Newcomers to the game of auto racing are always puzzled by a seeming contradiction. Here is the most complex techno-athletic endeavor known to man, one that apparently would demand the utmost in keen, cool reasoning attention if a spectator is to comprehend even a fraction of the action swirling around him. Yet the very scope of the event—the noise of the cars and the cavorting of the crowd, the vast reaches of track and the dizzying speed of the field, the stunning rate at which critical changes occur within the race itself—denies that comprehension. The fledgling race fan sits there, pounded by sound and whipsawed by blurring images, wondering what in the blue Bell Stars is going on. And why are all these people here in the first place?
They are indeed present in great numbers. Motor racing, with an annual estimated attendance of 49 million, is second only to horse racing as a spectator sport in America. The Indianapolis 500 draws close to a million fans each year, counting qualifying and practice days, and is the largest single event in American sport, with 300,000-plus spectators on hand for the race itself. That is more than three times as many fans as attend the Super Bowl and nearly twice as many as watch the Kentucky Derby. There are a number of reasons for this special madness. Part of the answer is that people simply enjoy being submerged in a huge, unified crowd. Indy is, after all, an addiction. And as with all addictions, the addict never quite knows how he got there. Or how to get away.
Years ago, on my first visit to Indy, the sky was blue and the sun shone down with that vibrant weight peculiar to the Middle West. This was an American homecoming—the greatest race in the world, we were told, the greatest spectacle in sport. Since its inauguration in 1911, Indy has become a happening, a transcendent event that dwells in the very bloodstream of America—a virus of velocity. And so it was: the bright, fast cars and their hard-boiled drivers, the head-bending Doppler effect of exquisitely tuned machines taking corners at speeds less than sonic but nonetheless super; the booze and the nifty babes. But mainly it was the crowd, milling and roaring, swilling beer and clicking stopwatches; meatfaces, grandees, fat ladies, freckled kids and old crocks with grease under their fingernails—all held together by the force field of their own presence and the prospect of high speed and flaming, metal-tearing danger.
That danger, of course, is the essential "magic" of Indianapolis, though the venerable Indy booster will deny it vehemently. This is not to say that the throngs who attend the race year after year are composed of ghouls. Most of the spectators are shocked and saddened by the carnage (more than 45 drivers and mechanics have been killed at Indy in the 64-year history of the race). But one must admit the element of danger does add spice to life—or death: witness the crowds that gather at every freeway fender-bender, the rubbernecks who slow the traffic at every "fatal" on the inter-states. Add to that the very human desire to tell our friends that "we were there" when such and such a cataclysm occurred, and one has the basic Indy "death wish." We are a people half in love with painful death—trunk murders, burnings, shootings, stabbings, bombings, but mainly wrecks. This is a fact that a number of major American writers have recognized, and certainly many film directors.
This makes the Indy crowd appear to be a gathering of sadomasochists. It is a far more human crowd than that. In fact, there are crowds within the crowd. They range from the automotive aristocracy, sleek and sincere in their dedication to the sport, to the hand-me-another-can-of-beer boys who usually can be found snoring in the mud of the infield as one walks out of the Speedway. Mostly, however, the subcrowds are gatherings of like-minded friends from the small towns and cities of the Middle West to whom Indy has become an annual blowout, an opportunity to continue a lifelong attachment to camaraderie and cars.
A lot of fans buy tickets en bloc, particularly those who occupy the most expensive and advantageously located spots—in the tower terrace under the timing tower ($25), or the boxes ($25) and penthouses ($35) across from the pits. Fran Derr, who has worked in the Speedway ticket office for 30 years and has served as Director of Ticket Sales since 1951, is very careful not to divulge the names of the block buyers. "People would bother them to death about trying to buy tickets," she says. She also is proud that "there are no discounts on tickets to anybody." Could the hucksters of the Super Bowl, the NBA playoffs and the next Ali-Whobody fight say the same?
She does admit, however, that some of the biggest block buyers are the automobile clubs of Michigan and Missouri, the Buckeye Race Fan Club of Columbus, Ohio and the Kirby Travel Service of Detroit. Group Buckeye, which started out with 25 to 30 seats, is the fastest growing; it is now up to 150 or 200. The farthest traveled block group is a cacophony of cobbers from Australia, about 35 in number, who have been coming to Indy for "several years," according to Fran, and will be here again this year, in seats along the main straightaway. Their only complaint is the weakness of American beer.
