Skip to main content
Original Issue


What is anIndianapolis 500 fan? Many quick-trip columnists see him as a morbidthrill-seeker, although none has bothered to consult the fan himself. In thisarticle one spectator attempts to explain the feeling he has aboutIndianapolis. The writer is a Jesuit priest and assistant professor of Englishat Milwaukee's Marquette University. Growing up in Omaha, he knew the Indy carsand drivers by newspaper hearsay. His in-person afición began in 1964, when hetraveled to the race with "a bunch of college kids who had a claim on acertain section of Indy near the second turn."

Catch a fallingcar dropping off the second turn at Indy. You are at the head of thebackstretch, at track level, just 25 feet from the wall. Picking up power notonly from the engine but from the very tension of its drifting arc, the car isnow poised for the absolute expression of its potential. The 32,000 to 40,000explosions per minute that propel this fragile force register upon the ear in atorrent of sound, echoed and re-echoed by the trembling response of the earthbeneath your feet.

The driver issuspended rigidly within his cocoon in a semifetal position, and his emerginghead and shoulders, framed by the roll bar, pass stiffly before your eyes likea star dwindling into the expanding universe of the open straight. Nowhere canthe senses of man be exposed to a greater sensation of speed or know thestrange authority of human self-control revealed at the very heart ofmovement.

A northeast windis carrying a taffy mix of clouds clockwise athwart the backstretch as viewedfrom L stand outside the third turn. A blade of sunlight drops angularly acrossthe near end of the backstretch and scrapes swiftly, silently toward the secondturn. The vast and wooded park of Indy stretches away, lulling the eye withpastoral suggestion, though strangely and invisibly ringed at the moment by adistance-muffled thunder, like the thunder that play-fully chases the lightningon a summer evening.

In the graydarkness of the distant turn two black points emerge and slip down the slide ofmacadam till the white wall catches them and guides them together out onto thelevel straight. A third point blobs into being just behind them and, as thestraight opens up, positions itself alongside in a trio of cars that seems totake up all there is of the 50-foot strand. But a fourth pinpoint of darknessmerges into the gray light, and swings into position on the web. Threading downupon the wind, it completes the set for a country dance on a floor where threeis truly a crowd.

Dark and ominous,they sweep toward us. The sunlight arrests them and transfigures them in aflash of color and beauty and then releases them for passage through the needleof No. 3. Only at the last instant, almost into the turn, does the inner carreceive that final impetus that carries it a fraction of distance ahead,allowing the second car to fold over and cross on its tail. And the other twoin tandem tuck in behind, coolly closing the shears of fate and threading onceagain the shuttle of life. An unforgettable moment of Indy like this happens sofast you have no time to identify the cars or remember the drivers who createdit.

And then there isJimmy Clark. In the exhilarating ozone of working rubber and blastedmethanol—as characteristic of Indy as burnt leaves are of football—theexplosive sound, the graceful motion and the constant scissor action of carsblending into the turns becomes routine at times. Rare is the screech oflurching rubber. The dance of the wheels with the wishbone suspensions goes onand on, drifting out again and again under surging power to dare the darkfinger line one foot from the white outer wall. This gentle though powerfuldrift is alone permitted, for there is no end for a lurch or slip but the whitewall itself. Then a car whips by, spewing a smoky vapor of oil from itscrankcase, and behind it, coming into the third turn, are the red car and whitewheels of Jimmy's Lotus-Ford.

Suddenly theimpossible has happened. The red streak is now a bloody blur, a pinwheelunanchored and ready to skitter off into oblivion. And so it would be withalmost anyone else but Jimmy.

The blur is notbroadening and thinning out into nothingness as it should. It is tighteninginto a bright red point surrounded by a magically glowing circle of white.Within that pattern can be heard the high-revving thunder of a declutchedengine and then the pitched cry of a newly engaged engine that catches thefalling car and whips it forward again into the intelligible arc of speed. Notonce but twice he does this, coming out once in reverse and once in forwardspeed, always coming out running. This is Jimmy Clark.

