Streamlined across the side of Dennis Firestone's Day-Glo-bright racing machine are these words: Wyoming Is What America Was. That may be so, cowboy, but with Sunday's running of the 67th Indianapolis 500, and with the hordes of speed freaks (Speedway officials estimate more than 400,000) searching for adventure in this stale, neon-bright city, maybe Indiana is what America has come to be.
Not since the roving carnival staged its last geek show here has this town witnessed so much human wreckage.
Most of the good-time road hawks can be found either standing in line in front of the new cinema showing "Return of the Jedi" 24 hours a day, or trying to break through the gates of Gasoline Alley at the Speedway. Maybe one or two are hustling jalapeno and cheese nachos for a quick repast, or dozing under the circus tent where the retired mechanics of America just put on their tool show, but most are simply standing around, drunk or trying to be, shouting dire sentiments to the racers who quake in their fireproof shoes while trying to look normal.
Lots of the hawks here are wondering what pole-sitter Teo Fabi, 27, looks like in person, up close. One of six rookies to make today's 33-car field, Fabi's only the second rookie ever to win the pole and the first in 33 years. Fabi, from Milan, qualified at 207.395 mph and was the fastest in Thursday's practice run, pushing his Forsythe Racing Skoal Bandit March 83C over 201 mph. "I don't think we can go that fast in the race," he said then. "At least not for very long because the car will not last."
A few years ago, Fabi, a downhill ski racer from 1970 to 1974 before driving Go-Karts and Formula Ford races in Europe, lived in a tiny apartment in Milan and could walk to the corner grocery without endangering his life. Today, if seen at all, he's running his hands over his balding scalp in the shadows of his garage as Instamatics capture his dark impression.
Fabi's garage is across the alley from Al Unser Jr.'s, the son of three-time Indy winner Big Al Unser and also a rookie. Al Jr., 21, who qualified fifth at 202.146, looks mighty young to handle more than 700 horsepower, which is one reason everybody says, "Why, he's just a baby!" when he stands heaving with defiance and lights yet another crooked Winston. He has Lucy-red hair parted down the middle and a mole on his right cheek and wears bell-bottomed jeans with gold darts running down the pants legs.
A few gawkers of fabulous imagination say, "He looks a little like Huckleberry Finn." But mostly he looks like his dad, and races like his dad--heady, but furiously, with a white-knuckled fist raised to all those who dare stand between his quarter-million dollar earth cruiser and glory.
Unser Sr., three-time winner here and the only driver to sweep the Triple Crown of 500s, will start from the inside of the third row after qualifying at 201.954.
Oddsmakers here are saying 1982 winner Gordon Johncock, who qualified at 199.748 and will start in the fourth row, has only a 15-1 shot. Johncock beat Rick Mears last year by .16 of a second, the closest finish in Indy 500 history. Mears, driving the Pennzoil Penske PC-11 in which he qualified for the first row at 204.301, won here in 1979 and is a three-time CART national champion. "I'm not running from the pole," Mears said a few days ago. "But I'd trade the pole for the win any day." Mears appears to be the favorite, driving the new version of last year's successful PC-10 and with Roger Penske working his radio in the pits.
A.J. Foyt, Indy's only four-time winner, will start his 26th run for the estimated $330,000 winner's purse from the 24th position. There are reports here that if he doesn't win he may retire. Foyt's father died just about a week ago; that and an unprecedented fifth victory could be motivation enough for the Texan.
Johnny Rutherford, the three-time winner here who was recently released from Methodist Hospital where he was recovering from Speedway crash injuries, has spent much of his time in Gasoline Alley, riding around in a golf cart and telling tattooed women, "I'll sign my name anywhere you like, little girl." If you wear an Alumicron jacket, bear scars of hard living and walk with a chronic limp, chances are the hawks of the oppressive hero-worshiping nature will ask you kindly if you're anybody. Then, whether you say you are or not, they'll stuff a ball point in your paw. "Just show me where to sign," Texas Johnny said. "Just show me where to sign."
The road hawks come from all over, in slick, polished Caddies and souped-up Malibus, junk pickups and porta-bed 18-wheelers, in everything Detroit has to offer. This city is a license plate jungle, and everybody drives a little faster than the law allows out on High School Road, stops a hair shorter. They've got Methanol in their blood and the checkered flag is just around the bend, victory's guidon waving in the dawn.
Since Sunday's race will be a delayed telecast by ABC-TV (WMAL-TV-7 at 9 p.m.), most of the hawks fried their chicken wings early, iced down their beer, and headed to Indy with hopes of watching this quick history live. But the race is sold out and all the motels booked. The racers are untouchable, the sun a blister, and most, if not all, of the alcoholic beverages in this Hoosier state are being consumed this very minute.
Start your engines, gentlemen. Hoosierville can wait no longer.