The starting minutes of the Indianapolis 500 jam together with unimaginable precision the high-church rites of home, country, God and the automotive vehicle. The Purdue University Marching Band plays "On the Banks of the Wabash" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." A clergyman prays for the souls of the gathered and the gaskets of the cars. A bugler blows taps. The band pumps out "Back Home Again in Indiana" and the drivers, addressed portentously as "Gentlemen," are instructed to start their engines.

And when the engines roar, you are not so much listening as vibrating, a massive pain zinging against the back of your eyes, a queer thrumming on the Adam's apple.

"To be honest, the race is a bore after the opening," says Chuck Howard, the ABC producer who will help the network broadcast live for the first time ever this morning. Rain washed out the race last weekend. "But I've seen the opening so many times, and every time it moves me."

Of all the big sporting events -- the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the World Series, a championship fight -- the Indianapolis 500 is the one most evocative of that weird and nebulous idea, "Americana." Nationhood as knickknack.

But it's something more. Walk around the infield -- so huge it contains a nine-hole golf course as easily as the Soviet Union envelops Azerbaijan -- and there, out in the open, are all the activities of the good life: a game of gin, a roasting rack of ribs, a 15-year-old girl sitting in her old man's lap and drinking a pint of sour mash.

The Kentucky Derby is a rite of the past, memorializing a version of the pastoral, tycoons in cashmere, belles in crinoline. The rich look backward. The Indy 500 celebrates the dream of eternal progress, crowds that get bigger, cars that go faster. The reasons for that progress -- the aerodynamics and all the rest -- are engineering arcana. When this race began in 1911, the cars did not go much faster than the traffic on today's interstates. Now they are up to laps of 216 mph. The middle class looks ahead.

"We're gonna really push it out this year," says Rick Mears, the man most likely to do it. "And the next year we're gonna push it out again." Snake Pit

The racers themselves don't know much of what goes on around them. "At the speeds we're moving at," says Michael Andretti, "the whole world off the track is a blur. Once in a while your eye might pick out a color, but that's about it. You don't want to look at the crowd too long if you know what I mean."

The spectators have an equally difficult time following the race. Who can make sense of the little smears of color, the fluorescent hunks of fiber glass and steel as they whip around the track? Only television slows down the action, makes it possible to discern who is winning and, perhaps, why. Television makes sense of blurs and randomness.

"Even I have a hard time knowing who's ahead," Andretti says. "That's what I have a pit crew for. To let me know how I'm doing."

It is a wonder really that anyone at the Indianapolis 500 can read his own watch, much less follow the little rocketing autos. The imbibing of beer begins on the infield on race night and continues through the next day. The level of intoxication in some spots here is probably about what it was at Woodstock. There are no warning announcements about "a batch of bad acid," but you have surely never seen more people leaning out of parked cars to throw up or scream a boozy "Yeeeee-haaah!"

The inner circle of hell is "the Snake Pit," the hard-core bastion behind the first turn. Tradition here means chubby young men chugging beer and barking, "Hey lady! Take off your shirt!" Occasionally the "ladies" comply, and that is quite a scene.

"Let's face it," said Indiana State Trooper Greg Belt, "the people in the Snake Pit come here to live like animals. When they scream or show those signs, we don't arrest them. Just too many of 'em. But when one of those women does it, we have to move in, 'cause that attracts hundreds of cameras and eyes. You get a lot of public indecency here."

The evening before the race, police say, it is not uncommon to see a couple on the roof of their RV rutting in the gloaming. The caravan of vans parked out on 16th and Main before the race is something to see, too. "But," one local man told a visitor, "I wouldn't go near there myself." Every year a few people get stabbed. Always a few groups make a holy pyre out of an abandoned automobile.

The sight of such moral turpitude can trouble the heart, even of an armed officer of the law. "Last year when everybody was leaving, I saw the bumper sticker on one of those vans," Trooper Belt said. "It read, 'Don't Laugh. Your Daughter Is In Here.' Man, I've got two little girls. What am I supposed to feel?"

And yet, to let the Snake Pit represent the scene here would be inaccurate. What's more striking is the way all the rituals -- the invocation, the national anthem, the endless advertisements, the gunning of 33 engines -- amount to a friendly, if half-crocked, party far different from the dark Bacchanalia of the Pit.

Essayist Paul Fussell wrote, "On race Sunday, when you see the infield crowded with campers, tents, trailers, and 'recreational vehicles,' their occupants cooking and drawing water and cosseting children and making love in the friendliest fashion, you realize what the Indy setting really is: it's an early-nineteenth-century American pioneer campsite surrounded, as if fortuitously, by an early-twentieth-century two-and-a-half mile track. And you almost begin to wonder if it's not the camping out, that primeval American ceremony of innocence, rather than the race and it's hazards, that has drawn these crowds here." Naptown

To a northeasterner, whose image of midwestern normality comes from "Winesburg, Ohio" and the "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," a quick trip to Indianapolis does precious little to change that image.

Indianapolis' landscape is flat as slate, and the corn you'd want to smell, the loam you'd want to walk through barefoot, is outside the town limits. A beltway circles the city, and a congeries of half-highways -- many of them resembling New York Avenue with their cheap eats and creepy motels -- snake through the little downtown.

A parade precedes the race every year. Flag wavers from Broad Ripple High. A giant balloon of Felix the Cat. Florence ("Brady Bunch") Henderson calling the shots on TV. Hugh O'Brien -- "Give him a hand, you've all seen him on 'Love Boat'!" -- as one of a "host" of celebrity marchers. The Marching Ironmen from Normal, Ill., filling the air with a brassy music.