And this is Indyat the very essence of its rocketing terror and beauty. This is Indy triumphingover the elements and over the sluggish onslaught of human nature itself. Thisis Indy showing it can be done. For there are no real disappointments at Indy,not even after the debacle of a disastrous first lap. In racing at its best,disappointment is never admissible. Disappointment is a denial of the veryfaith of racing.

Indy is acat-o'-nine-tails and a cat with nine lives. Indy is different every year. It'seven different any year, depending on how you go, who you go with and where yousit. This year, like last year and the year before, I'll be going with thePitgrees, as seasoned a crew of spectators as you'll find on any road or track.Watchers need seasoning just as much as drivers do—all through a single seasonand through many consecutive seasons. It took as great a driver as StirlingMoss seven years to learn concentration in the cars. We Pitgrees know it takesjust as long to learn concentration on the cars.

Next Tuesday's51st Indianapolis 500 will start my fourth season "on it" and my thirdwith the Pitgrees. At Indy in 1965 we didn't even know yet that we were thePitgrees. We were just Judy, Jim, Teri and Father Crozier, students and profdown from Marquette U. in Milwaukee. We only found it out three weeks laterafter the Rex Mays Classic in Milwaukee and the June Sprints at Elkhart, Wis.We were on the way home from Elkhart, sludging down Route 57 south ofSheboygan. The lyrics of Back Home Again in Indiana were frustrating ournostalgic mood in their then half-forgotten incompleteness when Teri made someremark, which was lost on the wind, about pit grease. Everybody heard only themagic word, funny word, floating back: Pitgree, Pitgreee, Pitgreeee. We laughedand laughed, and the funny word echoed through our laughter.

A bug had justflown in the window of the Pooge (Peugeot) and latched on to us. We named him.We called him Offy. Offy Pitgree. And the question started bouncing around thelittle gray car with the loose clutch, the question that echoes wherever we go:Are you on it, Offy? The Pitgrees were born. Known now as Jud, Iggy, Taari andDev, you'll find them this summer in racing-green jackets, with "Offy"lettered on the back, wherever wheels are rolling in southeastern Wisconsin.And five hours south of that in Indiana, back home, you'll find them "onit" on Memorial Day at the Speedway.

Jud had seen herfavorite, Rodger Ward, qualify in '64, but she had never seen the 500. Taariand Iggy were newcomers to Indy in 1965. The deceptive uneventfulness of theirfirst 500 makes the memory of the ride back more graphic than the race itself.We were in two cars. They'll never forget the black Corvair and eggshell-blueBuick Special drifting west past Purdue out of Lafayette. Two demon sailors infrom the fleet for engineering at Marquette were at the wheels. Hoping toescape the traffic jam, we stayed in Indianapolis after the race for dinner.That was a mistake. Three hours after the race we caught up with the end of theChicago-bound line 20 miles south of Lafayette and 30 north of Indy. From thatpoint it took two hours of steaming driving to make Lafayette. Many cars hadset up camp along Interstate 65. We decided to head for the woods. Night caughtus still heading west after a steady and dizzying series of downshifts, driftsand power slides. We were 11 hours out of Indy when we finally met the dawn'searly light in Milwaukee. Now we take off at the head of the parade right afterthe race.

My own interestin racing goes back one more year. In graduate studies in English at Loyola ofChicago, I had just finished a poem on a couple of young marrieds living inMarina City. It was based on Einstein's theory of relativity. That and a recentreading of Faulkner's Pylon and the air-racing stories that preceded it led meto think that racing was a largely untried and big subject for Americanwriting: the microcosm and macrocosm of speed. I had just resolved to get towork on it when a bunch of Purdue, Northwestern, Loyola and Marquetteundergrads gave me my first invitation to Indy. We spun down there the firsttime, three carloads of us, innocent and carefree. We came away chastened in abaptism of fire, for that was the year when Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonalddied.

