Only One Word Describes the Indianapolis 500: Overwhelming : Scene: Debauchery, opportunism, drunkenness and warm, hospitable people combine to make race weekend like none other anywhere.
If you have never been to the Indianapolis 500 but plan to see it someday, figure on being overwhelmed.
Figure also on being shocked by a horde of humanity on its basest behavior, gouged by opportunists out to make a once-a-year killing.
Then figure on meeting some of the warmest, most hospitable people in the country--maybe the world.
But first, figure on being overwhelmed, because the 500 is, simply, overwhelming.
Even empty, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is impressive. If there is any place in the stands that affords a view of the entire 2 1/2-mile track, it’s probably the best-kept secret in the world.
Fill those stands with 300,000 people and put another 100,000 in the infield, with cars, trucks, motor homes and campers, and you’re talking crowd .
Driver Roberto Guerrero saw the proceedings last year for the first time as a spectator.
“It was overwhelming, seeing all those people,” he said. “When you’re driving, you get so focused you don’t notice all that. But last year, when I looked up at the stands, I was overwhelmed.”
For the record, the race-day crowd is the biggest in the country for a sporting event, beating the 300,000 or so traditionally on hand for the first day of qualifying.
Naturally, with so many people in one place--actually, not in Indianapolis but in Speedway, Ind., the incorporated suburb that grew up around the track--all does not go smoothly.
There are traffic jams and people jams, outrageous sights and sounds. The infield seating area in the first turn is known as the snake pit, a designation well-earned. Behavior there tends toward the animalistic.
One year, two enterprising professional women drove a motor home into the infield and set up shop. They were doing a brisk business until it dawned on track security that all those guys in line were not waiting to use the men’s room.
Actually, much of what happens is outside the track, starting well before the race.
Georgetown Road runs alongside the western straightaway, and Crawfordsville Road--also known as Hulman Memorial Way in honor of Tony Hulman, the late owner of the track--is the main thoroughfare to the track from the west. Crawfordsville and Georgetown roads come together with 16th Street, the main drag from downtown, at the main gate. At race time, it could be the crossroads of the universe.
Food stands line all three streets, offering Steak on a Stick, Sylvia’s Pennsylvania Funnel Cakes, pork-chop sandwiches and any number of other delicacies. The Winners Circle, a permanent installation, offers “food, booze,” and the Las Vegas Circus Sho Club has dancing girls in various stages of undress from noon till 3 a.m.
Apparel and souvenir stands will sell you caps, sunglasses, racing helmets, beer-can insulators, cushions, banners, ice and posters, but the primary product is the humble T-shirt gone glorious. All carry messages in living color--some nice, some neutral, some naughty and some not to be worn in the presence of your mother.
Ticket scalpers are everywhere, buying at twice face value and selling at more.
By Friday morning of race weekend, campers and motor homes have begun lining up in the grassy areas along Crawfordsville Road.
It is the custom for young men, some of whom even go to the race, to take a case of cold beer to the motor home roof and scream at any young women who happen to pass, to bare their bosoms.
Since a good deal of drinking accompanies the debauchery, there is a good deal of drunkenness. That, of course, leads to ugliness. People caught in traffic jams are particularly vulnerable, since car rocking is another popular pastime.
A few years ago, a sportswriter got caught in such a situation. When she opened her car window to protest, one man jumped on the hood of her car and urinated on her windshield while others tried to pull her from the car.
It used to be worse. At one time, cars simply parked on 16th Street the night before the race and the people partied all night, waiting for the gates to open at 5 a.m. By 5 a.m., lots of people couldn’t drive anywhere. At least now, traffic is kept flowing and the drunks can be avoided.
There is, of course, a softer side to all of this. Residents decorate their homes with checkered flags, show unfailing patience with the rabble and, in many cases, sell parking and camping spaces on their property at reasonable prices, considering the demand.
Not so long ago, Bud and Ernestine Beck went beyond even that, providing bed and board for stray newspapermen and former race drivers at bargain rates, and sometimes transportation to the airport after the race.
And for a quarter of a century, Bud Beck, a volunteer with the Speedway Fire Department, spent his May weekends on a pumper at the track.
The department has gone professional now, but volunteerism still is very big here. Were it not for the volunteer labor, “the greatest spectacle in racing” would long since have ceased to be a spectacle.
Bud Beck is retired and doesn’t come to the track anymore, and Ernestine died of cancer in 1984, but stray newspapermen are still welcome to drop in at the little white house on Presto Avenue to reminisce and talk about the strange things that happen here during race time.
If Priscilla, Bud’s married daughter, is there, she’ll be happy to tell you about the car that pulled up in front of her house one race weekend.
“It was three guys and their mother in a wheelchair,” she recalls. “They all got out of the car, got the wheelchair out of the trunk and wheeled Mama off to Georgetown Road. After a while, the three guys came back. They’d bought these foil wigs and were carrying garbage bags full of aluminum cans and dumped the cans in the trunk.
“I don’t know what Mama was doing down at Georgetown Road in a wheelchair, but these guys kept going out and coming back with more cans and dumping them in the trunk.
“Then, finally, it’s time to go home, and there’s Mama in her wheelchair. Except now, the trunk is full of cans and there’s no place for the chair and it’s raining. You should have seen these guys, wearing their foil wigs, jumping up and down on the trunk, trying to get it to close on the wheelchair.”
Everybody connected with the race has similar stories to tell, and most are true. They almost have to be. It’s Indianapolis at race time. It’s overwhelming.