[Postcard] | A Lap Around Indy, by John Paul Rollert | Harper's Magazine

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"These tributes to Manifest Destiny are earnest and essentially staid, but the informal celebrations on the eve of the race have a temper and tang to them epitomized by one shirt I saw on Georgetown Road, the main drag at Indy. 'Back to Back' it said on top, 'World War Champs' on the bottom, with Old Glory in between."

For one weekend every year, the corner of Georgetown Road and West 25th seems like the center of the universe, the perfect place for Tate to tell people about a world far beyond our own. Or try to tell them, for no one stops to have a conversation with him, not on the afternoon before the Indianapolis 500.

“I wouldn’t be here if y’all came to church,” Tate explains to no one in particular. He’s armed with a portable microphone and a street preacher’s shield of self-righteousness, holding his phone out before him as if he were trying to cast out a demon dispatched from the Verizon call center. This is how I find him, and it takes me a moment to realize what he’s doing: videotaping hecklers on the other side of a temporary fence. One of them is wearing a shirt with an arrow on it pointing up to his face, holding a sign that reads He wants to see boobies.       

I can’t blame the goons, not entirely, not even the one with the bullhorn who attempts to trump Tate’s appeals by invocations that begin, If you believe in drink…. This is Indy after all, and the corner of the Coke Lot is a perfect place to party and preach.

If the assumed association is not unwarranted, the Coke Lot is innocently named for the Coca Cola Bottling Plant that sits to the west of the open field. By the time the race starts, it is surrounded on three sides by thousands of cars, trucks, RVs, campers, and tents, a transient city dotted with the flags of state schools, sports teams, and, inevitably, the Stars and Bars. American flags, too. Lots of them. Patriotic displays are not in short supply at Indy. On race day, the crowd of more than 350,000 will be treated to God Bless America, America the Beautiful, the National Anthem, a tribute to Pearl Harbor veterans, a fly-over from two World War Two fighter planes, a subsequent fly-over by four jets, an enormous flag pulled behind a car that drives fast enough to keep it flapping around the 2 ½ mile track, an annual launch of innumerable red-white-and-blue balloons, and, my own favorite, the temporary release of a bald eagle. From where I was sitting, high atop the final turn, we strained unsuccessfully to see the chevron of wings but had to settle for the facsimile thereof on one of the four jumbotrons before us.

These tributes to Manifest Destiny are earnest and essentially staid, but the informal celebrations on the eve of the race have a temper and tang to them epitomized by one shirt I saw on Georgetown Road, the main drag at Indy. “Back to Back” it said on top, “World War Champs” on the bottom, with Old Glory in between.

Flags at Indy are worn as much as they are waved. A group of young men in matching red, white, and blue tanktops, all wearing sunglasses, popped up like a roving gang of post-teen patriots in search of Spring Break. Nearby, a rival gang broke into an impromptu chant of USA! USA! when a comely lass with a stars and stripes crop top sauntered by, chaperoned, alas, by her parents. In a 2014 article from the Indianapolis Star, helpfully titled “14 ways to survive the hedonism of the Coke lot,” the author appoints “Beware roaming packs of hooligans” as the pole sitter, with “Sex is unavoidable” coming in at number 11, ostensibly with an eye toward those handsome hooligans who are not above coupling. “When you have lost interest in watching people push over portable toilets with a sleeping sinner inside,” it commends, “take a stroll through the lot around 3 a.m.—you’ll be surprised at what you find.”

While I was asleep by that time, I can attest that the art of catcalling seemed to degenerate throughout the day. In the afternoon, it was still refined by good humor and clever gambit. I came across a troop of men dressed in clerical shirts, tab collars, and khaki shorts. But for the fact they all appeared middle-aged, watching their gamesome attempts to find converts among the co-eds made for a guilty pleasure. As night fell, however, such efforts began to shed ingenuity for brute efficiency, cleverness for candor. Long past midnight, they’d ceased to be passably menacing and, instead, were merely pathetic. “Come hang with us,” a young stumblebum cried out to a gaggle of girls so plaintively he might have been on the verge of tears.  

It needn’t be said, but like Georgetown, seduction at Indy is a two way street. Just a stone’s throw from the corner contretemps of Tate and the unbelievers, a blue and white barber’s chair had been set up. A lady with a microphone beckoned, “You want to ride the chair,” and young women came forward, one-by-one, and mounted the chair, which was already reclined, as if for a shave. Instead of a razor, the would-be barber wielded two bottles, pouring them at once into an open mouth before the chair was spun to calls of encouragement, which grew whenever the passenger lifted her top. The episode concluded when the chair stopped and a girl staggered forth soon to be crowned, amid cheering, with a lei.

If it defies easy classification, the event appeared to be an advertisement for something called The Indy Blue Crew. The name is not, as I assumed, a subversive appropriation of the Blue Laws that are still in effect across Indiana, but instead describes a tailgating club that is attached to the Indianapolis Colts and occasionally colonizes other events in The Hoosier State. Notwithstanding one woman’s reaction to the spectacle—“I don’t like that”—the largest single-day sporting event in the world is a fine place to spread the good word of some group or, for that matter, turn a buck or two.

