INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — For decades, they chugged beers from dirty couches on the backs of pickups parked in yards near the speedway. In the mornings, they nursed hangovers to the shrill cries of Indy cars.
For those nomad fans known as "race rats" who follow the traveling carnival of motorsports, the month of May always meant camping outside the Indianapolis 500 in a gear-head's paradise.
But they're older now, and even they'll admit the party is just about over.
Smoking as he looks out over a campground two blocks from the track, Reggie Foster, 56, of Colorado Springs, Colo., remembers the days when portable toilets would be set ablaze and fans would do impromptu stripteases.
"This is a racing city — it has been for decades. And the Indy 500 is the biggest in the world. At least it used to be," said Foster, who has come to Indy for 30 years. "This place used to be crazy. It ain't like that anymore."
As recently as 10 years ago, the spacious clearing where Foster parked for this year's race was the site of revelry that left beer cans and programs scattered in heaps, the garbage of a monthlong party.
A week before the race this year, he was the only one there.
Through the years, neighborhood yards became camps for the race faithful as soon as the track opened for qualifying in early May. They flopped in RVs pulled over curbs and slept in rundown motels and back seats.
"We go from a sleepy town of 13,000 people to a population close to half a million on race day," said John Otte, fire chief of the town of Speedway, which is adjacent to the famous Indianapolis track. "Five hours after the race is over, it's back to sleep."
With checkered flags lining aging storefronts through town all year, the community always appeared to be awaiting the next event, eager to pull down last year's weathered race banners and hang new ones.
A lot changed a few years ago when new bleachers inside the speedway forced the party to move from the infield, which was dubbed the "Snake Pit," to the surrounding streets.
But even that is calmer this year.
There seemed to be fewer people in the stands for Indy 500 qualifying. Track officials had difficulty filling the field of 33 cars, and the quiet concession stands serving sausage and pork tenderloin sandwiches seem to illustrate that the race just isn't what it used to be.
Other races at the track, such as the Formula One and Brickyard 400, bring a younger and rowdier crowd.
Still, resident David Crumley lets his grass grow long, rents a portable toilet for his yard, and plans to fit a dozen RVs and about 35 cars on his lot two blocks from Turn 3.
Living in the shadow of the speedway for 17 years, Crumley said he's used to a yard busy with regulars who camp in the same spot each year and call ahead to make sure their squat is open.
He's even kept up rapport with the fans, including a Heinz factory worker from Pittsburgh who takes the title of "Mayor of the Yard" when he arrives, drinking and directing yard traffic.
It's an annual party of old friends, but even Crumley said he misses the old days.
"The biggest problem with racing right now is it's diluted," said Crumley, referring to the three events at the track. "To me, it's still like Indy is the race."
But the streets don't swell with traffic and vendors until race day, and fireworks rarely light the night sky with drunken fans cheering until the wee hours.
For those who grew up near the track, what was once weeks of partying now comes only for a day.
"It's like one big family reunion," said Karen Pickens, holding a sign advertising both parking in her yard and a litter of kittens. "But the new people coming just don't want to establish their yards like I did."
Some say the rainy weather has kept people away the last few years. Others say it's a change in attitude, swapping the party element for mud-caked minivans on family outings.
It may just be that the race rats are getting older, and the younger crowd hasn't come along yet.
Norman Paskow, 68, of Rockford, Ill., sits in his motor home in a VFW parking lot across the street from the track after a day in the bleachers watching practice.
With his dog, Heidi, on his lap, he talks about how the atmosphere of the race has changed in the 38 years he's been coming to Indianapolis.
"I think what eventually will happen will be it will dry up and blow away," he said, shaking his head.
Until it does, Paskow said, he'll keep coming.
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