Faith at the Brickyard: Ritual, Fandom, and the Indianapolis 500
Memorial Day weekend is among the most cherished holidays in racing fandom, with the Indianapolis 500 culminating a month of racing and community events. For legions of followers the Indianapolis 500 is an annual rite, and for many fans the journey to the speedway is a pilgrimage to one of racing’s most hallowed spaces. In 1973 the New York Times celebrated the event and place when it intoned that “the 500 is more than a race. It is a folk festival, a happening. Its pageantry, spectacle and corn make it Middle America’s counterpart to France’s pilgrimage to Le Mans.”
The speedway experience involves systematic ritual, intense desire, and visitation to an important place, all of which have some parallels to pilgrims’ religious travel in particular and broader religious experience in general (compare Jean Williams’ 2012 study of pilgrimage to the IMS). Religious characterizations of sport fandom perhaps risk hyperbolizing the consequence of sport, and some observers have ridiculed the hackneyed definition of sports’ “hallowed ground.” In 2008, for instance, sportswriter Andrea Adelson complained that “There is nothing sacred about Augusta National, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field. So why are these places referred to in the same way we talk about the Sistine Chapel, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Wailing Wall?” Adelson argued that sporting places should be characterized as being “steeped in tradition.” Adelson’s distinction between sacred and secular places reveals a wariness of projecting sacred authenticity onto the prosaic reality of sporting venues, if not sport itself.
In contrast, some fans are quite comfortable viewing sport as faith unto itself, and some of them see that as the death rites for the traditional church. For instance, in the 2004 documentary “Hallowed be Thy Game” director Mark Dowd celebrated soccer and his lifelong Manchester United fandom as a faith. Dowd noted that “my Dad ‘baptised’ me as a Man United fan in Salford in 1968 when he went berserk watching George Best help United win the European Cup final. And although it’s sad for me to see church attendances falling, it’s obvious the beautiful game is filling a big gap left by the decline of organised religion.” (Compare Peter Wilcox’s theological analysis of football and religion in the UK).
Fans and speedway boosters are prone to hyperbolize the significance of the IMS, if not the sport itself. As the newly built speedway set to host its first races in August, 1909, the New York Times proclaimed that “Indianapolis has become the Mecca of the automobilists of the country.” In 1935, the paper invoked another theatrical parallel when it referred to the speedway as “a modern counterpart of Rome’s Circus Maximus.” In 1992 former driver Sam Posey addressed the significance of the speedway and the race, but he avoided such rhetorical flourishes and instead alluded to the heritage of the track itself. Posey saw the track’s authenticity confirmed in familiar and modest material elements alike, intoning that “there are buildings, and even cracks in the sidewalk, that you may remember from your first trip here as a kid. Yankee Stadium is like this. These are places that do not produce synthetic experiences.”
Most fans are well-schooled in the rituals that are the heart of the speedway experience. One of the best-known is the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana.” The race itself is older than the song, which was published in 1917 and began to be sung in the pre-race ceremonies in 1946. In 2011 four-time winner A.J. Foyt acknowledged that “A lot of races don’t bother you, but when they sing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana,’ it kind of tightens you up pretty good. You know the world’s watching you.” Contemporary fans most closely associate its singing with Jim Nabors, who first sang it in 1972 and delivered it before most races until his last performance in 2014. In 2007 one race fan told the Indianapolis Star that during the song’s performances “I cry every year, and every time I go over the Wabash River on I-65, I think of that song and Jim Nabors.”
Since the race is staged on Memorial Day, the pre-race musical performances invoke a host of nationalist sentiments. “The Star Spangled Banner” has been sung before the race most years, rotating amongst an eclectic host of musicians including David Hasselhoff (1986) and Jessica Simpson (2004). In the midst of Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and 1992, the singing of “America the Beautiful” was added to the pre-race musical offerings, with Hoosier (i.e., Indiana native) Florence Henderson singing the patriotic standard. In 1999 the song was once again sung before the race; it was replaced in 2003 by “God Bless America” and both songs have been performed since 2009.
