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More Than a Spectacle
More Than a Spectacle
Finding community at the Indy 500, Burning Man, and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

I grew up in small town Iowa and, as a child, I believed “the greatest spectacle in racing” was the demolition derby at the county fair. The notion that hundreds of thousands of individuals could gather at an oval track was foreign to me. I was just a girl from Treynor, a town with 900 people, two churches, and zero stoplights.

Now that I live in Indy, with the Indianapolis 500 fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about large-scale events, the relationships they have with their respective host cities, and the sense of community they offer. There are three U.S. events that particularly have been on my mind: the Indy 500 (obviously), Burning Man (which my best friend’s father introduced me to), and the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (because loud noises).

Each of these events has a relationship with the place where it is held. Burning Man, an annual gathering of dreamers and doers, is held at Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis in the northwest Nevada desert. Outside of Burning Man—held from the last Sunday in August to the first Monday in September—Black Rock City does not exist.

Sturgis, like Mardi Gras, is synonymous with its city. Say “New Orleans,” and people think of revelry and grandiose. Say “Sturgis,” and people think of motorcycles, not a sleepy South Dakota town of 6,800.

One couple from my hometown in Iowa—Ray and Dianne Boyer—has been riding to Sturgis for decades. This year will be Ray’s 36th rally and, when I asked him and Dianne to describe it for me, they immediately mentioned community.

“Every time we go, everyone feels like family,” Dianne said. “We’re all out there together.”

Ray agreed, and said that, come Sturgis time, it’s easy to hear the rumble of a motorcycle and chase it to South Dakota. “It’s a calling,” he said, “And I can’t think of anything else that compares to Sturgis. This little town comes alive.”

In other words, what makes Sturgis, Sturgis is, well, Sturgis.

Similarly, the Indy 500 could not be anywhere else but Indianapolis. The track originally was constructed in 1909 as an automotive testing ground. At the time, Indy was home to dozens of auto manufacturers, and as the city of Indianapolis grew, so did the Indy 500. An IndyStar feature about how the Indy 500 became more than a race touched on this, describing Carl Fisher—one of the track’s principals—as a visionary who “knew if he put on display these marvels of machine, interest in the automobile would surge and business would boom.”

Fisher probably never imagined the annual event at his 2.5-mile oval would turn into “the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He just wanted a place to test his cars, damn it, without the tires exploding. But what started as a test track became a race track, and even if someone knows nothing else about Indianapolis, they know about the Indy 500.

I’ll be the first to admit that, growing up, I didn’t know a lot about Indianapolis. It wasn’t until fourth grade, when we were studying all 50 U.S. states and state capitals, that I even learned how to spell it. I was nine years old then, and if someone had asked me to write an encyclopedia entry for Indianapolis, I would have said, “It’s the capital of Indiana, and it’s where the Indy 500 is. Also, it’s the capital.”

I also could have told you about some people I knew, who, every year, made the nine-hour trek from southwest Iowa to central Indiana. They loved racing, definitely, but what kept them coming back to the Indy 500 (other than the pork tenderloins) was the thrill of being a part of something. Part of a crowd that gasps, points, yells, drinks, and cheers when the checkered flags declare the end of the race, and a winner.

It’s not surprising that large events such as the Indy 500, Sturgis, and Burning Man yield a sense of community. The attendees have gathered for a common purpose—to watch a race, to partake in a rally, to create a city dedicated to self-expression and self-reliance.

I know a couple of people who have attended Burning Man, including Julie Richardson, a card designer in California. She attended the event in 2014 and wrote a post about her experience.

“By our last day of Burning Man, I was ready to go home,” she wrote. “I was drained, and physically sick … Once [we] got to the ceremony site … I felt different. As the burn started, the emotions in the air felt different. I felt a release. I felt liberated. … In just that one moment, it all made sense.”

So there it is. That existential feeling that right here and right now is all that matters. It’s at Burning Man, where individuals wander aimlessly in the dust and find a path. It’s at the Indy 500, with the fence-climbing elation of winning. And it’s at Sturgis, where a family of motorcyclists larger than the populations of Boston, Nashville, and Seattle gather and ride the Black Hills of South Dakota.

And while the Indy 500, Sturgis, and Burning Man are no demolition derby at Westfair, they certainly are spectacles of their own.

Image credits:
Burning Man: Christopher P. Michel
Sturgis: Joseph Sohm |
Indy 500: 
carroteater |