But for the occasional parade, no one seems to walk here. Even during race week, the busiest time of year, the sidewalks downtown are unused. A visitor asked directions to the Hoosier Dome and he was told, "You can't walk there, young man. It's almost a half mile away!" At the track the mechanics and drivers tool around the place in speedy golf carts.

To the outsider, at least, Indianapolis has more than earned its nickname of "Naptown." It is a somnolent sort of place, where the local rail station houses the best restaurants in town.

The city, however, wakes up at the very thought of automotive ruckus. The dirt track at the State Fairgrounds attracts thousands. Tire stores and gas stations compete with burger stands and chicken emporiums for the consumer's attention on every byway. The "auto care" section at a local Waldenbooks is as big as the literature section. Last week there was a 40-mile van race to determine who would be the first allowed into the Speedway this morning. It was big news on the local news.

So great is the anticipation for the race that the local papers, the News and the Star, cover it with the same tenacity that The Wall Street Journal covers the stock market. There are features on the racers' wives, editorials on the virtues of the parade, news bulletins on practice sessions. With such a buildup, last Sunday's rain drowned the city in melancholia. The storm began in the morning and never cleared for long, but still they came to the track, wave after wave of cars, pickups and RVs.

"It was like nobody really believed the Indy 500 could get rained out," says Mario Andretti, who won the race in 1969. "The thing is just too important in this town for that." Kissing It

The great why of auto racing never disappears: Why do they do it?

Jackie Stewart, a former Grand Prix champion who has seen many of his friends maimed or killed on race tracks, explained the psychology of a racer in an interview with Playboy:

"Modern society doesn't have very many areas where a man can extend himself to the edge of life . . . But in racing you feel like you are taking sensations from life that are a little keener than most other men are able to grasp. And you don't want to give that intense pleasure away any more than you'd want to stop having sex because some doctor told you it could be damaging to your health. You want to enjoy it again and again, and that's what motor racing is all about."

The byproduct of the driver's sensations are the shadows of danger trailing every car. No car outruns them. And everyone is waiting for the moment when something goes wrong.

A successful, crashless race makes for some stultifying highlight films. Only the keenest, most technically minded fans know the difference between 217 and 210 mph, the difference between winning and losing. A crash, even more than a wheel-to-wheel duel to the checkered flag, always makes the evening news.

"I guess it's still true," says Mario Andretti's son Michael. "There are people who come out here on the off chance that you'll buy it on the wall."

Nearly everyone here insists that auto racing at this level has gotten safer, even as the cars have gotten faster. In a practice run a couple of weeks ago Mario Andretti's car spun out, smashed into a concrete wall and wound up a gnarled wreck. He injured a foot. The wonder was that he did not end up a greasy pool on the asphalt. Engineers have succeeded, to some degree at least, in designing cars that will first absorb a great deal of shock and then fall apart in such a way that the driver can survive. The risk of fire has decreased with the advent of fuel tanks that collapse and seal upon impact.

"A couple of years ago Mario might not have come out of a crash like that," said one mechanic. "The least that would have happened was that he'd have lost his legs. Things have gotten a lot better around here."

And yet, and yet. The United States Auto Club rule book still states that racing is a "hazardous undertaking." According to the rules, no car is allowed to take on the number 13. Even journalists assigned to do nothing more hazardous than watch the race must sign forms absolving the Speedway of any responsibility in case of death or injury.

More than anyone, the racers know the danger of "kissing it" against the wall has not disappeared. And yet they have contempt for the "coast and collect" crowd, drivers who are content to qualify for the event, then sit back in the pack and wait for the attrition to begin. That sort of strategy can bring a man a fine living, if little glory.

No, to avoid danger at all costs is not to race at all. "Feathering" the throttle is the racing equivalent of a baseball player who calls for a pinch hitter when the bases are loaded in the bottom of the ninth. Stock car legend Richard Petty admits he "rang the bell" practicing for a race the other day in Charlotte -- he suffered a concussion and was carried out of his car to the hospital -- but he vowed to drive his next race "whether I've got a headache or not."

Most drivers here have been sitting inside fast machines since kindergarten. They begin racing Go Karts that go 60 mph before most children ride a two-wheel bike. As their general vocabulary develops, so, too, does their vocabulary of danger. Despite all the evidence, despite all the afternoons spent watching crashes in Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Daytona and Watkins Glen, they push it out of their minds.

Al Unser Sr., whose brother Jerry was killed racing, stood outside his garage the other day and answered questions about risk. He crossed his arms over his chest and took on the flinty glare of a football coach restraining anger. He talked as if he were reciting a long-rehearsed speech:

"Danger? Danger? I don't look at it that way. Everything you do in life can be dangerous. You do what you do, you enjoy it and not worry. Do you start worrying every time you want to drive to the grocery store or take an airplane trip. 'Course not. Otherwise you're walking on ice all the time."

Thursday was "Carburetion Day," the last chance the drivers had to take their cars for a spin around the track. It is hard to describe how boring such testing can be. Little colored blurs whip around, and then you wait to hear about the infinitesimal differences in the quality of those blurs, who went faster and so on.

But after an hour or so of this, the jolly track announcer -- "Look at Danny Sullivan go, folks!" -- gripped his microphone and went into a shtick best described as High Euphemism.

Moments after a four-car crackup on the fourth turn, smoke appeared on the horizon.

"You can see the smoke. All we can say is that three or four cars are involved in the north end of the track," the announcer said. "They're sort of tangled there."

"Involved"? "Tangled"?

Replays would show a fearsome crash promising, if not finally yielding, some bad carnage.

Did it affect the other racers? someone asked Rick Mears.

"The interruption didn't affect anything much one way or the other," Mears said.