Gentlemen, start your eyeballs. Ladies, you can do the same.

Thursday was Carburetion Day here at the Indianapolis 500. Today is bicarbonation day. Talk about your turbocharged hangovers. Give this city about 1 million plop-plops, please. But, shhh, hold down that noisy fizz-fizz.

Excuse me, doctor. Make mine a frontal lobotomy.

The last time I came to Indy a few years ago, I did it all wrong. I sat in the press box and observed. This time, I took a busman's holiday and participated.

On Sunday here at the Brickyard, Danny Sullivan was running on the ragged edge, full of high-grade fuel. So were about a half-million other folks.

When the heartland lets its hair down, you know why we're 11-1 in wars.

Or, as the sign on the infield snakepit fence said on Sunday: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro" -- Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

Yes, it's all coming back to me now. Wonderful how photographs jar the memory. Is that really a picture of me in a Philadelphia Phillies batting helmet with two cans of beer attached to the sides of my head and a tube in my mouth for intravenous drinking?

And who's that 259-pound man, our arms thrown over each other's shoulders, in the matching Tiger beer helmet?

Oh, yes, John Spreitzer. For me, he is probably always going to be the human embodiment of the Indy 500.

From 7 a.m. Sunday, when he picked up his brother George and my wife and me to go to the Speedway, until nearly 2 p.m., I watched him in awe.

No man should be able to drink 11 beers in seven hours without a pit stop.

Big John was just waiting for his moment. The instant John Paul Jr.'s right front wheel slammed into the wall in front of us in Turn Two, Spreitzer was on his feet like the old halfback he once was.

While wheels and debris were still dancing on the track, while the crowd of 400,000 was still gasping, Spreitzer was in motion down the steps from the top of the grandstand, his Walkman earphones (tuned to Race Central) still in place.

Before the yellow flag could come out, before the ambulances could start their sirens, he had beaten the mob by seconds and won the men's room pole.

To the true aficionado of Indy, the Paul crash was too minor to merit a glance; it was, rather, just a perfect excuse for a change of leftside rubber.

"Never missed a lap on the green," said Spreitzer, grinning. "You rookies just watch me."

Almost everything here requires inside knowledge for proper appreciation. Three hours before the race, Spreitzer, a service station owner, wandered down to the Snakepit in the infamous Indy infield to visit friends who've been camping in the same spot by the fence for 17 years.

It's hard to do the Indy infield justice. Personally, I liked the black hearse with the living room sofa lashed to the roof for comfy spectating.

"On Saturday, the police open the gates to a 40-acre field next to the Speedway and it's like a land rush," said Spreitzer, explaining the infield phenomenon. "Everyone drives an old truck or a junker and stampedes in. Then, Sunday morning, they open the tunnel to the infield and they do it all again to see who gets the spots by the fence.

"These guys are professional people, businessmen, college grads. They spend half the year getting ready for the race and the other half of the year talking about what they did."

Spreitzer's friend Dick Rice isn't sure he's coming back to the infield next year. When a guy pulls a gun on you just because you drove your truck over his car at a high speed (with him inside), then laughed at him when he asked for your insurance policy number, you know "it's not what it used to be . . .

"That gun scared me," said Rice. "Nobody's supposed to take any of this personally. But nowadays, nobody seems to know the rules of the infield."

What are the rules?

"No rules. That's the only rule."

"You shouldn't be in here unless you want to drink, grill steaks, maybe smash up a fender and laugh a lot."

Perhaps nothing in American sport is an untranslatable as the Indy 500. From a distance, on TV or even from the press box, it can seem like America's greatest celebration of stupidity.

The experience itself, however, disarms any disparagement.

To get some sense of Indy's contagious love affair with speed, maybe you need to go back to John Spreitzer's boyhood home after the race. The whole clan is gathered. The huge checkered sign above the driveway is decked with the first names of all the Tims, Tobys, Pattis, Judys and J.J.s who are expected or hoped for.

By the pool, Spreitzer's four siblings, their mother Theresa and her husband Paul O'Bryan hold court all weekend as friends and grandchildren ebb and flow. A million people come here for race week. America's 13th-largest city becomes one large backyard barbecue pit. O'Bryan, like thousands of others, tells car tales that are generations old.

Do people in Indiana act like this any other time of year -- partying too hard, talking too late into the night, getting strung out on affection and family and the fleeting taste of the good times?

"No," Theresa O'Bryan said. "But isn't it exciting that we do it once ?"

Racers push to the edge, risking their lives to feel alive. Here at Indy, for one weekend, a city full of normal citizens agrees -- although no one says it -- to inspect that dangerous edge together, to live a little more wildly and intensely and even irresponsibly than everyday life permits.

Some people, who don't live hereabouts, think the Indy 500 is about cheap thrills and death.

More likely, it's about common folks stepping closer to the edge than they usually dare. And, perhaps, staying a little bit more alive the rest of the year because of it.