My interest isbroadening, going counterclockwise in time through the large and amazingvariety of works in the literature of sport. The New Leisure, the minds ofliving students throbbing from the whiplash of the information explosion, thechance for understanding rooted in what we love and comprehend only darkly:these are some of the circumstances that drive and guide and discipline mycuriosity about play. You might call it a belief in or an appreciation of thetremendously human centrality of the supposedly frivolous or peripheral.

Very few Jesuitshave an active interest in racing, but all Jesuits cross the starting line oftheir careers in a never-to-be-forgotten meditation on death. Perhaps that iswhy there is less incongruity than there might seem to be in the fact thatRicardo and Pedro Rodriguez began to acquire their famous driving skills inraces supported by their Jesuit schoolmasters in Mexico City. Two MexicanJesuits, one the well-known educational psychologist Jaimé Castiello, have diedat the wheel of true sports cars. An American Jesuit of my acquaintance used totool a competition Jaguar over the airport track near Kansas City, but he neverran in the races. Yet few Jesuits at Marquette could name any of the studentswho are active participants as drivers, mechanics or navigators in sports car,rally or drag-racing teams. Nor has any Jesuit college taken up the challenge,admittedly half facetious, issued recently by Rodger Ward to the colleges tooffer driving scholarships. Imagine the Marquette Racing Team at Indy,cosponsored by Marquette University and the Marquette Corporation and coachedby Rodger Ward!

The question isasked: How can a priest involve himself in racing? The answer can never besimple. But as a try I would say the Church has entered a period ofexploration; it has accepted uncertainty as part of the very nature of itspulse and heartbeat. It is seeking to reestablish contact with the people andthe reality of a world more complex than it ever dreamed of. The priest, as aresult, becomes more human, less narrowly defined, democratic rather thanaristocratic, personal rather than officious.

I think thatLorca's successful defense of the bullfight applies with equal force to motorsports: "Where else in the world amid such dazzling splendor and beauty canman contemplate death?" Montaigne started off saying that to philosophizeis to learn how to die. Later, after closer association with the people, herephrased the idea, saying then that to philosophize is to learn how to live.The sport of motor racing is open to both approaches, and no SPCA is everlikely to organize for the prevention of cruelty to the machine.

The letters ofPaul to the churches are written against a background of racing. Their grasp oflife, molded in part by the foot racing, horse racing and chariot racing of histime, will be further illuminated by the machine racing of our time for thosewho can see the machine not as a cold, impersonal menace, but as a suppleextension of man. Motor racing has, in fact, become the symbolic and ritualenactment of the harmony of man and machine in industrial civilization. Thepeople know this in their own dark wisdom; the poet and the priest do not. Itis only natural for one who aspires to be both, guessing this, that he shouldgo to Indy. He goes united in spirit, strangely enough, with Pascal, thatancient competitor with his religious order but early discerner of the newfreedom of a scientific and industrial age, who said: "They indeed honornature who teach her that she can speak of all things, even oftheology."

The catch is thatyou can't just go to Indy. If you haven't gone to the modified stock races andthe drag ways and the late-model stock races, to the strips, the tracks and theroad circuits in your own neck of the woods, you'll never move to Indy. Even ifyou go, you'll never really see it. Indy is the beginning and the end, the topof the mountain for every American racer. This goes for the road racers, too.The beefy appearance of their cars and the pavement-pounding sound of theirengines put them in the Indy tradition. In fact, Chaparral I was tried out atIndy in late 1965 and turned an amazing 164-mph lap. Now even the Grand Prixengines in Britain and Japan are being designed with an Indy modification inmind. Every little American track, driver and fan is magnified by the existenceand aspiration of Indy. Outside Wilmot, Wis., a little town in the southeasternpart of the state that could almost be contained in the infield of either itsquarter-mile dirt track or its arrow-shaped one-mile road course, there is asign establishing the pervasiveness of the Indy ethos: WILMOT—THE INDIANAPOLISOF WISCONSIN.

