Pink Flamingos fleck the lawns in Speedway, Ind. So do beer-logied race fans. "They're laid out like crucifixes," in the words of Joe Shindell, a 41-year-old Ohio schoolteacher who was in town on Sunday for his 14th consecutive Indianapolis 500. You will find all the old American virtues, as well as most of the vices, in Indianapolis on race weekend: lug nuts, beer guts, methanol, cholesterol, Corvettes, cigarettes. As the I'd-like-to-buy-a-vowel marquee outside a Speedway gin joint puts it, W LC M RAC F NS.
I have come to the suburb of Speedway to get a fix of the 500, to fulfill my need for speed, to learn why there are 1,000 spectators for every mile of this race. In short, I've come to feed my Indiana jones, so on Friday I take a knuckle-blanching ride at the Brickyard in the purple Chevy pace car. As we lurch from the pit and lean into the first turn at 101 mph, the driver of the Corvette convertible casually turns his head and asks, "So...whenja get in?"
We scream into the straightaway, and a B-17 bomber flies overhead, flanked in tight formation by four P-51 Mustangs. "Tomorrow Chuck Yeager'll be flying one of those 51s," says the driver, a Texan named Jim Perkins, who is putting himself through his pace-car paces before race day. "That's the neat thing about Indinapliss. Look up, and there's Chuck Yeager."
Of course, I was scheduled to drive at Indy myself, but I missed my Saturday tee time on the golf course that runs right through the raceway's infield. I did crash at Indy though—on the floor of an occupied room at the Howard Johnson's in Speedway. (Special race-week rate for the $45-a-night flea circus: $220 a night.)
Speaking of crashing at Indy, A.J. Foyt on Friday sits in a garage off Gasoline Alley and grins through his greatest hits. He talks lovingly of the time he sat on a misplaced wrench for the entire race and emerged from his car "part paralyzed"; of the time doctors removed his toenails (you don't want to know why) the day before a race; of the time he told rescuing track medics to forget the painkillers they were fiddling with and "hit me in the head with a goddam hammer"; and of the time his friend Eddie Thrapp told doctors that they better not amputate an unconscious Foyt's leg, "or else when he wakes up, you'll have a one-legged man kicking your ass."
WE DON'T RACE ON ELVIS' BIRTHDAY reads a bumper sticker in Foyt's hospital-clean garage, and indeed many of the roughly 500,000 race fans in Speedway are exploring Elvis-like frontiers of overindulgence. On Saturday, disc jockeys on 95.5 FM interview a racegoer who hasn't seen a lap in his last 13 Indys. I interview an enormous-bellied man who hasn't seen his own lap in the last 13 Indys.
Fried Dough. Roast Pig. Whopper Loins? Gentlemen, start your angina: The culinary offerings around the Brickyard are from another era—the Pleistocene. No wonder the special race supplement in The Indianapolis Star advertises "27% Off Large-Volume Liposuction, Removing Up to 27 Pounds in a Single Out-Patient Surgery."
On the streets of Speedway, party poopers will be party-pooper-scoopered. "I honestly get tears in my eyes when I see all these people leavin' after the race," says twentysomething Speedway native Ed Madrid, pulling a wagonful of beer through the Mardi Gras scene of rain-soaked 16th Street on Saturday night, " 'cause I know it's another 364 days till we get to do it again."
And time only flies during the race. "They say when the green flag waves, it's spring here," says Indy spokesman Bob Walters. "But when the checkered flag falls, it's summer."
Even the Bible will tell you that the changing seasons are but a metaphor for the Indy oval: Turn, turn, turn, turn. Sunday morning's church-sermon titles are all race-related: Collision Course with God, Running Well Life's Race and even The Winner's Circle, which also happens to be the name of a Speedway boozeteria.