I remember the Snake Pit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the race, the way they used to be – unsanitized. The race was a little disreputable, and the Snake Pit was the center of the cesspool.
It was a formative experience when I initially meandered through the First Turn at Indy. We were walking from our vehicle in the Second Turn to our seats in the bleachers in the First Turn. The tickets were a concession to both myself and a younger friend. The determination had been made that we were too young to hang around the power drinkers and hell-raisers with whom we rode to the race, so we should have seats to protect our gentle souls. Obviously, this theory was not well thought out since the route to our seats took us through the Snake Pit.
As we hiked to our seats, we saw bikers and their women, the effects of hours of heavy drinking, and a hint of the ugliness of the human soul. We saw a fight (my first). We saw people covered in mud. We heard people laughing, but it was a different kind of laughter. It was the laughter of humanity unchained, the laughter of people released from the confines of expectation and society. And like a magnet to another magnet, I was both attracted and repelled. I still am.
Years later, while in college, my friends I attended qualifications and, for the first time, ventured into the Snake Pit without back-up. I was watching the cars while standing on the rim of a 55 gallon drum being used as a trash can. This was an active trash can; it was not turned over. I balanced above a trashy abyss. My friends kicked the trash can all afternoon, trying to make me tumble off. And then, without any assistance (except for Little Kings), I lost my balance and fell. Behind us, in the trees that used to be in Turn One, a cheer erupted from a number of bikers who had been watching me balance on the can all day. They motioned me over, poured me a beer from their keg, and explained they had been rooting for me to fall from my perch all afternoon. Schadenfreude indeed. These boys were happy as hell to see me bust my ass. As I stood and talked to them, I was again attracted and repelled. These were not nice guys; the patches on the backs of their vests told me all I needed to know. But at that moment, I was okay by them. I drank the beer and walked back to my friends, realizing that we were in over our heads in Turn One. We could not hang with the hard-core.
But I am not just telling a story, I am illustrating a point. The Snake Pit doesn’t exist anymore. The construction of the museum and the new entrance off 16th Street was the death knell. More bleachers were added. The Snake Pit shrunk and then moved to Turn 4. IMS didn’t move it; the organic nature of humanity did. And the change began. Turn 4 disappeared with the construction of the road course. In recent years, IMS has tried to capitalize on the essence of bad. The Miller Lite Party Deck came into existence in the North Chute. I do not blame IMS. Somebody saw a chance to make money on a concept. That’s just good business. And now they have stolen the Snake Pit. The party has an agenda. It’s choreographed. The corporate Snake Pit even has a VIP area in case you need to feel “special.” The real Snake Pit has passed into history. I miss it.
IndyCar needs the vitality of the Snake Pit in the crowd. IndyCar needs the essence of the Snake Pit in its racing. It needs its drivers to be colorful, mean, aggressive, and hungry, just like the old Snake Pit in Turn 1. We need to be both repelled and attracted. What we have is corporate. Why is Tony Stewart such a popular champion in NASCAR? The answer is simple. He’s real. He’s earthy. He has some Snake Pit in him. A.J. Foyt was popular with the crowd in Turn 1 for the same reason. They loved him. His humanity resonated with people. It still does. Our current drivers eat well, exercise, and mostly toe the company line. And when Helio Castroneves goes off after a penalty, and Will Power exercises his fingers, we wonder if they will be fined, suspended, or fired. All this for being real. All this for just having some Snake Pit in them. We should celebrate this humanity, not punish it.
As long as IndyCar goes begging for sponsors, the teams will still want sanitized drivers. I want some delinquents. IndyCar has always been edgy. Those are its roots. IndyCar is fun, fast, and dangerous, just like it has always been. Just like the Snake Pit of my youth. We need to tap into that violent, raucous, raw humanity and reconnect to the past of Indy. As Robert Earl Keen sang, “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.”
1. As a general rule, I choose to capitalize the turns at Indy, as well as the names of other physical features. My blog, my grammar.
2. Little Kings Cream Ale was a Midwestern beer of my youth. Here’s a link to their website. Be sure to click on “Proclamations.” http://www.littlekingsbeer.com/main.html
3. This is the “corporate” Snake Pit with adult supervision. *weeping* http://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/indy500/eventinfo/35202-Party-Scene/
4. Here’s a YouTube link to Robert Earl Keen’s song. Enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tMDXgf2cH4&feature=related