To some Americans the Indianapolis 500 represents the zenith of wastefulness and folly. Every year they re-ask the question "Why?" But to loyal race fans, the kind who wouldn't think of missing this Sunday's 65th running, "Why?" need not be asked. They know why.
J. D. Gould Jr. of Indianapolis watches the qualifying trials every year from the same vantage point, the northern tip of the raceway between the third and fourth turns.
His father began going to the raceway when it opened in 1909. J. D. began going in the '20s. His grandchildren now attend with him. The Goulds know the Indy to be a circus, a family reunion, and a national political convention all rolled into one. It is a spectacle which gives an identity to the city of Indianapolis -- a place which they say would be nothing without the 500. It is a Midwestern Mardi Gras.
As J. D. gleefully said, "These kids from small Midwest towns can tap right into their vans, turn their stereos as loud as they want, drive to Indianapolis and have a whale of a time."
But not everyone comes for the party. Others come for the thrill of the sound and the speed. There is a vicarious excitement which accompanies watching a blur go 200 m. p. h. --and then a few seconds later, after traveling 2 1/2 miles, watching it flash by again.
The speed and noise of the race constitute an ultimate manifestation of technology; the crowds, an ultimate manifestation of hedonism. Not everyone likes or approves of unleashed technological growth and/or hedonism, of course. A behavioral scientist at an Indianapolis college, who dislikes the whole event and pleads for anonymity, sees the race as a complete release from responsibility, a bizarre and grotesque display of materialism which has absolutely no regard for human beings and human problems. To him it is an antique -- a vestige of the Great American Dream which can never be brought to completion but will never go away either.
The race also is a proving ground for future technologies. The drivers are, in a sense, test pilots, testing the automotive innovations of the engineers. The governing bodies of the race have been setting strict limitations on technological developments for several years now. Thus the engineers have been forced to derive ever greater horsepower from increasingly smaller machines.
One such advance which may have widespread impact, for example, is turbocharging. A turbocharger utilizes exhaust pressure to turn a turbine which in turn boosts the fuel and air mixture going into the engine. Since the engine gets more explosive, it has more power.
Kevin Cogan A 25-year-old rookie driver, believes that turbocharging is the automotive development of the future. A turbocharged 1200 cc engine will be able to deliver over 200 horsepower. Americans, he believes, will be able to keep their big cars and power, and still get good fuel economy.
Cogan, with piercing blue eyes and classically handsome features, personifies the race driver-test pilot mystique. It is a mystique which attracts wealth and power. One of Kevin's sponsors describes him as being ice-water cool on the track. "He has to," he said. "If he doesn't, he has no right being here."
But Cogan's own personal satisfaction does not come from his fearlessness. His job satisfaction comes from the challenge. He knows that the slightest mistake or loss in concentration can, as he put it, "result in a tremendous problem." Kevin's only dislike of his profession is that he knows he is stuck with it. As with the fans' love of racing, he knows that after the thrill and challenge of driving, there is nothing else that could replace it.
His profession requires a steely strength and love of excitement which is shared by everyone who gets behind the wheel of an Indy race car -- and a few others as well. Jim Hurtubise, for example, has been racing cars his entire life despite serious injuries. His son Andy is now 20. As much as he would like to be a race car driver, the sport has become too expensive; he cannot afford it. Instead, for the price of a hat, boots, and a rope, he rides Brahman bulls in rodeos.
The value vs. the wastefulness of bull riding, car racing, or event-attending must be determined by the people involved. But in answer to even the severest critic, a factory worker from New Albany, Ind., succinctly said, "This event is not the least bit wasteful or ridiculous -- at least in comparison to what goes on in Washington."