INDIANAPOLIS, May 26 Well this year's party is over. The Horde last night raised hell all: over the streets of Indianapolis and didn't stop until maybe six minutes before the balloon went up at Indy at 11 A.M. and the 33 cars took the green flag and roared off in search of, as they say, glory. Glory at Indianapolis means a lot of sweat, work, disappointment, and an endless river of cash.
Running a car at Indianapolis these days is one of the more expensive madnesses of our time, especially if you leave the race "halfway through the second or third lap. One pit crew got so mad in the 90-degree temperatures after their car finally swallowed a valve amid a cloud of blue smoke and muffled curses that somebody kicked over a big 50-gallon water cooler and spilled tools all over the pit while the crowd cheered.
Speaking of the crowd, their hero, A.J. Foyt, battled hard and well in his orange No. 14 Gilmore Team special and then began to have a few pit stops that dragged on seconds too long. Somebody dropped a hub, which rolled out over the concrete. Seconds ticked by, and A.J. fumed. He got back out on the track smoking, but it wasn't A.J.'s day. Johnny Rutherford driving a Team McLaren Offy, No. 3, also bright orange (incidentally, orange was the popular color for cars. This year) slowly edged up through the pack from his start way back at the 24th position, past Bobby Unser, Gordon Johncock and all the rest, until he led with maybe 50 miles to go.
It was his 11th try for the big one, and he was going all the way. He and A.J. battled it out for a time while the crowd along the homestretch stood and cheered wildly everytime they whistled past and into the first turn.
Lloyd Ruby, another veteran of other and often disastrous afternoons at Indy just kept going round and round in his chocolate-colored No. 9 Eagle-Offy. He was driving as though for once he was going to finish a 500. And then, with only one of the favorites this season for the world title. But his new Lotus-Ford, with its electronic clutch and brakes, had been having nine laps to go another puff of expensive blue smoke and poor old Lloyd wheeled dejectedly into the pits. The crowd muttered, They had seen him come to this many times in the past, Some guys are born with good luck. Ruby ain't one of them.
With the race little over half-run, as the clouds formed a solid gray bank over the blue Indiana skies under which the race had started, and the Goodyear blimp dodged a circling Cessna, A.J.'s car finally packed it in. He didn't even bother to stop at his pit, just wheeled the car off the track, under the tunnel and into Gasoline Alley. He got out of the car and five minutes later roared out of the parking lot alone, on his motorcycle.
Meanwhile, Rutherford was wrapping it up. The crowd surged on out of the stands and the Indy was over for 1974. Bobby Unser, who came in a nice close second, stood off to one side practically unnoticed by the crowd who surged around Rutherford seated in the pace car while millions of shutters clicked and TV guys in their yellow jackets jabbered endlessly into microphones.
But the real story of Indy is always The Horde, They're beginning to call it the Indiana Woodstock. For the last couple of years there's been a new note. Thousands upon thousands of ragged, denim-clad, beer swilling, streaking, Youth types have discovered the Indy and have made it into a kind of combustion-driven, supercharged, Offenhauser - built, roaring, death-defying, non-rock rock fest.
An Indiana state cop in a mean-looking blue helmet sat low in the saddle of his Harley-Davidson and watched the herd eddy like a huge river of humanity, dropping beer cans in its wake like some surrealistic aluminum spoor as it struggled back to campers, tents, lean-to's, and 50,000 miscellaneous vehicles parked in the meadowlands around the Speedway.
"I don't know," the trooper mused. "Every year they keep saying this thing ain't as popular as it used to be, but God Almighty if more people come here than we had today I don't know what the hell we'll do."
Another 500 was over. There will be other and perhaps better races this year, but to the rabble that swarms over tie Indianapolis Speed-way in May every year therm is no other race.
The lunch boxes are passed out in the press room and the roar of portable typewriters takes over from the bellow of race cars. Minutes after the checkered flag fell the world knew that this was Johnny Rutherford's year. There will be a few victory parties tonight in the motels around the track, but already the cars are being loaded into vans. Gasoline Alley is practically deserted and only the die-hard souvenir-buying sightseers are milling around, hoping for a glimpse of, maybe, Salt Walther or Jerry Grant or maybe even last year's forgotten winner, Gordon Johncock.
One fan stood for a long time in the souvenir shop debating a really important big-time purchase. Finally he muttered "Damn it, I think this time, this year I'm gonna buy one." He paid his $15 to the lady wearing an STP cap behind the counter and took delivery of a magnificent Official Indy 500 Pit Stop Checker Flag Toilet Seat.
"That's gonna look real nice at home, Ethel," he muttered to his huge wife who wore a bright pink Champion Spark Plug jacket. They looked happy, and no doubt they were. It had been a great 500; nobody hurt, weather perfect, there had been plenty of beer, and now they were lucky enough to get the last john seat on the premises. And for only fifteen bucks.
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.