INDIANAPOLIS -- Claw away the mystique and the Indianapolis 500 is just an auto race on an asphalt oval outside a mid-sized Midwestern town.
But it is the Indianapolis 500. And it is great. Everyone here says so. But just why that is so is as mysterious as the race itself.
Sunday, barring rain, the 75th edition of the Indy 500 will take the green flag at noon Eastern time.
Indy can be anything anyone wants it to be: A party, an infield love-fest, a celebration of the unwashed, unclothed and disrespectful; or just as easily a celebration of engineering skill, a corporate promotional tool, a great exhibition of fearlessness and talent.
Over 500 miles a driver can find himself traveling through the valley of death, where 31 men have died, or emerging on the mountain tops exhilarated with victory.
How a race and a race track can generate fear, pride, happiness and despair is all part of the mystery of Indy.
"When you get up Sunday morning to come out here," said Bobby Rahal, the 1986 winner, "you know you are going to race in the biggest race of your life."
It is only pavement, only a surface on which men race cars -- fast. But this is Indy. Busting with pride, Indy.
"Indy is the one place in the world where every race driver has to prove himself once and for all," said A.J. Foyt, who will start his record 34th 500 Sunday. "The driver knows it. Everybody here knows it."
But exactly why it is so? Well, it just is.
It started in 1909, when the track was built with a surface made from tar and crushed stones. When the dirt and dust proved too much, the 2.5-mile oval was paved, not with gold, as might be imagined from the way drivers talk about this aging fortress, but with brick.
Three million bricks. The Old Brickyard they called it -- and still do. The greatest race in the world, they called it -- and still do.
Only two World Wars have been able to stop it -- in 1917, 1918, 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945.
The bricks of course, all but five rows of them at the start/finish line, disappeared after Foyt won the second of his four victories in 1961.
Still it is the Old Brickyard and with every passing year the race gets bigger, bursting at its seams.
"It is the greatest event in the world," said former winner Danny Sullivan, competing here for the ninth time. "I grew up in Louisville where they have the Kentucky Derby, so I know something about tradition. Winning this race made my career. I have no illusions about that.
"You win a race here and it is a title you carry with you the rest oyour life. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the crown jewel."
Of memories, too.
In 1913, Charles Merz, his car on fire, roared to a third-placfinish in his Stutz at about 100 mph. When he crossed the finish line, mechanic Harry Martin was in front of him (mechanics rode with the drivers in those days), straddling the hood, beating the flames with his oily rag as the car literally fired to the finish.
It is those kinds of stories that have created Indy.
John Andretti, who grew up in Indianapolis as the son of Mario'twin brother Aldo, will start in the third row. He has known of Indy all his life.
"Indy has heritage and tradition that stands on its own," saiJohn, 28, one of four Andrettis in the starting field. "There are 500,000 fans here on race day. For one day. That is something in itself. But we've all heard about the greatness of Indy so long, we accept it, even if we can't exactly describe it."
The tradition of the place is here to be seen, not just recalled and felt.
Carburetion Day is today, but there are no carburetors. The cars will roll out of Gasoline Alley, but there is no gasoline. In fact, there are no alleys, now that the old wooden garages have been replaced by modern concrete rowhouses.
The Brickyard is without bricks.
There are numbers painted along the outside wall of the track going into turn 1, to tip off drivers to the best spots for braking, but since ground effects [surface hugging designs] emerged 10 years ago, no one brakes. The numbers remain.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, somehow, is frozen in time. And yet the race and the men in it go faster all the time. From 70 mph in 1907 to 220 in 1991.
Rahal suggests the Indy aura isn't just race day or the week leading up to it. It is the entire month of May.
"It used to bother me, coming here for the entire month to practice and qualify," he said. "Doing everything in five days wouldn't change the outcome of the race a bit. But five days wouldn't be Indy. I don't think I understood that until a couple years ago. Things don't change quickly here. The world's attention is focused on Indy in May. It's tradition. It's folklore. In 75 years a lot has gone on here."