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Faith at the Brickyard: Ritual, Fandom, and the Indianapolis 500

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

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. Read the rest of this entry