- Historic Sites
Every spring thirty million Americans watch the Indianapolis 500. It’s the nation’s premier racing event and the pinnacle of a glamorous, murderous epic that stretches back nearly a century.
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
Raw speed had always been paramount to American racing—Indy, stock car, or drag, all of which were capable of average speeds of more than 130 mph when Sebring was started. “You see,” the great British driver Stirling Moss noted in 1963, “we have an entirely different concept of speed in Europe. It’s relative. You arrive at a 60-mph corner, for example, and try going around it at 61. Then you’ll know what speed is.”
Sebring offered that kind of speed. “Twelve hours of braking, turning, and accelerating,” according to the driver John Fitch. It was indeed an international proposition; in the 1957 running, for example, nineteen makes were represented: AC, Austin-Healey, Cooper, Jaguar, Lotus, MG, Morgan, and Triumph from Britain; Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati (the eventual winner), OSCA, and Stanguelli from Italy; Mercedes-Benz and Porsche from Germany; D.B. and Renault from France; and Arnolt-Bristol and Corvette from America.
The success of Sebring’s Twelve Hours, and similar races, helped garner America’s first Formula One Grand Prix event, held at the course in 1959. Grand Prix racing is Europe’s most rarefied competition, and it has generally been limited to one race per country. The U.S. Grand Prix was a fixture in Watkins Glen, New York, for many years, but it has met with problems in a series of other venues, and no running is planned for 1992.
Stock-car racing has grown into the most popular form of racing in America, in a circuit of races sponsored by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Although there isn’t much that is actually “stock” in a modern stock car, all the entries are nominally based upon GM, Chrysler, or Ford cars. Foreign makes are banned from NASCAR races.
America has more automobile races than any of the world’s other countries or even most of them combined, at over nine hundred tracks and courses and in many dozens of variations on sports-car, stock-car, and championship racing. But the single most important event is the Indianapolis 500.
As many as 400,000 people see it live at the Speedway; at least, that many are present on a race day. For thousands in the infield it is more of a happening than a race, but about 238,000 serious race patrons buy seats in grandstands lining the track, and somewhere beyond, 30 million watch the 500 on television. What they see is a field of artful race cars, to be judged by the miles, and pit crews like corps de ballet, judged by seconds on a ticking clock. The drivers are judged by each other, in strategy, in timing, or in fleet confrontations at the corners.
A. J. Foyt, the first driver to win the 500 four times, suffered a terrible crash in a race in Wisconsin in September 1990. The impact not only shattered his legs but pressed him into the ground; an orthopedic surgeon had to come to the scene to scoop the dirt away, handful by handful. Nonetheless, eight months later Foyt was able to squeeze into an Indy car and start the 500 for the thirty-fourth straight year. It was supposed to be his last race, but afterward he reneged and said that he might be back this year.
After Foyt’s first victory in 1961, his reputation seemed to be sealed, and his family urged him to retire. “Who retires?” the twenty-six-year-old said at the time, in a perfect prophecy of his feelings as a fifty-six-year-old. “Once you’re in it, it’s a way of life. And you go against a lot to stay with it.” Once a year at Indianapolis come three hours that mean that much: 33 DAREDEVIL DRIVERS IN THRILLING SPEED DUELS—THE FIELD VS. LIFE—WHICH WILL WIN?