“Where are you going? Heaven or hell?” asked a billboard beside a typically dull stretch of Interstate 65 halfway from Chicago to Indianapolis. Twenty miles south came another sign, this one more urgent than the last, a warning spelled out in white block type against a black background: “HELL IS REAL.”
I wouldn’t usually give that kind of roadside religious propaganda a thought. But I knew full well where I was going: the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500—and more to the point, into the belly of that Memorial Day weekend beast, the decadent and depraved infield party known as the Snake Pit.
The Indy 500 is a tale of two events. Some of its traditions are of the genteel sort that give goosebumps to enthusiasts of the 500-mile, 200-lap sprint: the singing of “Back Home in Indiana,” the public address call of “Drivers, start your engines,” the winner drinking from a glass bottle of milk, even the awkward celebrity appearances. And then there are the far less decorous customs of the Snake Pit, the general-admission interior of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where thousands get mind-numbingly wasted in the oppressive heat of a Sunday afternoon—helped along by the wildly permissive policy that allows ticket holders to stream into the venue with coolers brimming with beer and liquor.
“For lots of people,” observed a middle-aged man seated contently in the grandstands, “Indy is just a party that happens to have a race surrounding it.” Depending on which side of the Speedway’s inside wall one happens to be on, the event is either the Greatest Spectacle in Racing or the Greatest Spectacle in Drinking. The latter phrasing appeared on a T-shirt worn by a woman in the Snake Pit as she cheered on a friend willingly taking on a warped sort of ice-bucket challenge. Two men held the woman upside down by the ankles, completely submerging her head in the freezing water of a cooler for several seconds. Dazed and gasping for breath upon surfacing, she immediately shotgunned a beer before staggering backward and falling into a kiddie pool filled with still more ice and beer.
Nearby, George Hauser guzzled “Bud diesel” and considered the differences between the two Indy experiences. “Some people like to have tea and crumpets in a beautiful valley in the shadow of a mountain range. I respect that. But that’s slow-paced,” said the 21-year-old from Illinois, who had queued at the gate at 4:30 AM to claim a patch of the grassy knoll overlooking turn four. When Kelly Clarkson began belting “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Hauser reverently removed his baseball cap and held his can of beer over his heart. “There are six gears in Indy cars,” he continued. “People also have gears. When you come to the Indy 500 infield, these are a bunch of gear-six people.”
Back on the track, Chris Hemsworth waved the green flag. The field of 33 cars suddenly shifted into high gear, the high-decibel buzz that is the race’s hallmark sounding like a swarm of angry bees. On much of the infield, however, the most discernible sound was the pulsing bass emanating from a stage near turn three that spewed fire skyward in time with the music.
Organizers began booking the Snake Pit mini-festival in 2010 in an effort to appeal to a younger audience and channel the crowd’s energy toward dancing and away from solely binge drinking. This year, while Deadmau5, Diplo, and other EDM acts performed, thousands of stumbling 20-somethings packed in, wearing bikinis and board shorts. They suckled at Camelback straws and slapped beach balls into the air, which was made hazy by large plumes of vaporizer fog and pot smoke.
Infielders who wanted to ignore the race altogether had plenty more distractions. The scene at a beer-company-sponsored “party deck” adjacent to turn four included people playing volleyball on a makeshift sand court while a bar band performed plodding covers of Aerosmith and Tom Petty songs.
“Most of the people who come to this could give a fuck less about racing,” said Alan Coxhead, 34, a bartender from Lafayette, Indiana, taking in his fourth Indy 500 from the Snake Pit. Coxhead’s hunch seemed to check out, as I began asking infield denizens if they happened to know the name of the race leader. “Shit! I don’t fuckin’ know!” said Michele, a 27-year-old from Indianapolis. “I mean, we come every year and I know about the race, but we just fuckin’ stumbled out here.”
Stars and stripes were exhibited on every imaginable surface: paper plates, lawn chairs, top hats, overalls, backpacks, robes, bandannas, dress suits, bikinis, mankinis. Red, white, and blue were as inescapable as the sun beating down from the near-cloudless sky. A man was standing along the track fence when someone snuck up and pulled down his American flag swimsuit, leaving the star-spangled banner to wave o’er his bare ass. “We the people are wasted” was splashed across the shirt of a woman engaged in a heated beer pong battle. While MAGA hats were conspicuously absent, other pro-Trump apparel wasn’t uncommon. One T-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan “Trump Party,” featured an image of the president in sunglasses raising a red Solo cup to his mouth.