You've got toknow something about the dreams of a little driver like Pedro Roehl, King ofHales Corners, a dirt track for modified stocks and midgets on the outskirts ofMilwaukee, one of five tracks run nightly from early May to early October by avery tough league of chargers. By day, Pedro is a furnace expert working andliving in Lake Mills, about 50 miles west of Milwaukee. At night, four nights aweek, he drives Mod No. 2 for two young owners. On Fridays he is in the midgetformerly driven by Gary Congdon, who moved up to Indy in 1966. Hisblue-and-cream Corvette-powered Mod looks like the Toonerville Trolley, but ittravels like a jet truck when Pedro's holding it tight on the corners. Thiswill be his 12th year on the circuit. It took him nine years to become acharger, that is, a consistent winner and a moneymaker. Now, at 34, he stilldreams of stepping up to the late-model bracket. He won't make it; he knowsit's too late. But it's guys like Pedro and his driving buddy, FuzzyFassbender, and their car hauler, big Bob Imere, who make up the proud andbeautiful base of Indy. The Pitgrees count them all as friends, and we knowIndy better for knowing the bedrock in which it is so firmly anchored.

To really seeIndy it helps to have followed another local like Augie Pabst, one of the"big boys," a driver of the 200-mph sports racing machines. He retiredfrom international sports car racing in 1966 at the age of 32. You'll rarelysee a smoother driver than Augie, whose style could be compared with DanGurney's. When his cars held together—and cars in that class are verytemperamental—he was always in front of the pack. No matter how snazzy hisoutfit looked, drawing straight stares from men and rapturous cries from women,Augie was no dandy in a tight turn. No wasted motion, no throttle nerves, nojagged skids blurred the arc and rhythm of his line.

He was champ ofthe USAC road circuit in 1959. In 1962 he was asked to drive at Indy—he hadalready driven Le Mans. He went down there and took a look at the track. It wasa very long look. He walked around the whole track once. That was enough. Everytime he began to walk into one of the four turns his knees, as he tells it,began to shake. The low wall ahead loomed higher and whiter than Mt. Everest.The master turner knew his limit; the turns of Indy were not for him.

Now, how can youreally understand Indy if you don't know things like that? Remember, Augie wasno sissy. He had driven with the best in the world. The last few years of hiscareer he drove almost one-handed and without insurance after a smash-up atRiverside. And Indy's slowest driver has stepped beyond that line.

The Pitgreesdon't go to Indy for the crashes. Maybe meeting and talking with the driversafter the races at State Fair Park in Milwaukee, the oldest (1903) track in thecountry, has something to do with it. The girls do worry about it occasionally,but the crashes are accepted. Risk is a part of life. It is even something tobe joked about. The Meihoff Racing Team comes to the tracks around Milwaukee ina gaudy yellow hearse, and its members wear yellow T shirts and jacketsornamented with broad black tread marks down the back.

It takes amonstrous self-absorption to make much of the crashes. Of course, there arepromoters, moviemakers, publicists, track officials and spectators who do. Butthey are a minority, and that condition is rare among real racing people. Thereal racer—driver, supporter, or spectator—has to pay too much in living and inconcentration, more than that kind of person can spare. The race goer willoften be very vocal about his enthusiasm for a particular driver. Nevertheless,in a very real and deep way, he is "with" all the drivers. He hasstanding orders in his mind like those in the BRM team's pit: "Never pushthe driver!" Every driver is giving him something beyond measurement.Stirling Moss comes through to him loud and clear: "Life is tough for adriver!"

The tough guy whoknows cars and seems to have a hard-boiled attitude is one of the least likelyto enjoy a crash. Crashes just gum things up for him. He is more involved withthe cars than others, but the center of his interest is still the man behindthe wheel. He is a skillful judge of the use a driver makes of his equipment.Men like this have driven hard cars, and they have driven them hard. Navy menin the NESEP program at Marquette, winners of scholarships offered to men withfour years of experience in the fleet, are of this type. Several of them gowith the Pitgrees locally and to Indy.

