I don’t know what I would do if Amazon didn’t exist. With it (just like real libraries) I can stumble upon long-forgotten books no longer available in stores. I can also preorder books that won’t be out for another year.
This is a case of the former.
A couple of months ago I was transcribing an interview for an oral history of the 1992 Indianapolis 500-probably with Robin Miller-when I took to the Internet to research a person that was mentioned, I forget who.
When the results popped up, among them was a mention of “The Indy 500: An American Institution Under Fire,” a 40-year-old book by someone named Ron Dorson. Having caught the disease that was Indy 500 history and with my first Month of May weeks away, I made a few clicks over at Amazon (this isn’t a sponsored post, by the way) and the book was waiting on my doorstep before the week was up.
“Under Fire,” written at the time by a 29-year-old Dorson who had a sociology degree from Indiana, is quite simply, a perfect time machine. It takes you back to a time when the Indianapolis 500 was truly considered a one of the marquee sporting events of the year, before the NFL was the NFL, before NASCAR stormed onto the national stage in 1979 and when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway put a butt in every seat for Pole Day.
But Dorson also tells the story of a race facing questions not of popularity, but whether it should be allowed to exist because of the on-the-track carnage that was taking place as speeds and technology jointly evolved.
The 1973 Month of May took three days to run, but it never went the full 500 miles, as rain and death took its toll. Two drivers, Art Pollard and Swede Savage, and one pit crew member, Armando Teran, lost their lives as a result of incidents, though none were taken in the first lap crash that damaged 12 cars and sent multiple fans to the hospital.
While the title and the supposed thesis of the book comes from the events of the 1973 race, it’s largely forgotten until the end of the book, with only brief references to the race and fallout until Dorson actually leads into the actual recounting of the race in the closing chapters.
It seems to me Dorson set out to document all of the characters that made up the “500” and then the ’73 race and hostility toward it fell into his lap late in the process.
Dorson does thorough work of cataloging the complete Indianapolis 500 experience circa the early-1970s. He interviews everyone from IMS’s top brass (excluding owner Tony Hulman), to drivers, ticket takers, security guards and 75-year-old “super fan” Larry Bisceglia, who was the first fan to enter the track grounds in May for 25 straight years.
“Under Fire” shows us how some things in 2014 haven’t changed that much in 40 years. Race car drivers were in the thick of fighting the stigma that they weren’t real athletes, which is still put forth today by the uninitiated, namely Donovan McNabb.
The best take I’ve ever heard on the matter comes from “Under Fire,” when Dorson asked Mark Donohue, the 1972 winner of the 500, for his thoughts.
“The government classifies me as a professional athlete from a tax standpoint,” Donohue said. “So I suppose that’s a fairly declarative statement.”
Even more declarative was what Dorsey Patrick, one of the few female auto racing writers allowed in Gasoline Alley in 1973, had to say about the how IMS treated women in those days of Nixon.
“The way they treat women at the IMS is indignant and humiliating-pure garbage,” said Patrick, who wrote for a The Stopwatcher, a sports car magazine in Washington D.C., at the time. “Women must carry letter stating they actually have legitimate credentials in order to enjoy the same privileges granted to male reporters.”
The only problem is Dorson never had anyone to defend the track. The three paragraphs (two for quotes) devoted to Patrick could be lifted from the narrative and no one could tell the difference.
Dorson had more bark when addressing the issue of race at the speedway, without hesitation saying the “500,” created in 1911, “is a show staged by white people for a white audience.” He notes that at the time no black driver had ever took part in the race (and wouldn’t until Willy T. Ribbs in 1991).
A USAC executive blamed the high cost of racing on the inability of black drivers to get into the sport.
Dorson almost gets snarky on the subject, which comes up in the chapter devoted to “Boosters” of the race, primarily the 500 Festival.
“Never an organization to ignore the trends of social change, the 500 Festival Associates recently elected their first token black to the board of directors, Dr. Frank Perry Llyoyd,” wrote Dorson.
Another social dynamic that was received very differently in 1973 was the gay community. Early in the book Dorson boasts of Indianapolis’ “progressive stance” on waging an all-out war against crime. In the middle of a paragraph boasting the crime statistics of the “The All-America City,” right after “32 purse snatching by juveniles” and not far from “66 murders were committed” (with 98.4 percent solved) is the state claiming “10 homosexuals were arrested out of 7 investigations.”
Forty years later Indy hosts an annual LGBT pride event that sees roughly 95,000 people attend.
One of the more interesting aspects of “Under Fire” for the journalist in me was the chapter devoted to the media coverage of the race. Those interviewed by Dorson included the sports editor at the still existing Indianapolis News, PA announcer Tom Carnegie and “The Voice of the Indianapolis 500,” Sid Collins.
Dorson details what Collins went through in 1964 when two drivers, including Eddie Sachs, were killed two laps into the “500.” Dorson shares Collins’ haunting eulogy to Sachs, which you can listen to here.
“An American Institution Under Fire” is an easy recommendation for me, that is, if you can find a copy of it or are lucky enough to know me and can talk me into letting you borrow it.
It delves into the history of the Hulman family and how it saved the track and race after it was nearly forgotten following World War II. It tries to examine the psyche of a city through its devotion to a race that was just over 60 years old at the time and even gives you a peek at the seeds that were already planted for the sports’ eventual division in 1995.
Seeing as it was Dorson’s first book (he would write a biography on Collins years later), I’m impressed by how he was able to get his arms around a subject a big as the “500,” especially having been introduced to the race just a couple of years before. As a first time author, Dorson tended use large block quotes, taking up pages at a time sometimes. But here it’s useful, with Dorson not inserting his own interpretation of someone else’s beliefs of a controversial topic.
It’s raw and untarnished.
So if you’re a life-long fan of auto racing or have just recently stepped into the shallow end of the pool, check your local library, book merchant or wherever out-of-print books are sold for this time capsule to a different time and race in a very familiar city.