INDIANAPOLIS -- A jokester lurked behind the press-credentials counter at the Indianapolis Speedway a week before race day: ''You're lucky. We have a few seats left.'' Pause. ''For 1991.''
As a Speedway interloper, not a buff, I took the bad news as less than crushing. Most of the 500,000 people expected for this Sunday's Indy 500 bought tickets a few days after last year's race. Off-track quickness counts, too. This is an annual high holy day when the priests of motorized speed lead the nation in its worship of four-wheeled chaos. True believers pay as much as $100 for box seats on the straightaway across from the pit stop, the equivalent of taking a room with a scenic view of a gas station.
Infield parking, with as much beer and booze as the trunk and shock absorbers can hold, goes for $55.
The infield sloshed have an advantage over the sober: an alcoholic stupor matches the mindlessness of 33 men hurtling their cars, which have little resemblance to any vehicle on the American highway, at speeds that leave survival more to chance than skill. The machines control the men, a dark fact that drivers themselves acknowledge.
In 1982, when the one-lap qualification record was a pokey 204 mph compared with 225 mph last week, Jerry Grant said: ''The driver's role has become less significant. It's possible now for someone who has never been at the speedway to buy a ride in a new car and go fast. A lot of very inexperienced drivers are posting very fast times. I'm not sure that's the way it ought to be. Technical superiority of the car makes that possible. I've carried many a car, bad-handling cars, but those days are gone. . . . Mike Mosley, whom I consider one of the bravest and best drivers out there, has told me these cars can't be carried by the driver; they have to be set up perfectly to work, and if they're not, no one can drive them successfully.''
Late the other afternoon, I went to the first-turn stands to watch drivers taking practice laps. Mario Andretti was gunning it around at what looked and sounded like supersonic speeds. The smallness of the cars and the immensity of the Speedway -- 559 acres, including a nine-hole golf course inside the track -- starkly illustrated the vulnerability of the drivers. More than 30 men have been killed here since 1911, when the winning time was 74 mph. Practice-run crashes are common, with six in the first week this year. In 1987, 25 crashes occurred, not including the death of a spectator when a wheel flew off a car and into the stands.
If obituary writers are on race-day alert, the rest of the time it is the business pages, not the sports pages, where the Indy 500 should be reported. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that beer companies, wishing to link alcohol with fast cars, lay out $50 million a year on motor-sport sponsorships.
Drivers are walking ad agencies. The racing suit of Danny Sullivan, the 1985 champ, is splashed with chest swatches for Marlboro, Pennzoil, PPG Industries, Miller beer, plus a Goodyear hat and more of the commercialized same on his car. Other two-legged or four-wheeled billboards carry the decals of Budweiser, Coors, Domino's Pizza, Amway, Hardee's, K-mart, Valvoline and RCA.
It's only journalistic habit that keeps the Indianapolis 500 on the sports pages. How can automobile racing be considered a sport when the athletic ability of a seated driver is minimal and the performance of the machine is maximum? Drivers are helpless before the vagaries of blown gaskets, clogged fuel lines, jammed gears and other inevitable breakdowns. At the finish of last year's race, only 15 of the starting 33 cars were still running.
The glorification of mayhem at Indianapolis (''We're going faster and faster,'' says Mario Andretti) coincides with a rise in highway deaths because of higher speed limits. In 1987 Congress allowed states to raise the speed limit to 65 mph on rural highways. Forty states did it. Fatalities per vehicle-mile traveled have risen 21 percent.
The same automobile companies that invest heavily in the madness of the Indianapolis 500 are promoting speed to the public via television commercials that routinely portray high-powered cars tooling over roads where, conveniently, no other vehicles, or state troopers, potholes or stop signs, are in sight.
Outside the speedway the other afternoon, and with Andretti roaring around at 210 mph inside, the daily 5-7 p.m. traffic snarl saw speed records of another kind being set: 15 mph by a bicyclist, and the only athlete in sight, at that.