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Alison Stein Wellner Headshot

The Indy 500, or America, in the Round

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Yesterday, I attended the Indy 500, the most popular sporting event in the world. This race drew an estimated 300,000 people to Indianapolis on Memorial Day weekend, or actually to the town of Speedway, which is dominated by a two and a half mile race track that was once paved with bricks. I am told that this track is so large that it could hold the Roman Coliseum, Vatican City, Wimbledon Campus, Rose Bowl, Yankee Stadium, and Churchill Downs. It seems to me that during the big day yesterday, the track also held several ideas about American, or Americana -- the spectacle an encyclopedia of who we really are, and who we wish we could be.

Celebrity. The race started at 1pm, and since I had a media pass, I was allowed to walk into the pits and the garage up until 11:30 AM -- at which time, my special status abruptly ended, people with official racing business were only allowed, and I was shooed away. All of the live-action was being recorded in still and video, like a giant-elaborate wedding, a set for a TV production, for magazines, newspapers, web coverage. There was a camera suspended from cables that could slide overhead to record the cars coming down the front stretch and it swooshed overhead every so often, there were big TV cameras, there were models, posing in front of cars, and people taking pictures of the photographers taking pictures of the models. You either had a camera, as I did, a cell phone with a camera, or you were someone being photographed. You were a mechanic in a firesuit, or a friend of the driver in expensive natural fibers and jewel-encrusted sunglasses, sitting casually on the pit wall. I first observed the mechanics working on their respective cars, with the studied look of people who are being observed, and who like it and then hate it, and are finally trying to ignore it. I suddenly realized I had the same expression on my face --I myself was being observed by the legions of people in the stands through a fence, blotches of orange, blue, yellow, green, and flesh.

Pre-race, the real stars, the drivers, were nowhere to be seen. They stayed behind in the concrete garage area, which the crowds immediately vacated, following the mechanics as they pushed the bright candy-colored cars out to the pits. "It looks pretty evacuated here," I heard one fellow observe, and yes, the garage area was as still as a temple. Inside the temple, behind metal garage doors, were the drivers who were doing whatever they needed to do to get themselves ready to run at top speed of 230 miles an hour, 200 times around the track. But with a few exceptions, most of these Indy drivers aren't stars as their counterparts in NASCAR are. The savior, is, of course, reality TV. This was supposed to be one of the most watched Indy 500s ever, and the first reason, according to the Indy Conventions and Visitors Bureau, and the first is that two time race winner Helio Castroneves won Dancing with the Stars, and his dance partner, Julianne Hough, performed the national anthem.

Patriotism. Hough sang the anthem credibly enough (after the singing of God Bless America by the Brady Bunch's Florence Henderson). "Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave? O'er the land of the free..." Now, crowds at events such as these always go apeshit at the word "free". For Americans, I believe "free", in all its meanings, may just be the most inspiring word in the English language. Hough, like all smart anthem singers, paused at "Free" to allow everyone to hoot and holler and dance and slap each others backs and say "I love this country", and just then, four fighter jets from the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center flew over in formation, low enough to lick. Patriotic pandemonium followed, I never heard the end of the anthem, I'm not sure she finished it. Later, I saw a pickup truck with a bumpersticker that said "If you can't support the troops, feel free to stand in front of my truck." The letters for "free" were fashioned out of bunting.

And it was Memorial Day weekend, and we did not fail to remember the military. Before the anthem, military service people were driven around the track in the back of Chevy trucks, and everyone stood and cheered. After this, there was a march down pit lane of military service people, in gray desert fatigues, four abreast, while people stood and cheered. And then there was a moment of silence to remember those who, as the announcer intoned, "gave their lives selflessly and fearlessly so we can, as free men and women, watch the greatest sporting event on earth."

Replay. Much of what's important to the outcome, happens out of sight, or while you're looking elsewhere. From my seat, on the front stretch, I could see three jumbotrons, and this was handy, without those, I could not see the whole track, nor did I really know where to look For instance, I missed AJ Foyt IV's car catching on fire in the pits in the beginning of the race which was within my direct eyeshot, but saw it again on Jumbotron replay, and judging from the crowd's reaction to the broadcast replay, I was not the only one. We depend on the media to show us what's important and to tell us, our direct observational muscles are weak.

Disengagement. But, I think it's fair to say that many of us, by which I mean, Americans, don't know that our observational muscles are weak, because we never try to use them. At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they call the infield area the "snake pit". I am told that somewhere between one-quarter and one-half the fans in attendance are in the "snake pit", where admission is pretty cheap, I am told about $20. I would estimate that about 75% of the people in the infield can't see the track, and I feel confident in reporting that they don't really care. They are there for tailgating, which is another way of saying, they have come to drink. By the halfway point of the race, when I toured the Snake Pit, I saw dozens of bodies sprawled on the grass, passed out cold, I saw an astonishing amount of exposed sunburned cleavage and other assorted flesh, I saw one woman being dragged down a grassy hill by her feet. I saw arm wrestling matches, football tossing and several games of cards. The debauchery gets more intense as you leave the center and head towards the track itself. The one exception is the "Family Viewing Mound", where you may view families who are viewing the race. And no alcoholic beverages are permitted on that patch of grass.

There were many people at the Indy 500 who took the race very seriously. They rented headsets to listen to the TV commentators, and scanners to hear the racers talk to their crews, they rose to their feet when it made sense to, and craned their necks, and discussed the events of the moment with their neighbors. They watched like they had something at stake, like it mattered. It reminded me of the people who stayed up really late to watch the Indianapolis primary returns a few weeks earlier, which, incidentally, had a more dramatic finish than the race on the track happened to have this year. Some of us follow events closely, think it all matters, while others, well, they're just here to party. At the Indy 500, the cars raced around them all.

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