INDIANAPOLIS -- Thursday is Carb Day at Indy Motor Speedway. Coming from LA, you can imagine our relief upon learning the event has nothing to do with Atkins. Teams run their cars, trying to work out any problems in their set up.
The annual Pit Crew Competition pits garage against garage (Picture a Jiffy Lube service tournament sponsored by BALCO). And right outside of Gasoline Alley, there's a small pen, 8-by-15 feet, give or take a foot, enclosed on two sides by a metal barricade and another by a fence. Sealing it from behind was a large wooden horse, orange and white and covered in race team decals, with the following warning stenciled in: "ALLEY CATS ONLY!!" The two exclamation points making it seem doubly intimidating. In front reads another sign; "Home of the Almost World Famous Alley Cats." Being IMS neophytes, we asked a security guard. "What are the Alley Cats?"
"They're a bunch of drunk guys who stand out there and yell at the drivers."
Sounds like our kind of people.
Today is the Alley Cat's Super Bowl. The fans and crews are out, and it's the last day the Cats man their post. The pen is packed tighter than any other day. A dozen or so people filter in and out, armed with booze and vocal cords.
We approach with caution.
"They're fine, as long as they stay in their cage," says a laughing security and traffic official, known as a "yellow shirt" for reasons that are pretty obvious.
"We're basically nothing but a bunch of drunken buffoons," says Bill "Woody" Woodall, a tall, gregarious guy with a slight resemblance to Bill Paxton.
For 23 years, Woody, other original Alley Cats, and invited guests have held court inside their "compound," taking dedication to a single sporting event to almost absurd lengths, the kind that make Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson almost seem like band wagoners. Any day fans are allowed in the Speedway, the Alley Cats are there, razzing and schmoozing drivers, race crews, track officials, and fans.
Beers are cracked and don't stop flowing until fans are tossed out around 6 p.m. Passersby can stop and trade stories, jokes, or insults. The choice is yours, really. But one thing's for sure: You do not wander inside the compound without the express permission from the Cats. It would be exaggerating to say you'll get a beat down. It's probably exaggerating to say the verbal abuse will be bad enough you'll wish for a beat down instead. But you'll know by all the eyes boring a hole through your skull that you've perhaps taken a wrong turn. Don't bother pressing a twenty in their palms, either. This isn't a V.I.P. room at the club. It's actually more exclusive than that. True Alley Cat status is limited to the original seven guys who showed up 23 years ago. Everyone else is a guest.
Before you write these guys off as drunken snobs, consider this. Indy buildup lasts about a month. These are people with jobs. Jobs put at risk or even lost to maintain their tradition. (Woody remembers a time when he lived in Texas, and informed -- not asked, mind you, but informed -- his boss he'd need May off to travel to Indy. When told he wouldn't have a job when he returned, Woody replied, "Let me get my stuff, then.") You gotta want it. And earn it. Mere enthusiasm for racing doesn't cut it. Ben Affleck, for example, may love the Sox, but would he blow off shooting a movie just to catch a nondescript afternoon game at Fenway? Not likely. Most people prioritize differently, and that's fine. Even the Cats would understand. But for the same reason, even Affleck ain't getting inside the compound without an invitation.
The idea of stars seeking enterance into the compound isn't far-fetched. Remember in "The Godfather," when the guests bring Don Corleone gifts for his daughter's wedding? The Alley Cats are kind of like Marlon Brando. Drivers and crew members frequently come bearing gifts. Dan Wheldon has dropped off two bottles of Jim Beam and Helio Castroneves has brought by a case or two. Even Shigeaki Hattori once stopped by with sake and a stern warning of its strength. (Despite these and other donations, Woody jokes that they still spend "a war pension" on booze.) They're tossed hats, pins, and other paraphernalia as the race crews pass. Most of the gear gets doled out to little kids, and you'll never catch them putting their riches up on eBay. The respect factor runs too deep for such opportunism. "Anyone who can do the things we can't do I admire the hell out of," says Woody.
The Cats are so ingrained in the culture of Indy that they receive special favors. Years ago they were given permission to enter the Speedway on Saturday evening, before the general public, to camp out at their race day spot, parking a 21-foot green supercab by the tunnel on the backstretch at Turn 2.
They tacked the nickname "Caesar" on Roger Penske. They got A.J. Foyt to enter his garage with his hat on backwards, breaking his own strict dress code. They've boozed with Juan Montoya's father. Most importantly, they know the Yellow Shirts by name, and recognize how chaotic their days would be without these guys on their side. So they do their part for law and order, enforcing rules that often prohibit crews from riding their bikes or golf carts into pit lane from the garages. Inside the compound, there are standards (however loose) for decorum, as well, and the results are surprisingly effective. The Yellow Shirts don't have much trouble with the Cats. "You police your own area," says Woody, his face displaying a rare expression of seriousness. "We don't put up with disrespect for guys doing their jobs."
But for those willing to abide by the rules, days inside the compound are days not soon forgotten. If a kid needs an autograph from a driver passing by, the Cats will help hook it up (They've even received thank you notes from teachers whose students were taken care of). "Hey you Alley Cat mother f*&@er," yells Staff Sergeant Van Ripley, hanging out at IMS before being deployed to Qatar and Iraq on Friday. Ripley met the Cats three years ago and always looks them up when he's in town. "It freaks me out the respect I get," says guest John Leonard, holding a Bud Light inside a koozy. "I've never been treated like royalty before. Like I was someone."
For a month out of the year, these cats rule the den here at IMS. But what's to become of them after Sunday when the race is over? In the case of Mike Ebaugh, a "guest" since '91, you just start thinking, "330 more days."
Andrew and Brian Kamenetzky are frequent contributors to ESPN The Magazine, Page 2 and 3. They will be filing periodic updates from Gasoline Alley and beyond throughout Indy weekend for ESPN.com.