Winners have consumed a bottle of milk after their win in nearly all years since 1956. In 1933 race winner Louis Meyer asked for buttermilk in victory lane, and when he won for his third time in 1936 he was handed a whole bottle. A milk marketer had milk handed to some subsequent winners, but the practice did not become tradition until 1956. Winners recently began to pose after the race kneeling to kiss the “yard of bricks,” the last strip of the track’s original 3.2 million bricks that remains visible at the start/finish line. That practice first occurred when Dale Jarrett won the 1996 Brickyard 400, and Gil de Ferran repeated it after his 2003 Indianapolis 500 win. Visitors to the track routinely flock to the yard of bricks in hopes of being in contact with the 1909 track’s last exposed remains. For instance, runners in the Indianapolis Half Marathon on the first weekend of May run the track’s 2.5 mile oval and also stop at the bricks for pictures and kisses.
There are perhaps not “saints” in Indianapolis 500 fandom, but the drivers themselves are particularly revered, especially elder drivers and the most cherished racing families. Mario Andretti, Al Unser, AJ Foyt, and Bobby Rahal all are part of multi-generational racing families who remain active presences at the track. These past drivers spend much of May recounting their racing careers for a stream of media and local events. The most celebrated of these drivers like AJ Foyt are enormously charismatic personalities whose courage and skill clearly distinguish them from mortal race fans. Many of these elder drivers flourished in a moment when racing was enormously dangerous, and all of them have experienced harrowing crashes and injuries; likewise, these drivers often secure fans’ respect because they drove before the emergence of sophisticated racing technologies.
Faith is spread by the people in a spiritual community, and certainly fans are the foot soldiers sharing the joy of racing fandom. Among the most fascinating figures amongst these racing fans is the speedway’s historian Donald Davidson. Like many fans, the British-born Davidson was an obsessive racing follower, and in May 1964 he made his own pilgrimage to Indianapolis. Even by the encyclopedic standards of the racing faithful, Davidson had astounding mastery of the race’s history, and when he returned a year later Davidson was intent on securing a job in Indianapolis. After the 1965 race, he became a statistician for the United States Auto Club (USAC, which then sanctioned the Indianapolis 500), and he eventually became the IMS historian in 1998 and has hosted a series of radio shows while also teaching courses on the history of the race and the speedway.
Davidson is distinguished by his encyclopedic depth of racing knowledge, but he is by no means unusual in his commitment to the historical complexities of racing. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was constructed in 1909 and hosted its first 500 mile race in 1911 (this year is the 99th running of the race). Consequently, an astounding number of drivers, mechanics, owners, and cars have been part of the speedway’s history. The most devoted fans study this history zealously and master the racing canon: that is, they commit to memory the labyrinthine histories of drivers, races, and cars and venerate the speedway and tracks where racing heritage was staged.
Fans depart the track with a host of iconic material things that commemorate the race experience, including a mountain of souvenirs as well as programs, pit passes, and admission tickets. Countless homes have displays of ticket stubs, programs, and posters memorializing the races and fans’ experiences at the race. The most devoted fans collect genuine relics—that is, car parts, uniforms, and things that were part of the race. The speedway’s museum contains the most priceless of these Indianapolis 500 artifacts, including Ray Harroun’s 1911 winning Marmon Wasp, the Borg-Warner Trophy recognizing the race’s winner since 1936 (as well as the pre-1936 Wheeler-Schebler Trophy), and a host of driver’s uniforms and gear from the races. Such material fragments of sports and cherished arenas are valued by sporting fans well beyond the racing faithful. For instance, when Scotland’s Hampden Park pitch was re-surfaced in 1998, the “old playing surface was sliced up into squares the size of floor tiles” and sold to fans, with the sacred sod “set to live on in the gardens of Scots supporters the length and breadth of the country.”
Pilgrims typically visit a sacred place and leave offerings. A comparable ritual came after two-time 500 champion Dan Wheldon died in an October, 2011 race in Las Vegas. After the enormously popular Wheldon’s death, spontaneous offerings were left at the speedway’s Gate 1 at 16th Street and Georgetown Road. The Indianapolis Star observed that “this doorway to 102 years of history has been transformed into a cathartic outreach for the bereaved. A `Brit Corner’ English flag hangs on the fence. Cards and letters are piling up on top of each other. So many flowers. Some candles are burning, others have burned out. There are two half gallons of milk, the traditional drink of the 500 winner, as well as a pumpkin with a carved `Dan Wheldon 77.’” In 2013 a permanent memorial to Wheldon was placed on the St. Petersburg road course “Turn 10, a left-hander that overlooks the harbor decorated with yachts. Included in the display are bricks from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, stone from his native England and, for a personal touch, handprints of his two young sons, Sebastian and Oliver, plus his widow, Susie.”