Apart from analyzing the block ticket holders, the best way to isolate the Indy crowd into subgroups is by track geography. By its very shape the 2½-mile oval attracts different types to different corners. Turns Three and Four, at the far north end of the 433-acre complex, offer views of the straightaways, which are thrilling enough if you have recurrent dreams of being run over by speeding automobiles, and occasional excitement on the banked curves. Two of the last three driver deaths at Indy occurred in these corners—Jim Malloy's fatal crash in 1972 and Swede Savage's horrendous flame-out in 1973. Generally the spectators at this end of the oval are sane, serious and race-wise, and the crowd density is less than along the main straightaway and in the infamous Turn One.
Turn Two, on the southeast corner of the track, is closest to the prestigious Speedway Motel, and for the past two races has been dominated by a set of newly built, enclosed luxury suites leased by the year for $20,000. Sponsors and other rich folks dominate this corner, their motel-modern rooms filled with rubbery hors d'oeuvres, endless booze, plastic hostesses and color TV sets that pipe in the ABC coverage of the race, though without sound. Here can be found the people who like the race for its business connotations but who would prefer to stay away from the noise, the heat and certainly the savages of the infield.
Then there is Turn One, on the infield margin of which the most savage of the savages dwell. It is known, quite properly, as The Snake Pit. This is a young crowd: bikers, drifters and dopers, beery and brawling. A favorite mode of recreation during periods of inaction on the track is the blanket toss, with victims sometimes being flipped higher than the nearby telephone poles. Occasionally the tossers pull the blanket away just before touchdown. Kersplat! Like that.
On the first Saturday of qualifying last year, The Snake Pit became the scene of a massive streak-in that ended in a brawl with police. One fat pre-streaker worked his way uptrack to the flagman's tower, scaled it to shed his bib-overalls—then fell back into anonymity again. Another exhibitionist clambered up one of the tall ancient elms that line the infield, and there he sprawled, spread-eagled some 60 feet in the air on the upper branches, accepting the applause of Tarzan fans everywhere.
There is a plan under discussion among Speedway officials to defang The Snake Pit. Indiana State Police Lieut. Colonel James R. Dillman, who heads the police subcommittee of the Speedway Traffic Committee, proposes parking cars in the area and thus denying it to the beer and blanket crowd. Clarence Cagle, vice-president and superintendent of grounds for the Speedway, likes the idea, providing that a suitable traffic pattern can be developed for the area. He would like to see 70% or so of the Pit converted into parking space. That should reduce the Snakes from their present numbers—perhaps 15,000 by best estimates—to controllable proportions. Still, the kids will be at the Speedway and will doubtless find some other part of the track to conduct their ribald rites of spring.
For all that, there is little increase in crime during race month. The sudden influx of a million visitors to a city whose population is 830,000 actually seems to reduce traffic violations. "It seems like we have very few accidents during May," says one veteran police reporter. "Maybe it's because there are so many people that nobody can go fast."
Once again it is time for a disclaimer. If talk of streakers and Snake Pits sounds (as it will to the thousands who revere Indy as a shrine) like a lot of sensational overstatement, one can only say that these are the facets that dazzle the observer's eye, thus obscuring the deep and mellow tones of the semiprecious stone in which they are cut. Most of the race fans who attend Indy each year are serious, clean, church-going goodbodies who would never revel in automotive tragedy, or drink too much, or consort with prostitutes, or even know what they were feeling when they pick up a buzz from the cannabis fumes beclouding The Snake Pit. They are there for a decent and enjoyable event, a weekend of excitement and worship at the altar of that great American symbol, the automobile, which has in large part made us what we are today.
And yet. And yet I cannot forget an incident that occurred in the bar of the Speedway Motel on a rainy afternoon three Mays ago. Jim Malloy, a fine journeyman driver from the West, had crashed in Turn Three during practice earlier that day. A group of race buffs from Fort Wayne were drinking screwdrivers and discussing war experiences, a common subject of conversation at any bar in Indy, from LaTour atop the Indiana National Bank Building to Mother Tuckers on West 16th Street. They were a bit snozzled, as we say in the Middle West, but resplendent in their badge-bedecked racing jackets. The dominant man of the party, a chubby, balding chap with a voice like a stock-block engine, was recalling Korea.
While his admirers listened, he told of his wartime heroics. It was not a story of bursting from the trenches with gun blazing at the enemy, but of his exploits with a Korean girl. And then he polished off his drink and ordered up another.
"Yessir," he said. "Them was the days, all right." He paused, apparently remembering where he was. "Ummm. Wonder whatever happened to that driver who hit the wall out there this morning," he said. "What was his name?"
"Malloy," I told him. "He's dying." Four days later Malloy was dead.