Start me up

At the Indy 500, the thrills come at the beginning, the end -- and whenever the green flag comes back out.

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There’s a cliché about oval-track auto racing, a joshing oversimplification of the sport’s strategy similar to boxing’s “hit and don’t get hit” or football’s “score more touchdowns than the other guys.” I heard one of the drivers in the Indy 500 use it a few days before the race.

“Drive fast,” he said, “and turn left.”

My problem with the sport is that I’ve always suspected that this little phrase is disturbingly accurate, that there’s not much more than cars driving around in circles. Sure, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is the biggest single-day sporting event in the world, with more than 400,000 people at the site, but all they’re doing is watching 33 cars, identical-looking except for their corporate-logo designs, make 200 laps. Drive fast and turn left, times 800.

On Sunday I attended the 86th version of the race, one of those things every red-blooded American ought to do at least once in his or her life, like going to Mardi Gras or looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon, and I can tell you that it’s more than that. It’s not as much more as I might have hoped, but it’s more than I expected. I came to Indianapolis not understanding the appeal of auto racing and, frankly, falling asleep every time I tried to learn something about it. I’ll leave Indianapolis not sharing in racing fans’ devotion to their sport, but starting to understand it.

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In the pit area a few hours before the 11 a.m. race, the cars are towed into place by little Toro four-wheelers, and the crews are putting duct tape on the ground for everything: the route the driver will take steering into the pit, where he’ll stop, where the next set of tires will be placed on the ground, where the crew members will kneel. People are posing next to the Borg-Warner trophy, the 5-foot prize decorated with a bas-relief portrait of every winning driver. And meanwhile, high school marching bands are parading down the front straightaway, one after another. The flag girls of the Tyler High School Marching Titans of Kokomo wear black and white checkered skirts.

The monstrous stands — able to hold a quarter of a million people, two and a half Rose Bowls — are filling up, as is the infield area, which can be home to more than 150,000 more. It’s getting warm. The atmosphere has been one of building, building, building all month. On Saturday people began camping across the street from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sunday morning the gates opened at 5. By 6 the joint was hopping. For what seems like the first time in May, it won’t rain today.

Ice-T walks by. He’s one of the few black people I’ll see who don’t work for the track in maintenance, security or food service. There’s no getting around it: This is a very white event (or, increasingly on this sunny spring day, a very pink event). This year, George Mack has become the second black driver ever to qualify. The first was Willy T. Ribbs, who drove in 1991 and ’93. Once the race begins, I’ll search the stands for black faces. I can see most of the grandstand along the front straightaway, and I don’t see one.

This is the kind of crowd where Jim Nabors, here to sing the traditional “Back Home Again in Indiana,” creates a bigger hubbub than car owner David Letterman does, if that tells you anything, which it probably doesn’t.

Neither one would attract nearly the attention Ashley Judd would, but Judd’s playing it on the downlow, staying out of sight until her husband, Dario Franchitti, starting on the inside of Row 10, makes his appearance for the driver introductions. And even then the movie star is nearly incognito in a red cap and a plain striped shirt and black pants. Of course, she’s easy to spot as long as she’s next to her mom, Naomi, who has hair as big as the Ritz and an outfit that’s bright blue and sparkling. Once the race starts, Ashley dons a headset and hangs at the back of the pit, sitting on some used tires or a toolbox.

The start is the best thing the race has going. After track matriarch Mari Hulman George calls, “Lady and gentleman, start your engines” (Sarah Fisher, the third woman to run here, is in her third Indy 500 at 21), the cars roar to life and begin two parade laps. Watching them come down the straightaway, swerving sharply side to side to warm up their tires, I find myself getting tense and anxious with anticipation, as though I actually cared who might win, which I don’t.

Well, I’m pulling, vaguely and in no particular order, for Mack, because he’d make a good story; for Sam Hornish Jr., because he has a goatee and I like his bright yellow Pennzoil car; for Franchitti, because Judd might show up at the post-race press conference; and for Jimmy Vasser, who drives the Letterman/Bobby Rahal car, because Letterman might show up at the post-race press conference and be funny.

As the cars speed up for the pace lap, it’s nearly unbearable. The crowd near the starting line rises to its feet as the cars approach, and there’s nothing quite like it when they take the flag. They’re going breathtakingly fast, slashing through your field of vision as a series of blurs inches apart from each other, their high-pitched engine whine yowing as they pass. It’s astonishing that the drivers can react to anything at that speed. As the field goes by in anger for the first time, I find myself grinding my teeth madly, my heart pounding.

There’s something to this.

I can’t think of anything else that I ever see that goes that fast. Even airplanes, when they’re close enough to the ground for me to appreciate their speed, aren’t topping 200 mph.

