"Kid, there ain't no second place in this race. You either win or you ain't nowhere."
The sharp cynical hard face of Jimmy Cagney cracking out advice to the rookie driver sums it up as well as it can be said. The line from the classic nineteen-thirties racing movie, "The Crowd Roars," spelled out the tone of the Indianapolis 500 then, and it continues to this day.
The 500, as it is known among the true fanatics who, by the way, rarely call it the Indy since that would be redundant (there is only one 500 after all), can only be understood by the outsider in terms of folklore. It has only one other counterpart in the whole world of American sport and that is the Kentucky Derby, which is also a rite of spring and is run in the great American heartland, less than 200 miles south at the historic Indianapolis oval.
The two races have a lot in common. Any horse who wins the Derby enters the pearly gates of history forever. Hundreds of horses have won "classics" around the country over the years, but even nonhorseplayers remember Derby winners.
So it is with the 500. Who knows or cares what other races the legendary Wilbur Shaw might have won in his great career? The fact that he took the 500 three times makes him immortal.
Why the Derby when there are other, richer races? Why the 500? Well, to understand this phenomenon, a little history helps. Kentucky, with its great plantations, its soft rolling hills, mellow springs and long, lazy summers, was the true horse country of America, and a hundred years ago when the Derby was born it pitted one aristocratic horse against the other.
It was not "just another race, but something that came out of the very air and the land and the people who lived on it.
So it is with the 500. Indiana in the early days was to the automobile, or the motorcar as it was known then, as Kentucky was and is to the horse. Some of the truly great machines by any world standard were born and bred on the Indiana flatlands.
The stylish and terrifying Dusenbergs created by the almost mythical Dusenberg brothers, Fred and August, were hammered out a few miles from the brick track. The Auhurn, the Cord and the great racing Studehakers all were bred and spawned in dusty Indiana hamlets and came together every spring in the dawn of automobiling to battle it out.
It must also be said that the automobile means much more to the common people of the great plains of the heartland than it does to the city folk who huddle jammed together in the great urban East. It meant, and still means, freedom, mobility and, above all, a way out for lives that are often as monotonous as the land-scape they are lived in.
The 500 was first run ln the soft spring of 1911. William Howard Taft was President and the Civil War had ended only 47 years before. In fact, the crowds who came to see that first race, that first duel between the thoroughbreds of the automobile - the Dusenbergs, the Mercedes, the Renaults were liberally sprinkled with aging gentlemen who had heard the cannons of Bull Run and Appomattox.
Races were held on the track between automobiles and airplanes, and there was even a billowy dirigible or two. The whole idea of transportation by mechanical means was new and unbelievably romantic. Tom Swift was in his heyday with his electric rifle and his magic motorcar.
To understand the 500, you have to have at least a faint whiff in your nostrils of those far-off times in the dreamy Indiana cornfields when the roar of a motor was as incredibly magical to the earthbound natives as space travel is to us today.
There is no race anywhere that has the curious cachet of the 500. It is a brutal, straightforward, relentless, dangerous trial of men and machine, and make no mistake about that. This is not a race run by gentlemen sportsmen. A. J. Foyt just isn't David Niven, nor Jackie Stewart for that matter, who, incidentally, is one of A.J.'s greatest admirers.
The great names who have won the 500 in the past, be-ginning with Ray Harroun, who averaged 75 miles per hour in 1911, when few machines could do a decent 30, are to generations of Indiana schoolboys what film luminaries and hull-fighters are tn their more effete peers, Howdy Wilcox (1919), Gaston Chevrolet (1920), Pete De Paolo (1925), Lou Meyers (1933), Wilbur Shaw (1937, 1939, 1940), the incredible Mauri Rose (l941, 1947, 1948). Bill Vukovich (1953), (1954), Parnelli Jones (1963), Mario Andretti (1969), Al Unser (1970, 1971), down to the present day and mean, bad A. J. Foyt, who rides the pole position this Year. Foyt (1961), 1964, 1967), who is now going for an unprecedented fourth victory.
Yep, Jimmy Cagney said it for all time: "Kid, there ain't no second place in this race."
Jean Shepherd, thehumorist, has a nightly radio show on WOR in New York. He is the author of four books, a contributing