Phil Gulley: Backseat Driver

As race month rolls around, I’d like to offer a few quick suggestions on improving the 500.
When I was a kid, there were four major TV stations in Indianapolis: channels 4, 6, 8, and 13. If you turned the dial on your television from VHF to UHF, you could pull in channels 20 and 40 as well. Channel 20 was PBS, which we never watched because it didn’t reach Danville. Channel 40 came in loud and clear, but was religious broadcasting and not worth watching, except for the Reverend Ernest Angley, who had a glorious head of fake hair and could make amputees sprout limbs like salamanders simply by laying his hands on them.

Back then, it was impossible to live in Central Indiana in May and not hear about the Indianapolis 500, because all four major stations talked about it non-stop. Even Channel 20 would air the occasional program about the race—a documentary on Wilbur Shaw, or the history of the steering wheel. Today, there are more than 180 channels, so the coverage has been diluted. One can live in Indianapolis the entire month of May and avoid all mention of the 500.

I’ve lived within 20 miles of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway my entire life, and have never attended the race. But I thoroughly enjoyed the hubbub when I was a kid, and would listen to it on the radio, sitting on our front porch with my father and brothers. We knew nothing about the 500, but reveled in the excitement, anticipating the occasional car crash or streaker. Our cousin Matt had attended the race and told us about the debauchery of the Snake Pit.

“Naked people everywhere,” he said, setting our imaginations aflame.

My father worked for Johnson Wax, and on a sales visit to Hulman & Company in Terre Haute, he met Tony Hulman, then-owner of the Speedway. Every year thereafter, Tony sent us tickets to the time trials. My dad, apparently not wanting us to see naked people, passed the tickets on to my cousin Matt, who promptly bought a camera, visited the Snake Pit, and began honing his photographic skills.

Although my dad missed the opportunity, the Snake Pit provided many other Central Indiana fathers a valuable service. Awkward father-to-son talks about the birds and the bees were replaced with a visit there, where every imaginable act could be viewed firsthand.

“Any questions?” the father would ask.

“No, I think I get it now,” the son would answer, jotting down notes.

Yes, this was the Indianapolis 500 of my youth, an island of decadence plopped down in the center of wholesome Indiana. Then someone decided to make it family friendly, paved over the Snake Pit, moved it from turn one to turn four, then to turn three, where today I’m told it’s as tame as a Bible-studies class. I’m as virtuous as the next Quaker pastor, but we all need a little depravity in our lives if only to know what we’re opposing.

Though it was occasionally grating, I now miss the 500’s all-consuming aura. Today, it’s one great spectacle we can select from a vast menu of great spectacles on cable TV. We’re so used to spectacular, it takes more and more of the stuff to satisfy us. We’re like the alcoholic who needs more booze to get drunk. I remember an episode of Little House on the Prairie when Laura and Mary were given an orange for Christmas and broke down in hysterical sobs of gratitude. Now we buy them year-round at Kroger. We need to make the 500 the Christmas orange again.

To that end, I’m going to suggest a few changes. Like every sport, racing began with passionate amateurs who were eventually displaced by business people who figured out how to make a buck at it.

Consequently, fielding a car at the 500 now takes millions of dollars. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about any sporting event where the overriding focus is money. So starting next May, the 500 should be open to any licensed driver who wants to enter, driving any American production car they wish. They could fiddle with the engine to make it go faster, so long as they did the work themselves, in the garage at their house.

I would exclude foreign cars and foreign drivers, not because I’m xenophobic, but because everyone knows it’s more fun rooting for the home team. The Brazilians and the Italians can have their own races. Heck, racing would be so cheap, every nation could have its own. Then we could hold one big race when all the countries’ winners would compete against one another at the Speedway in January, during a snowstorm. Nothing ever happens in January in Indiana, so it would be a big draw.

Because the race wouldn’t be as fast with factory-built cars, we could generate excitement by bringing in a dozen extra drivers from Florida, all of them age 90 or older, going 40 miles an hour. Anyone who hit them would be disqualified. But if someone did wreck, the other drivers could keep racing, with no caution flag to slow them down. It’d be just like when someone crashes on I-465. To make it more challenging, the occasional opossum would be set loose on the track. Anyone hitting an opossum would have to stop their car, scrape the roadkill off the pavement, and throw it in one of the dumpsters conveniently located around the perimeter of the track. There would also be chuckholes on the course. Maybe a couple dozen or so, mimicking the chuckholes-per-mile ratio on Hoosier roads. I’d put a crew from the Indiana Department of Transportation on the track, patching the hole—seven guys leaning on their shovels while an eighth guy filled the chuckhole. It would be more like real life, having to dodge slow drivers, wrecks, opossums, and chuckholes.

What the 500 really needs is a Milan Miracle, an average Joe everyone likes, who, against all odds, grabs first place. A humble and self-effacing guy, whose wife uses the racecar on weekdays to drive the kids to school. It would help if he were dying of stomach cancer and checked out of Methodist Hospital to race. Later, they would discover the lump in his belly was a hernia, not a cancerous tumor, and everyone would be happy. They could make a movie of it, and interest in the 500 would skyrocket.

I grew up four doors down from the current president of the Speedway, Doug Boles, so I’m confident he’ll take these suggestions seriously. To help matters along, we’ll make it against the law for cable channels in Indiana to show anything but the race in May. It’ll be just like the old days. The 500 will once again be the only show in town—except for Ernest Angley, that is. Out of deference to his age, we’ll allow Ernest to stay on TV. He’s 95, and to the amazement of doctors everywhere, he’s still healing people right and left, though seems curiously unable to grow back his own hair.