One hundred ninety-nine laps after this dramatic opening, the Indy 500 comes down to a dramatic finish. At the end of a race in which two leaders have crashed and another has lost a tire, the defending champion, Helio Castroneves, is fighting off a challenge from Paul Tracy, who started way back in the middle of the 10th row. At first, it had looked like Castroneves, with two lapped cars and second-place Felipe Giaffone between him and Tracy, would hold off the challenge, but now Tracy has passed the other cars and drawn close with just two laps to go while Castroneves, attempting to drive the last 100 miles without a pit stop, may be running out of fuel. Will Tracy catch the leader less than a minute from the finish line?

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Just as Tracy goes to pass, on Turn 3 of the next-to-last lap, two cars crash on another part of the track, drawing a yellow caution flag and effectively ending the race, because no one can pass during a yellow. The question is: Which happened first, the yellow flag or the pass? If the flag came out first, the pass doesn’t count, and, since the race will finish under the yellow flag, Castroneves, restored to the lead, is the winner. That’s the ruling at the track almost six hours later — though an appeal by Tracy’s team was to be decided by Indy Racing League officials Monday — and the Indy 500 has its first repeat champion in 31 years. After a victory lap — coasting, out of fuel — Castroneves parks at the finish line and, as is his custom, climbs the grandstand fence to celebrate.

How can you not love this exuberant, dimpled, 5-foot-5 Brazilian, who gushed through tears to an interviewer over the track P.A., “Oh, gosh, I did it again!”?

You can not love him if you’re caught up in the politics of open-wheel, or “Indy car,” racing, which is dominated by the rivalry between the IRL and the circuit it broke away from six years ago, Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART. Castroneves jumped from CART to the IRL this year. Not caring at all about the rivalry (if you’re keeping score, it looks like the IRL is getting the upper hand), this doesn’t bother me in the least. I can’t believe it bothers too many other people not employed in the racing industry either, but I could be wrong. Castroneves seemed to be a crowd favorite even before his repeat victory.

The finish, with Castroneves taking the checkered flag at half speed under the yellow, was a little anti-climactic, but the run-up to it had been a humdinger.

The suspicion of non-racing fans is that people watch auto races just to see the crashes. I didn’t really think that was true coming in. Some people are just gearheads and love everything having to do with cars, especially fast cars. But I figured there had to be more than the crashes even to people who don’t know or care what makes a car go from stop to go.

That group includes me, and I think I know what that something is. It’s the green flag. Not just the green flag at the start of the race, but the green flag that follows every yellow flag (except one that continues through the end of a race, obviously, like the final one Sunday). The cars, moseying along while the track is cleared of whatever mishap has occurred, speed up again and zip down the straightaway and into the first turn. It’s the start of the race all over again.

And I noticed Sunday that it’s not just me who gets off on the green flag. Every time the race went from the yellow flag to the green, the crowd stood and cheered. The rest of the time, except at the beginning and the end, they looked bored. I surveyed the main grandstand crowd repeatedly throughout the day, and they looked like they were watching a pitching change or a TV timeout. Even when cars were whizzing past, most people weren’t watching them.

You can’t really follow the Indy 500 in person. The typing classes, the people who’ll tell you how the race came out in the morning paper and the monthly speed mag, mostly follow the race on televisions in the press box. There’s no way to see the whole course in person. On TV you can follow a duel for the lead or second place as it snakes around the track. The fans in the stands might not even know which of three cars near each other are fighting for that top spot and which is a car that’s been lapped.

So what makes the Indianapolis 500 such a great event? Why do all those people show up? For one thing, you have to be there to appreciate the speed and power that’s so thrilling in person and doesn’t quite come across on television. But that’s probably true for any old race.

The other thing TV doesn’t quite get across is the gigantism of the event, the energy of it, the feeling of being a part of something that huge. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the world’s largest sports arena. You can barely see from one end of it to the other. The straightaways are 11 football fields long. If the Indy 500 is like other major sporting events, it’s safe to say that a healthy percentage of those in attendance are in attendance more for the event part than for the sport part. The infield crowd, most of whom can see precisely none of the track, is a convincing argument for this theory.

It’s just exciting to be in a crowd that big — a crowd the size of Atlanta’s population, full of people who are excited to be in a crowd that big.

Or, as Letterman put it when I asked him what makes the Indy 500 so special: “Well, just look around. You can feel it, you know? It’s wonderful.”

It is wonderful, yessireebob (as Letterman might say), except for that sagging feeling in the middle. I feel like I do get it now, a little bit, not that the world’s largest single-day sporting event needs the stamp of approval from old King.

Still, the undeniable thrills of auto racing won’t sustain me to the point where I’ll follow it. I still don’t really care who wins, though I can’t argue with Castroneves, last seen by me 90 minutes after the race, still beside himself, interrupting TV interviews to beam down at fans from a balcony walkway next to the media complex.

I’ll remain a fan of what motor sports people refer to derisively (in their e-mails to me whenever I write about racing) as “stick and ball sports.” There are just more potential outcomes in the sports I’m fond of, and I like that.

But “drive fast and turn left.” It’s better than it sounds. I might even take a look at drag racing, which has, I imagine, an even simpler credo: Drive fast, period.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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