n Gasoline Alley, racer Dennis Firestone slows his golf cart for three women standing on the narrow concrete strip with their arms outstretched, waving him to stop. Firestone, who was the last of 33 racers to qualify for Sunday's 67th running of the Indianapolis 500, wears a flowered Hawaiian shirt and a fading pair of the tightest jeans ever made.

"Why ain't you playing golf with all them other old boys?" a woman with white hair asks Firestone, handing him her friend's autograph book. "Sign your John Hancock for this nice person here, Dennie, won't you now?"

After setting right the mirrored sunglasses that have eased down his nose, Firestone obliges, scribbling his name across the entire width of the legal note pad. The nice person who owns the pad cannot speak. She can only wring her hands together and wheeze.

Firestone looks at her with genuine concern, then smiles, causing the woman to wheeze even louder. "You silly old thang," the white-haired woman says to the driver. "I bet you never sign your names that big a way on your checks. The bank would go plumb wild."

Long after Firestone drives off, the women stand shoulder to shoulder in the sun, rubbing their fingertips across Firestone's name. "Where is everybody?" one woman asks. "I saw the blimp a while ago and thought everybody would be here, but there ain't nobody here."

"They're out with them woods and irons," the white-haired woman says. "Out on that old golf course by the highway trying to get their minds off Sunday morning."

High noon. This day is hot, steamy, slow. Sunday, the day when the engines roar and cars go more than 200 mph, seems light years away.

But if most of the big-name drivers are working on their putting strokes today, the electricity among the thousands of people here this week is beginning to build.

Behind the fence, two old-timers in felt fedoras untie and remove their shoes, then slowly work out of their socks and run the bottoms of their bare feet over empty Coke cans.

Sitting on milk crates, they look awfully worn, awfully old; they could have been babes when the first Indy was run in 1911 on a track of tar and crushed stone, with cars now entombed behind glass and red velvet rope in the 500 Hall of Fame.

"Who's that fellow over there?" one asks, pointing to a bearded man in a mechanic's apron. The other says, "He's way too young to be anybody yet."

Earlier, the men had asked the guard at the gate if they could pay their respects to A.J. Foyt Jr.'s shed and the guard had said no, not without a pass.

The old men wanted to see the wreaths that the flower and perfume parlor had strung up near the double-wide door after A.J.'s father died last weekend.

The door was freshly painted white and criss-crossed in grass green, looking more like a horse stable than a garage.

One of the carnation arrangements set outside Foyt's door had a little toy man in a little toy car, all in a bunch of petunias and checkered flags. The weather had ruined it, melting the flower stalks and causing the blooms to droop, but everybody who got through the gates of Gasoline Alley was taking pictures of it with their Instamatics and staring at it as if it might soon be worn on Foyt's lapel, maybe on his suit coat at the victory banquet after the race. If he won, which would make it his fifth win in 26 tries, they could all go home and show those pictures to the uppity neighbors next door.

Down the alley, Michael Chandler, 25, sits on a stack of treadless tires, talking on a wall phone, and pretends not to notice the fans taking his picture, calling his name. He is a poor pretender, however. Every few seconds, Chandler covers his mouth to hide a prideful smile, and scratches his chin to make it look as though he's after an itch.

Everybody wants him to look into the lenses, brush back his soft, straight hair: "Come on, now, Mikie. Lookie here. Say cheese and lookie here." But he wants everybody to believe he's a busy man in quest of his first Indy championship.

But not everyone here wants a picture of Michael Chandler. Bill Majors, the lone clipper at the Hometown Barber Shop only a mile away, is discussing Georgia peaches with a client whose receding hairline has been his personal project of reparation for nearly 10 years.

The men verbally volley--are bluefish good eating or not, which state lays claims to the biggest fire ants, how much was a schoolboy cut during the Depression?

When the mailman, making his daily rounds, taps the window and nods graciously, Bill Majors waves his scissors over his head and dives suddenly into his client's impossible head of hair, as if that tap, tap, tap were his cue. The mailman wears a beard that normally runs past his third shirt button, but past his fourth on a sweaty day like this, and is tapping on the window of the beauty parlor next door when the barber says, "He's a good fellow, that postman. He's from the age of rebellion, though."

"S'right," his client says. "The age of rebellion."

"Now that fellow'll be at the speedway come Sunday," the barber tells a visitor, sitting on one of a dozen kitchenette chairs and flipping through a Field and Stream.

"S'right," Majors' project says. "And don't you judge this city, son, by the snakes who play in that racing pit."

The ladies of the garden club lunching at Laughlen's Cafeteria agree. They smell grease all spring, and feel it under their nails even though none has ever done so much as pull the dashboard lever opening the hood. According to the grande dame of the club, her rosebushes--already sprouting nine promising blossoms--will all but keel over and die on hearing the buffalo herd of engines thundering across the hot Indiana sky.

"Trashy, trashy, trashy," she says to the chorus of her clubmates' nods and "my, my, mys." "An undesirable element," she adds, "running round and round in circles in silly little cars, trying to run away from all the goodness in this world."