Much of the 500 experience involves many more modest practices. For instance, devoted fans have enormously elaborate parking strategies, obsessively planning out their routes to the track and the timing of the race day; campers have long favored the lot known to fans as the Coke Lot. Even more obsessively researched and cherished are fans’ favored seat locations. Some fans favor the infield spaces like the historically rowdy Snake Pit, and others visit the track before the race and “test” the view of the track from particular seats.
Despite some uneasiness with sport as an act of faith, the roughly 500,000 fans in the speedway this weekend clearly have consequential emotions invested in the sport, and as with religious communities they feel the joy of connection gathered around the 2 ½ mile oval. In a universe of zealously committed fans who elevate sport and place to faith, the 500’s followers stand among the planet’s most devoted sporting faithful. While they may not be delivering the death rites to the church, they and other fandoms confirm that many of our most emotional experiences are invested in consumer spaces and popular culture and complicate facile distinctions between the secular and scared.
2008 Hallowed be thy name: Not in sports. Orlando Sentinel 15 April.
1998 Scots fans queue up for hallowed turf. Birmingham Post 28 Sept:10.
Juan Eduardo Campo
1998 American Pilgrimage Landscapes. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 558:40-56. (subscription access)
2013 Monument honoring Wheldon includes IMS bricks. Indianapolis Star 22 Mar: C.2.
2008 Rock and Roll Pilgrims: Reflections on Ritual, Religiosity, and Race at Graceland. In Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred, edited by Peter Jan Margry, pp.123-142. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.
2007 The Melody of May. Indianapolis Star 19 May: A.1.
Peter Jan Margry
2008 Pre’s Rock: Pilgrimage, Ritual, and Runners’ Traditions at the Roadside Shrine for Steve Prefontaine In Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred, edited by Peter Jan Margry, pp.123-142. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.
2006 Review, Hallowed Be Thy Game, by Mark Dowd. Implicit Religion 9(2):257-259. (PDF version)
New York Times
1909 Motor Speedway Opening: Fast Machines and Noted Drivers to Race at Indianapolis To-day. New York Times 19 August: 5.
1935 Throngs Mass at Indianapolis For 500-Mile Auto Race Today: Record Advance Sale of Tickets Announced for the Classic, in Which Thirty-three Will Seek Rich Prizes — Cummings, the 1934 Victor, Is in Field — New Speed Mark Probable. New York Times 30 May: 23.
1973 The Indianapolis 500: Festival of Speed and Color. New York Times 27 May: 173.
2005 Hallowed be thy game. The Sun 28 Jan: 40
1992 The Day Mecca Becomes Gasoline Alley. New York Times 24 May: S11.
2011 The Race the Made Indianapolis. Indianapolis Star 15 May:A.1.
2012 From the Holy Land to Graceland: Sacred People, Places and Things in Our Lives. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
2008 Glory. In Praying for England: Priestly Presence in Contemporary Culture, edited by Samuel Wells and Sarah Coakley, pp.41-64. Continuum Publishing, London.
2012 The Indianapolis 500: Making the Pilgrimage to the “Yard of Bricks.” In Sport, History, and Heritage: Studies in Public Representation, edited by Jeffrey Hill, Kevin Moore, and Jason Wood, pp. 247-262. Boydell Press, Suffolk, UK.
Philip B. Wilson
2011 Fans pay respects with growing memorial at Indianapolis Speedway. Gannett News Service 17 October.
Andrettis in Pits 1995 image, George Robson Victory Lane 1946 image, IMS Museum 1959 image, Indianapolis 500 1938 badge image, Jim Nabors 1975 image, Ray Harroun and Marmon Wasp 1911 image, Snake Pit 1977 image, and Speedway Infield 1930 image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection, IUPUI University Library