These men cantell what's wrong with a car by its sound. For them, a wisp of smoke or a vaportrail is a telltale giveaway of the condition of a car, and they spot thedanger signs immediately, frequently before the track stewards do. They arepretty good girl watchers, too, but when they're "on it" their tipsmake watching a race a much more intelligent thing. Don Wilt is a mechanic on asuccessful sports car team. John Mitnik, Ron Priscilla, Denny McGannon and KurtSchroeder own their own beefed-up cars, topped off by Kurt's 427 Sting Ray.Each of them has a string of personally rebuilt cars in his young past. Theyare very casually unemotional about cars, and I've heard them shake a guy downfor being more absorbed in his car than in anything else. But at heart theyknow the romance of racing. It can come out in memorable ways, as on onemoon-drenched night when John Mitnik, his fiancée Lynn and I power-schusseddown a twisting drive to the lake. "Zonk!" said John, "What a nightjust to drag all night!"

It's not only whoyou go with but the way you go that puts the move in Indy. At the midnightopening of Memorial Day we'll be pulling out of Milwaukee headed for Indy.We'll be in a car with some go, but, regrettably, not in the drag-way Chev thatcarried us last year. This was an innocent-looking black-and-cream '61 hardtop.But the Lucas light setup, low on the grille, was the giveaway for the waryobserver. The dimmer switch brought these spotlights into play on emptystretches of highway, resulting in a reasonable facsimile of daylight half amile ahead. This was a hard car; it sat fiat on the curves. It was capable of155 mph on an open straight and in full drag on the quarter regularly made 109to 114 mph. The Schroeder-McGannon Special carried oversize pistons in a348-cubic-inch engine; four-barrel carburetion responded to a jab of the footon the floor. The red line was 6,000, just 500 below a fuel injected, overheadcam 'Vette. Four speeds were controlled by an H shift on the floor.

The music of thepipes of such a car adds a Peter Pan spice to the spectacle of Indy. Last yearI drove that full house home. I was refereeing an intense discussion ofpremarital sex between Taari and two of the sailors; it boomed along at fullracing speed for two hours until we dropped her at O'Hare to catch her planefor New York. A week later I asked Gregg Trojanowski, a prelaw student, who hadlistened to the debate in the back seat, what he thought of the discussion."What discussion?" he asked. "The only thing I can remember is thatcar."

Coming throughthe tollway chutes, I had "pulled it out of the hole" about six times.That means running it up to the red line or all-out on all gears—the drag-waybit. Denny was tired when he asked me to drive his baby home, and even then hedidn't think I'd make it with that sticky car. I had impressed him when I leftIndianapolis smoothly and without stalling, double-clutching in the downshifts.He didn't know it, and I am not exactly the compleat stickman, but my Jesuittraining included stints of bus and big-truck driving in the Coloradomountains, which have made me sensitive to the music of the shift. Even thoughI was fairly smooth going up and down the scale, he did almost drop his heartlike a valve once when I wavered over the red line. Later I learned that mybiggest error was in letting the revs drop too low between gears, a fault I amlearning to correct. At the time, though, the fault that brought the flamingsword to this little Paradise was committed at the last tollgate before O'Hare.I killed the engine. To start that hot, high-compression engine again we had toget out and push. My ego was pushed out of Paradise and happily restored in themusic of Pitgree laughter.

We won't bebreaking any speed laws next week, but we will be sitting on the starting lineacross from the south infield gate at 4:50 a.m. E.S.T., just 10 minutes beforethe gates swing open into the Speedway to start the first race into theinfield. We always like to watch that, even though we won't be going in. Thenwe'll rumble off to our secret parking place and have a fortifying steakbreakfast before ambling out onto the track.

Going to Indy andall the little Indys is a voyage like Columbus' for the Pitgrees. The classroomseat is not big enough and is too static for our contemporary young scholars.The Pitgrees know that all of America, like a racer at Indy, is still riding onthe seat of its pants, still trying to get the touch, the feel of things. Thatfeel can be ironed out of a car, but no driver will ever let the engineers doit. That is why the Pitgrees are learning to ride on the seat of their pants.They can feel the wheels and are beginning to learn to tell just how muchrubber they're running on and how many pit stops it's going to take to makeit.