The Indy 500 is mid-America's annual Woodstock. A.J. Foyt is Bob Dylan. Woodstock, for those of you who remember that celebratory happening (and already it's beginning to slip back in time to the land of ancient history and nostalgia), was an immense gathering of starry-eyed Believers. What they believed in, no one quite knew. There was no consensus. It just seemed that you should be there, wear funny clothes, bake in the sun or drench in the rain, travel great distances to be present, using any means of locomotion available from the thumb to a Ferrari roadster, but to be there was all important.
The actual event that occurred was largely lost to the individuals who made up the mob, lost in the milling, the immensities of space, and the fact that that wasn't what you really came there for anyway. True, Bob Dylan was briefly visible, if you could manage to stand on the top of someone's van, or climb a tree, but the illusion of being part of the action is enough for a true believer.
The Indy, as the real fanatics always call it - there are other 500s but only one Indy - is much like that. To attempt to compare the Indy with any other race in America is like trying to compare Woodstock with your ordinary run-of-the-mill rock concert. It's not that the race itself is any better than any other big-car classic, it's just that it's different, very different.
First, there's tradition. Lf there is one sporting event in America that has grown year by year, decade by decade, generation by generation, into anything approaching a true national folk epic, something like Thanksgiving or Christmas or the Fourth of July, it has to be the Indy. When the Indy was first run, in almost exactly the same form as it is today (and that is very important for tradition), the Wright Brothers were young revolutionaries and Thomas Alva Edison was a contemporary force. Teddy Roosevelt was the dynamic John Kennedy of the day, plunging through the trackless wilderness, shouting "Bully!"
The automobile was so new on the scene that millions of Americans had never actually seen one, much less sat behind a wheel. In fact, many automobiles of the day were steered by tillers, the way you steer a lifeboat or a sailing yacht. Arguments raged over which form of power would eventually win out - combustion, steam or electricity. The smart money was on steam - silent, enormously powerful, and somehow romantic since it related the driver to locomotives and ocean-going liners. Henry Ford I ("History is bunk") was almost unknown, except as a
race driver who was beginning to sell cars. World War I, for Americans, was years away and gentlemen wore derbies and top hats while ladies sported bustles and carried fans.
Most of the crowd attending that first race actually could remember hearing reports about the death of General Custer out in the Little Big Horn country, which might as well have been on the moon.
The race, which was won by a laconic engineer named Ray Harroun, was run on the same grounds that still resound every year to the roar of the crowd and the boom of lethal machines. Even then there was a wild, circus/fairgrounds atmosphere that included a balloon race (incidentally, still celebrated symbolically by the release of balloons just before the green flag falls), and the wearing of fancy clothes by the spectators, and the hawking of souvenirs.
The only other American event that remotely approaches the Indy in longevity, color and tradition is a spectacle that unfolds annually only a couple of hundred miles away - the Derby. The Derby. Both are, theoretically, run strictly for the purposes of "improving the breed." In the early days of the Indy, the "improvement of the breed'' was a reality, not just a legend. The cars that battled it out were being produced, one at a time, for the gentry. Cars simply were not for ordinary people, any more than a thoroughbred racehorse is for your average walking-around citizen. Stutz battled Marmon; Duesenberg challenged Studebaker for the glory of taking the checkered flag and proving to the world that they were the best.
Incidentally, in those days Indiana craftsmen built the greatest cars in America, in the same way that Kentucky produced its greatest horses. Auburn, Duesenberg, Studebaker, Cord were just a few of the great Indiana breeds. Fred and Augie Duesenberg, whose work today stands proudly in the world's museums, are largely unknown to their fellow Americans as men, but "It's a doozy'' has entered the language. They dominated the Indy for years, and their proudest claim was "You can drive a Duesenberg off any showroom floor and win the 500.'' And they did just that.
Today's race is startlingly like the very earliest of Indy classics. Four wheels on rubber, a lethal engine, a slit-eyed man behind the wheel, the roaring crowd, the sun, the rain, the spine-tingling thunder of enormous horsepower, and, of course, possible death.
The machines they drive today, even as the very earliest they ran at Indy, are simply not for your average man. The Duesenberg wasn't; nor is the Eagle Offy. Even though he shunned it, there was something curiously godlike about Ray Harroun. Crowds followed Louis Chevrolet wherever he went, just as today the thousands hope to glimpse A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti or Bobby Unser as they push their cars out of the garages just before noon along Gasoline Alley, with its peeling paint and ancient wooden huts. Out onto the starting grid lineup for the big one.
There will be those in the crowd who haven't missed a race for 50 years and more, and there are many more who will be seeing their first, Indy this year, but they are all part of the same celebratory tradition. It's as hard to imagine America without the Indy as it would be to imagine it without the Derby, or the Fourth of July, or the legend of Babe Ruth.
Weeks before the day of the race, the faithful begin to gather from all parts of the land, lining the streets of Indianapolis with their cars bumper to bumper, their sleeping bags, their campfires, their jackets covered with patches, their beer cans, their crying babies and barking dogs, all waiting for that boom of the cannon which announces that the infield is open, to go charging fender to fender like a herd of demented buffalo to get that same spot they have occupied for years, to put up the tent and to pop the first can, and to instinctively celebrate something indefinable in the restless American spirit, the urge to move, to compete, and to eat hot dogs in the sun.