This is Gasoline Alley - the real one, not the comic strip. This is the pits, really the pits. Any auto-race buff worth his double-overhead cams knows that Indy 500 cars do not use gasoline and that the pits have not been actual holes in the ground for decades.

Nevertheless, the Alley and the pits are the two places that those in the know want to be on the final days before The Race.

Thousands flock here to the speedway on these "off" days just to glimpse the human side, the comprehensible underbelly of Sunday's staggering spectacle.

Gasoline Alley - the three-row compound of 88 garages - is semi-secret, shadow, smelling of fuel and fulmination. The Indy pits just 100 yards away are public, sun-drenched on these perfect May days and smelling of fresh paint.

The gawkers go to the pits. There, they can tell the folks back home, they saw a $158,000 racer get two tires changed and 40 gallons of fuel injected in about 10 seconds. Try to get that kind of service up the road in Peoria.

Why that Johnny Rutherford pit crew - the guys who won close to $10,000 in Thursday's Pit Contest - had the No. 4 car up on jacks, serviced and back on the ground and running in seven seconds.

Sure, honey. But their car only gets 1.8 miles a gallon and they forgot to change the oil.

The insiders, the lucky ones with the multicolored passes or the winged-wheel metal badges (save 'em, they're heirlooms), amble along Gasoline Alley.

The gate to this grease jockey's heaven isn't hard to find. The arching 60-foot banner helps.

In fact, almost nothing in the 88 barns (no No. 13) goes unidentified every available inch is plastered with brightly colored ads - a free-market op art. On top of the ads are stenciled the names of drivers, owners, chief mechanics, as well as qualifying times and citations of past glories.

In this Calcutto bazaar of macho men and sleek-chassied women, stacked of heel and elsewhere, there are constant piercing sounds. A baby with the lungs of a turbocharger vies with the sudden starting roar of a Cos-worth DFX engine. Tiny tractors, pulling the indy alligators behind them, shove their way through the crowds, beeping their little tractor horns or just running up a few heels.

Indy's First Lady - Janet Guthrie - lounges in a golf cart in front of her barn, chatting with the Instematic crowd. In just one year, she has found total fan acceptance. Anybody who drives 190 miles per hour is an honorary good ol' boy, no questions asked. She leads the 33-person field in smiles, autographs and feet-propped-up enjoyment.

Indy's king - four-time winner A.J. Foyt - growls at autograph hounds, ignores handshakes. He ducks among a phaianx of crewmen in Gilmore Racing Team shirts that look like red-and-white chintz table clothes. They disappear behind the only garage doors in the Alley attempted "Keep Out."

In the pits, every driver looks equal, each with a splendidly gaudy car, a color-coordinated pit crew. Along Gasoline Alley, the truth comes out. A few drivers have, the rest fake it.

Garage 49, home of Cliff Hucul, epitomizes the Indy racer running his car on a shoestring. The walls of No. 49 have no posters, no stenciled names, no "Keep Out" signs.

Cliff Hucul tells the world, "Come on in."

Hucul has played a waiting game. He waited for his Offenhouser engine, delayed in transit, to arrive. He waited until after he had won the last qualifying spot before a sponsor came forward to help with the bills. He waited until the final minutes of qualifying last Sunday before frantic repaires got his Offy chugging properly.

Now, in the waning hours before Indy, the Canadian Hucul sits and watches as his crew "completely strips" the car, fixes numerous leaks that sprung in the final Carburetion Day practice. "We just want to keep running for 500 miles," he says.

Some here say that the have-nots, like Hucul and Phil Threshie, are just slow-moving obstacles, accidents waiting to happed. Hucul says, "I've sacrificed everything for racing. What other porfession demands all your time, all your money, all your love and then maybe asks for your life, too.

"Maybe race drivers are like the frontiersmen of this century, sort of born in the wrong time. Anyway, if I can run a good race, maybe one of the big teams will see me. It would be nice to have a choice of five engines and say, "This one's not running perfect. Let's switch to that one.' Thiss."

The big boys spend these last two days twiddling their thumbs and worrying. "We're basically scrutinizing, disassembling and then buttoning up," said George Bignotti, famed builder and engineer.

"We're just massaging this baby," said Phil Sharp, co-chief mechanic for Johnny Rutherford. "We're just staring at it, trying to figure out what will fall off first," said co-cheif Steve Roby.

Sharp, a lean little New Zealander, and Roby, a tall Australian, are typical of Indy's chief mechancis: young, obsessed with their work, meticulous."We work all day, 365 days a year, said Sharp bluntly, "Whatever it takes to get the job.

"If we were paid a dollar an hour," said Roby, "we'd be rich. The work is challenging, enjoyable. But it's life-comsuming. You don't see too many birds (women) hanging about us, mate.

"If we could find the same sense of creative responsibility and good pay anywhere else, we'd be gone. But where does being a race-car mechanic lead to? You tell us."

For one thing, its leads to garages in 25 countries around the world. It leads to a bit of reflected fame.

"It's adventurous. Something a bit different, I'll grant," said Sharp. "We spend our time here creating a beautiful meachine, refining it. We may be glorified tin bashers (British slang), but we're operating on the edge of science. Then, when we're finally finished, we send our creation out to be smashed.

"Bit strange, what?"

Sharp and Roby typify the men Alley and the Pit. One day they are master technicians, sort of intuitive engineers. Manifold pressures and the aerodynamics of tailfins are their tedious study in the garage. The Australian Roby sticks a lucky picture of a Koala bear on Rutherford's steering wheel.

However, on race day they emerge in their Superman-syle pit-crew outfits. "Most people can't realize that the same people who put the car together and work on it are the same guys who are flying around changeing tires in seven seconds," said Roby.

One minute Sharp has his slide rule out, figuring out rates of fuel consumption, the amount of boost left. "The goal is to cross the finish line just as the last drop of the legal (280 gallons) fuel has been used."

The next minute he is vaulting over the pit wall along with the Venter, the Jackmam and the Fueler to make one of those unbeleivable pit stops that won the Rutherford crew the Pit Contest this week.

For "glorified tin bashers," they live a life almost as hectic and heightened as the drivers. "You do whatever it takes. Yes, we bend the rules to our advantage," SHarp said with a grin, picking up one of a dozen darts.

"Maybe it's not so bad that our work is constantly destroyed. We have the pleasure of building it agaig ... and better," chimed in Roby.

"Yes," agreed Sharp, "that's the thrill of it. We're just a five-man crew - Team McLaren Ltd. We're it ... the whole works."

Sharp flips the dart at the garage wall. It misses the dart board and sticks squarely in a photogragh of A.J.Foyt.