Just ask the scalpers. This year they enjoyed the seller’s market that comes with a sold out event, a first in the history of the race, which, not coincidentally, was celebrating its 100th running. In the weeks leading up to it, tickets for the section I was sitting in were going online for as high as eight times the $109 face value (“yacht club prices” as a member of my camp described it). Accordingly, anytime I encountered a scalper with a mitt full of tickets I found myself instinctively tapping the plastic pass in my pocket in a gesture, at once, of possibility and protection.

The scalpers appeared to know each other, at least enough to collude on the pricing. A coven occupied the corner across from the busiest entrance to the track. They flashed their wares and were quick to show their credentials if anyone doubted the integrity of their trade. At some point, an interloper circled, then invaded the impromptu marketplace. He was quickly run out with threats and raised fists. The circle of men, for a moment broken, closed tighter than before, a confab ensued, then it exhaled and the hustle resumed.

The scalpers are not the only ones at Indy hot after the American Dream. There is the sordid (a man selling beads by the handful to grinning young men), the strange (a tent showcasing hot tubs for sale), and the assumed (the stands abounding with all sorts of race tchotchke). Among the more ingenious entrepreneurs were Kyle and Scott, two men I discovered lugging enormous duffle-bags stuffed with homemade t-shirts. Kyle wore one featuring the disembodied heads of Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and an uninspired pun involving “suck.” Scott, however, wore the shirt that elicited endless commentary from all who passed. It read simply: DONALD FUCKIN’ TRUMP. With its ambiguous modifier—does it mark enthusiasm, amazement, horror?—the shirt was a hot item among race fans, which was a good thing for the itinerant salesman, as between the two shirts, they had 2,700 to sell. While Kyle attended a car-full of boys trying to resolve whether to buy one shirt for $20 or take the two-fer deal at $35, I asked Scott why he thought people were so drawn to the shirts. He shrugged. “They like cuss words,” he said.

When the cops stopped the men to check their licenses, I drifted into the neighborhood. Built long before sporting arenas became islands in a sea of asphalt rather than familiar features of any urban landscape, the 106-year old Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the namesake of the small enclave surrounding it. Compared to the rest of Indiana, the more than 12,000 citizens of Speedway are poorer (a median household income of $39,805 in 2014 compared to $48,737 statewide) and darker (17.6% African American in 2014 to 9.6% statewide). To say they live with the Indy 500, and all its excesses, is to suggest they don’t embrace them. Sure, a few of the ranch houses looked abandoned the day before the race—shades drawn, steps empty, the inevitable wind chimes out front the only note of activity—but most inhabitants seem to regard race weekend as nothing short of a homecoming. Garages are festooned with checkered flags and pulled pork fills the air. Curbside there’s cornhole, constant drinking, and the chewing of fat in lawnchairs. I overhear one young man hold forth on what he would have done if Osama Bin Laden had been captured when he was president, an account that concludes with a televised execution on the White House lawn. “I’d slit his throat myself,” he declares to the amusement of an older companion. “That’s rather barbaric,” he says grinning.

In the blocks surrounding the racetrack, most of the activity is confined to driveways and the edge of the street, as lawns become temporary parking lots. The going rate appears to be $20 a night, and prime locations book weeks in advance. Paul and Kathy, a couple who live just a stone’s throw from Victory Lane, tell me they are expecting 14 cars for a lawn that looks like it could comfortably accommodate half that many. “Helps with the taxes,” Paul explains. He first attended the race when he was five years old, but he and Kathy now watch it on television. Getting to your seats can be a trial (it was 78 steps to ours, no railing) and throughout most of the track you only have a bench to sit on. That won’t fly for Paul. He motions to an electric cart parked nearby, “Now I’m riding this.”

Paul suggests I stop by Pam’s Pitstop Liquors—that’s good for a story, he says—which takes me a few blocks north to the opposite end of the track. I’m flattered when the man at the door asks to see my ID, but inside the place is so busy that trying to strike up a conversation with anyone working seems, at best, impolite. Besides, it’s late in the day, and everyone is preparing themselves for nightfall, when the real party begins. It won’t be too long before Georgetown Road fills to bulging and the police will do their best to distinguish the mischief from the mayhem and a man will cry out to me This is the best weekend in Indianapolis, I tell you and when I turn to him he will flash a smile to show me that half his teeth are gone.

But that’s still a few hours off yet. For now, I pass down the road, the grandstands of the mile-long straightaway looming silently to one side, to the other a colorful train of concession stands: Belly Buster Chop, $10 Turkey Legs, Chicken on a Stick. At the end of them I have returned to Georgetown and 25th. Tate’s still there, still handing out his “Race Fan Quiz.” Three questions pass before it asks how many drivers have died at Indy (the answer is 15) and where one thinks they go afterward. Tate is convinced he knows the answer, but he seems doubtful of me. “I’d like you to have this,” he says of a small volume he slips into my hand before returning to his ministry. Sometime later I open it. “This book is not published to tell us that there is an irreconcilable controversy between darkness and light,” it begins. “In our heart of hearts we know it, and know that we are participators, actors, in the conflict.”

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