans, The Indy 500 Is About People, Not Cars

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 1990



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.

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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.