I heard my first broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 more than 20 years ago, and I've scarcely missed one since—except for the Memorial Day I dropped a portable radio overboard in the excitement of hooking one of the first striped bass of the season. That was typical of the way I followed the race: always building it into the holiday schedule, but never sacrificing the weekend to make the journey from New England to the Midwest.
My son Marshall changed that, and forever changed my perceptions of the event. When he was five, Marshall sat beside me on the front seat of the rented Peugeot I was driving from France to Italy and pretended he was driving a road race through the Alps. He pestered me with questions I could not answer about the workings of the car; he scrutinized the speedometer and the tachometer as if their numbers involved our destinies.
In a way, they did. What I had assumed to be a childish preoccupation became the consuming interest of Marshall's adolescent years and the overwhelming avocation of his young manhood. He became a mechanic, a motorcycle racer and—by the time we traveled to Indy together—a 23-year-old man whose daily dreams put him behind the wheel of a race car.
Our going was typical of the sweetness and stress of our relationship as father and son, spectator and driver. I have watched Marshall compete in scores of motorcycle races. I have trembled every time, holding the fence to ease my shaking. I have asked him to stop riding in these races, but I have also sought out friends who might help further his career, co-signed loans for new equipment, spent the last hours of Christmas Eve in a harried search for a particular set of socket wrenches.
I would rather have gone fishing for the spring's first striped bass in the Maine cove near our home than drive 2,400 miles to Indy and back with Marshall. I would rather have spent the travel time persuading him to return to college, but I rode nearly every mile talking about auto racing, feeling my own excitement build as we got nearer the Speedway and began to hear reports of prerace activity on the radio.
Driving from the East, the Indy talk gets stronger the farther you are from the Atlantic. When we reached western Pennsylvania the sports chatter on the radio had changed from reports on the Celtics and the Yankees to news of Tom Sneva and a rundown of Ohio golf tournaments. We drove past the scars of spent strip mines (one, ironically, littered with the corpses of 5,000 junk cars), past a group of dark-suited, dark-bearded Amish men fishing in a roadside lake, their horse-drawn buggies in the shade a few feet from Interstate 80 and hurtling transcontinental trucks. When we reached Ohio the land flattened and stayed flat until we toured the center of Indianapolis, 1,200 miles from home and light-years away from images of Maine.
First the Midwesterners farmed, I mused to myself and Marshall, then factories were built and then, as the rivers of dollars and jobs flowed in from the rest of the states, the Midwesterners had the time and money for play, but few playgrounds to play on.
So they built golf courses and race tracks. They built them by the hundreds, as befits their industrial triumph and heritage. With all that flat land, building golf courses was no trick, and with all the farms deserted by sons who left the furrows for production lines, finding the acreage was easy. Golf, with its leisurely pace and abundant opportunity for talk, is the perfect game for business, and nearly every club player was, and is, on a management team for National Cash Register, General Motors, General Foods or Firestone.
And while management played golf, the increasingly affluent workers drove cars or watched others drive. If one brand of industrial recreation had been discovered in the boardrooms of the fairways, another was found in the dirt tracks at the edges of every Midwestern town where the workers who built machines could watch the products of their labor subjected to abuse, tuned beyond perfection and consumed in the fiery furnaces of collisions.
In the heart of this flatland is Indianapolis, where America's auto industry first thrived, and its Speedway, originally conceived as a test track as well as a racing circuit, is the gargantuan superlative, the ultimate enlargement of every dirt track, sprint track, stock-car speedway and asphalt oval from the Angell Park Speedway for midget racers at Sun Prairie, Wis. to the stock-car circuit at I-70 Speedway in Odessa, Mo.