Two young men were spotted wearing “Reagan Bush ’84” shirts. “Honestly, if you’re a Republican, Reagan has got to be your favorite president,” said Dylan Downey, a 23-year-old from Elwood, Indiana, when asked why he decided to purchase a campaign tee from an election that occurred before he was born. Downey described himself as “100 percent not a fucking liberal.” He said he came to the speedway for the party and the outlandish displays of Americana. “I love everyone trying to be more American than anyone else. I got red, white, and blue underwear, socks, everything. It just makes me happy to be an American. America is better every single day.”
A 68-year-old Vietnam veteran from Indianapolis by way of Texas zoomed around the Snake Pit in a motorized scooter with a large Confederate battle flag mounted on the back. “Everybody who complains about it says it’s the Confederate flag. That’s not the Confederate flag! This is the Confederate flag,” he said, pointing to the front of the scooter, which displayed a small version of the single-star Bonnie Blue Flag, the banner of the Confederacy at the Civil War’s outset. Asked a question about slavery, he swiftly motored away.
As the day wore on, the temperature climbed to a high of 91 degrees, tying the 2012 running for the second-hottest Indy 500, IMS officials said. (The record of 92 degrees was recorded during the 1937 race.) Ambulances became a frighteningly common sight, roaring down walkways with sirens blaring to tend to heatstroke sufferers and alcohol poisoning cases before carting away their lifeless bodies on stretchers as if they were the war wounded. The lucky ones simply passed out under folding tables, against toilets—in any patch of shade they could find until the race was over, when they would be literally shaken from their slumber.
Old-school Snake Pit revelers, who had long ago learned to pace their alcohol consumption, couldn’t help but get a little dewy-eyed reflecting on days when they were wilder. Richard Heard, 69, co-founded one of the longest-running Snake Pit gatherings, which has been going strong since 1972. Under the group’s canopy, which carried a banner reading “The Greatest Spectacle in Partying,” Heard and his friends displayed photos from each of the past celebrations. “1988, ’89—there are a lot of topless pictures,” he said with a big grin. “People would pour beer on the ground and make a mudslide, get all muddy, and take their clothes off. After the race was over, we’d hop over the fence and walk on the track and play volleyball. Things have changed a whole big bunch. The Speedway is trying to make it a family-friendly environment, and they don’t let stuff like that go on anymore.”
Tom Farrar, a leathery 75-year-old from Indianapolis, hasn’t missed a 500 in 52 years. “One year back in the mid-70s, when streaking was the big craze, there must’ve been 500 naked people out on the track roaming around,” he said. “Now I just watch and enjoy seeing people do the same things I used to do.”
There was also a much darker side to the old, lawless Snake Pit. Drunks were known to flip over cars and set them on fire; women were regular targets of harassment and assault. Deena Callahan, 40, was raised on the west side of Indianapolis by Indy 500 regulars. “You see a bunch of naked people setting a couch on fire when you’re seven, you tend stay the fuck away from that,” she said. “It was total anarchy. Assaults, a knife would come out here and there, some fights—think frat-house party. It was a bunch of nonstop, gnarly debauchery.”
After spending hours surrounded by people binging on beer, I wanted to watch a guy drink some milk. In a race that had seen 30 lead changes and 41 caution laps following seven crashes—knocking out defending champion Takuma Sato, former 500 winners Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, and Danica Patrick in her last race—Will Power took the lead in the final four laps to claim his first win. Pulling off his helmet, the euphoric Aussie closed his eyes, tilted his head toward the heavens, and said to himself, “I can’t believe it!”
As the new champ took a victory lap and kissed the bricks, the infield masses were discharged back into the world. Sunburnt flesh began to blister and peel. Trash cans overflowed with empty beer cans and food waste. Former Bachelor contestant Ben Higgins, looking vaguely uncomfortable with his own minor celebrity, smiled dimly as he left his VIP sanctuary and exited past the hoi polloi. A young man, surrounded by Marion County law enforcement officers, fell to the Speedway’s cement floor and was overtaken by violent fits of vomiting. The parade of glazed faces conveyed little except the sudden realization that what was once a mid-race buzz had become a full-tilt hangover.
We the people are wasted. America is great. Hell is real.