The sign outside the door of the Speedway Cafeteria, which clings like some kind of outmoded garage to the business end of Gasoline Alley, the day before the big race reads DRIVERS AND CREW ONLY, which is about as exciting as a sign can get, especially to a nondriver or noncrew member.
The main dish is scalding hot Indiana chili, which has, like the race itself, its own vaguely pugnacious Indiana character.
So far this year, the race is sticking to established Indy tradition - hassles, lawsuits, injunctions, recriminations and, of course, plenty of bruised egos. And even an occasional fist fight. In fact, two drivers had a shoving match back of the Speedway Motel this morning, which makes it look like this year we will again have an interesting contest of men and machines.
"Yep, it ain't been the same since all them media guys started to show up around here, comin' on with all them yellow sport coats with ABC written all over 'em." Caleb Johnson, a life long resident of Speedway, Ind, the actual lawn where the race is run, squinted out at the cotton-wood tree in his front yard and paused to get his spearmint worked i.o tie right sidr, of his mouth.
"Are you making the race this year?" Caleb was asked by one of those New York media types in a fancy jacket.
"Yep, I'll be there." Caleb said it as though a foolish question hardly deserves to be answered. Caleb, like many an Indiana native of today, can't even remember when there was no Indy 500 and he can't imagine that there are people who've never heard of it nor don't give a damn if they ever see it.
The day of the race, at the crack of dawn when the big cannon goes off, a thundering avalanche of pickup trucks, '53 Ford Galaxies, elderly Dodges and converted Jeeps will come roaring onto the Speedway grounds like some incredible demented tidal wave of maniacal buffalo. They are jockeying for a place in the infield where, in many cases, their family has parked during the race for 25 years and more.
Caleb will be there with his G.M.C. 600 and his six-pack. He'll also be wearing his prized A. J. Foyt Chevcolet baseball cap.
This is another Indianapolis tradition, the yearly contest of the promotional caps and jackets. A big status symbol is to have on your head the white linen golf cap bearing a red and white BELL HELMETS insignia.
That is the In cap of this year. Bell Helmets are, of course, worn by the drivers, but the Bell Helmet promo cap is worn by the more hip fans and by the media men, who got them at one of the endless cocktail parties that precede the race.
Champion Spark Plugs, Goodyear Tires, Viceroy Cigarettes, Black Label Beer, Polaroid Sunglasses - they all have their own jazzy jacket and fancy cap. The badges, buttons, decals are as much a part of Indy as the roar of the cars, and A. J. Foyt.
For miles around the speedway, private homes have been converted to boarding houses and nice ladies with blue hair, geraniums and goldfish bowls in the living room are taking in boarders from such places as Tokyo, Paris, and Valdosta.
Down at the big shopping center in Speedway, outside the lawn furniture depart-ment of 'the biggest discount department store in the Midwest' this afternoon, Dan Gurney, looking a little embarrassed in a tie and pressed sport coat, is on display standing next to his brand new robin's-egg-blue Formula 5000 machine.
A few shoppers carrying shrubs with roots wrapped in burlap stare at him curiously and move on. Dan smiles wanly.
It's all part of the game. The Indianapolis 500 is even more American than apple pie, and a hell of a lot more commercial when all is said and done.
The sun is hot; the sky is.' blue. The crickets are out in force, and it looks like it'll be a good year for the 500.
Jean Shepherd, the humorist, has a nightly radio show on WOR in New York. He is the author of four books, a contributing editor of Playboy and a columnist for Car and Driver