Saturday, May 28, 2011

Indy at 100

I haven't posted for a while, but couldn't let Memorial Day weekend go by without noting the centennial of the Indianapolis 500. Sport is a highly ritualized activity, where participants and audiences often share a strong consciousness of the lineage and history of what they're doing (in recent years I've gotten tired of hearing the phrase "storied franchise" used in describing one sports team or another, but it does capture that sense of heritage that surrounds so many sports organizations and venues, particularly in an era of increased interest in vintage and retro sports of all kinds). Unlike a lot of heritage activities, there's no distinct break between past and present in sport (except in the cases of defunct franchises, like this one). And car culture, of course, is anything but past. So sport involving cars is a great way to get a sense of how contemporary car afficianados are thinking about the automobile's past.

As I noted in a previous post, they're definitely doing that in a celebratory rather than a questioning way, reinforcing the notion of "heritage" as a realm where it's difficult to bust anyone out of the mindset that accepts the present as a natural extension of a progressive past. With events like the Indy 500 centennial, it's all about veneration of past heroes, participation in folk traditions, and communion with places that have acquired the patina of legend (in addition to its enshrinement in commercial and popular culture, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has the blessing of the National Park Service with its placement on the National Register for Historic Places in 1975 and the granting of National Historic Landmark status in 1987).

It's also about the commemoration of technological innovations, and not always high-tech ones. For example, the humble rear-view mirror made its first official appearance on the winning car at the 1911 Indy 500 (that's it on the right, at the famous Yard of Bricks that remains from the 1909 brick course). Driver Ray Harroun was unable to find a mechanic to ride along with him and perform the important job of letting him know who was behind him, so he supposedly borrowed the mirror idea from a horse-drawn vehicle he'd seen, although the notion already seems to have been in use by women drivers who used their hand-mirrors in a similar way. This cars-and-history project of mine has kicked up so many juicy metaphors and turns of phrase that I've come to resist all of them as clichéd (driven to the past, life in the past lane, you get the picture). But something about celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the rear-view mirror strikes me as particularly apt for thinking about how automobility's promise of charging forward into the future depends on a keen awareness of a past that's never quite as settled as we'd like to imagine it is.