A military helicopter flew overhead in the middle of RL Grime's set of twisted-up rap remixes on a Coors Light-branded stage early on a Sunday morning last month. At any large-scale music festival, the distant sound of a chopper's blades is a common occurrence; yet, despite all the sensory overload on-the-ground, everyone started to look up at the clouds.
Five men hung from a rope beneath the helicopter, dangling an American flag below them as they lowered tactically into the upper reaches of bleachers in the distance. The sky was overcast, throwing a melancholic pall over the patriotic spectacle unfolding overhead.
As RL Grime played a shattered Migos remix, the helicopter began its final descent, stars and stripes waggling lazily beneath it. Someone in the crowd began chanting "U-S-A," and most everyone around me joined in—including two tank-topped young men wearing red baseball caps with white text: the scarlet letters of Trump supporters.
I nervously laughed and reminded myself that this was the experience I'd chosen—standing in the mud of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, awaiting the 101st running of the Indy 500. The event is known as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" and it strikes me, as another drop hits and more gaseous accelerant ignites above the stage, as pretty accurate branding.
Moments before, I'd seen someone fireman-carry a very pale and nauseous-looking friend out of the muddy pit near the front of the stage. A group of people near me guzzled Budweiser from what appeared to be a ceremonial ram's horn. I had to pour out most of my own beer after someone tossed a cup of noodles from a food stand through the air, spraying chili oil and cabbage over a five-meter radius of the crowd. It wasn't even 11AM yet.
For the last six years, Indy 500 has been booking EDM's biggest names—like Skrillex, who headlined last year—to play in a small corner of the speedway's infield that's become affectionately known as the Snake Pit, from around 7 AM until the race ends around 4 PM.
I've been to the Indy 500 handful of times, but I first ventured into the Snake Pit a few years ago, when I saw Diplo play Future and Ace Hood's ode to absurdly fast cars "Bugatti" to a crowd of kids losing their shit amid the sub-bass decimation. That moment—standing stone sober in a crowd of Midwest hedonists who'd likely been drinking since before sunrise—remains one of the my favorite live music memories.
This year, Zedd, Marshmello, and RL Grime headlined a bill of indiscriminate electro-destruction. But if people knew or cared who was onstage, they didn't really seem to show it. No original song generated a response as enthusiastic as the (multiple) remixes of "XO TOUR Llif3" I heard throughout the day. All that mattered was the drops. And the fire. And the beer.
Indy 500 operates on a scale that's sort of impossible to imagine unless you've been there. With a capacity of 400,000, it's is the largest single-day sporting event in the world every year. More people watch the Super Bowl or the World Series on television, but in terms of sheer number of bodies in a single location, nothing tops Indy. It's a whole city's worth of people cramming into a 2.5 mile oval for a celebration of speed, power, noise—and, since 2012, EDM.
The race track itself is similarly massive; a local news station pointed out a few years ago that the infield is big enough to fit the island that houses the Statue of Liberty, the Kentucky Derby's Churchill Downs, the Taj Mahal, the Roman Colosseum, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, and the entire Vatican City, with some room left over.
The cars themselves only add to the excess. Topping out at over 230 miles an hour, the open-wheeled Indy cars can each produce an ear-piercing whine that measures at around 128 decibels, according to calculations from another Indianapolis news outlet. The whole pack of 33 cars roars by at 140 decibels at the start of the race—a drop far more deafening than any of RL Grime's.
There's something distinctly American about the event's over-the-topness—it could have only come from the land of MegaMillions and Taco Bell Chicken Chips. Spending drunken days amidst the cacophony probably isn't good for your long-term mental or physical well-being, but it is a marvel to behold. I found myself stand on one of the hills in the golf course in the middle of the track—yes, that exists—getting lost observing the waterfall of people circulating from trackside to Snake Pit and back again.
The Indy 500 takes place every year on the Sunday before Memorial Day, hence the military pageantry that I spied from the Snake Pit. Displays of patriotism are nothing new. After all, the only thing more American than consumerist excess is stars-and-stripes propaganda at a sporting event.
At this year's race, I saw more American flag clothing than I've ever seen in one place, including a drunk man attempting to piss in an aluminum trough through a flap in his star-spangled onesie. But this year, in light of Trump and the current political climate, the atmosphere of hot-blooded nationalism felt especially charged.
Before the race began, a promo clip for the Army unit who pulled off that helicopter stunt played on giant LED screens across the track. In the video, craggy-faced veterans of the 101st Airborne recounted harrowing war stories of rescue missions and daring attacks in hushed tones.
The veterans repeated a slogan, borrowed from previous Presidential speeches by FDR and Reagan, about how these terrifying moments were their "rendezvous with destiny"—a suggestion that I found troubling, given the civilian death toll that American bombings worldwide create on a near daily basis. Whose destiny is that?
After the clip ended, the unit's band played "God Bless America," and my feeling of unease intensified as I thought about how Vice President Mike Pence—Indiana's former Governor—was somewhere on the premises. Earlier in the day, the track had shut down a whole entrance so that he could arrive securely.
Knowing that a man who has been so intent on enacting policies that limit the rights of women, queer people, and people of color was watching this same maudlin spectacle of patriotism made me feel a little queasy. Holidays like Memorial Day that preach a patriotic sense of national unity have always made me feel uneasy. But under an administration drafting legislation that deprives large portions of the country's population of basic needs, I felt even more alienated than ever.
I strolled back over to the Snake Pit in search of a salve. Walking back into the pit, where a substantial layer of trash and mud had begun caking the ground, I found the masked marauder Marshmello playing some strangely affecting remixes on stage, including a version of "Wonderwall" that included a few ungodly drops.
The crowd had thinned a bit since the race had begun—the MAGA-hatted bros seemed to have mostly retreated to the stands to swill more Natural Light and cheer on the rhythmic thrum of the race itself. The remaining roiling masses were conspicuously friendly.
My friends shared boxed wine with strangers in exchange for pulls from labelless vodka bottles. A very tall man—who actually told us he used to play for the the New York Giants—hoisted THUMP's photographer on his shoulders when he saw him leaning for a shot of the stage. "I'm an elevator, I make people go up," the man said obliquely.
Marshmello played "Alone" toward the end of his set, and it's chorus—"I'm so alone, nothing feels like home"—took a weirdly new resonance in the midst of my ruminations on national identity. A crowd full of people, in the infield of the Indy 500, singing along to a message of not fitting in, felt like a sort of warped gospel.
Unity has always been one of club culture's core tenets, and there was some of that to be found at the Indy 500—even in the midst of an event that has some of the country's most dangerous tendencies as subtext. Everyone joining together to sing a ballad of alienation is as good a metaphor as any for the complications of Americanness in 2017.
Later, as I walked toward a mound in an infield to watch the final laps of the race, a motorcade of Chevy suburbans and sirens-blaring police cars cut off my path. As I waited to cross the street, a woman in the distance screamed at it: "Fuck you, Mike Pence! Fuck you!" My friends and I laughed, but it was weirdly sweet to know that even in the midst of absurd, unfamiliar situations, there's always people on your side.