Imagine the Colorado Springs Sky Sox and the Toledo Mud Hens in the World Series. Or a field of $15,000 claimers running for the roses at the Kentucky Derby. Or a pair of unknown club pros playing the final at Wimbledon.
That's what this year's Indianapolis 500 is going to be like.
By now, most people who know a carburetor from a camshaft have heard about the battle royal raging between the young president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George, and the Indy car establishment--manufacturers, leading racing-team owners like Roger Penske, Carl Hass and Pat Patrick, and almost all of
the top drivers. The antagonism has grown so bitter that, for the first time in history, there will be two 500-mile races on Memorial Day this year--the traditional one at the hallowed shrine of speed known as the Brickyard, which, shockingly, will feature a lot of competitors no one's ever heard of, and a breakaway event at newfangled Michigan International Speedway, contested by some guys named Andretti, Unser and Fittipaldi.
While each camp prays for rain at the other one's venue come a week from Sunday, the future of American open-wheel racing may hang in the balance. Certainly, the glamour, prestige and dark mystique that have surrounded the Indianapolis 500 since 1911 are suddenly--perhaps forever--diminished.
So, then. What happened?
In simplest terms, the race war of 1996 is about power, ego and money. And, like most wars, the roots of this one date back a long time. George, who has been branded the aggressor in the present troubles, took over as big cheese at the Speedway in 1989--and not because Hoosiers liked his haircut. He is a grandson of the late Tony Hulman, the inspired autocrat who lifted the 500 off its deathbed after World War II's gasoline-and-rubber rationing and turned it into that modest thing dubbed "the greatest spectacle in racing." Hulman's political vehicle was the United States Auto Club (USAC), which for more than two decades sanctioned not just the 500 but all the lesser Indy car races around the country on what was then called the Championship Trail. Hulman died in 1977, and a year later a powerful new alliance called Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) emerged, with team owner Pat Patrick as president. After a couple of court battles, including an unsuccessful attempt to bar CART teams and drivers from Indy, the new organization soon wrested from poorly managed USAC control of every Indy car race except one--the
all-important Indianapolis 500.
Relations between USAC and CART--now called PPG/IndyCar--have been sore ever since. Last year, Tony George finally decided to force a confrontation before he lost power over his domain to the Penskes and Patricks, who, after all, have long provided the fields at Indianapolis. George's solution was to found something called the Indy Racing League (IRL), with a schedule of five races for 1996 and a lot of unknown drivers with their butts in the seats. The crown jewel of the IRL series was to be, of course, the Indianapolis 500 itself. And here Tony George threw a well-aimed socket wrench into the proceedings: Of the 33 starting spots at this year's 500, he decreed, 25 would go to the current leaders in the IRL point standings after first-ever "league" races in Orlando and Phoenix.
Crying "Bias!" and "Lockout!," top PPG/ IndyCar teams and drivers went to war with George and IRL. When he wouldn't back down, they created the "U.S. 500," to be run at Brooklyn, Michigan, the very same day as the fabled Indy 500. The only former winner you'll find at the Brickyard this May 26 will be 1990's Arie Luyendyk, and the only familiar names will be Scott Brayton, Roberto Guerrero, Lyn St. James and a few others. Most of the field will be filled by inexperienced second- and third-shelfers and, to say it gently, some over-experienced pilots who never made it in the bigs.
Imagine the morning headline: Stan Wattles Wins Indy 500. Or: Dave Kudrave Nips Robbie Buhl in Last Lap.
In Tony George's defense, the stated ideals of IRL have some merit--albeit mixed. He calls his venture an attempt to revive the oval-track roots of Indy-car racing after years of sharing the schedule with "Europeanized" road courses. He aims to make "big-time" Indy-style racing "affordable" again through V-8, normally aspirated, stock-block engines (coming to IRL in 1997) and less exotic chassis. Right now it costs between $8 million and $10 million a year to run a car on the Indy circuit--even more if you actually want to win. George says he'd like to cut that by 70 percent. And he means to give hope to young, promising, mostly American drivers who otherwise might languish for years in Indy racing's official minor league, the evenly matched (and thus anonymous)
Indy Lights series.
IndyCar loyalist Pat Patrick sees the Indy 500 race war in another light. "They had it," he says. "We took it. They want it back."
Sounds like war everywhere, in any era, doesn't it? Here we have Bosnia on four wheels.
As if to underscore the point, manufacturers of the exotic, million-dollar racing engines and arcane chassis designs that transport people like Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal to victory have virtually cut IRL's supply lines. The second-class citizens who race for Tony George still get tires from Goodyear and Firestone, but their race cars are 1994 and 1995 models (a few are even older) purchased from the enemy, and spare parts are suddenly in short supply. The older IRL cars also have the more pronounced "ground effects"--wings and fins that help race cars adhere to the pavement and thus go faster--that PPG/IndyCar outlawed last year. Ominously, practice speeds are actually higher this May at Indianapolis than they were last year.
That raises a couple of concerns.
When a Triple A pitcher comes up to the parent club and gets shelled by big-league hitters, it's only his ego that gets bruised. But if fifteen or twenty minor-league race drivers strap themselves into used cars that might fall apart at 200 miles an hour, then start screaming around the world's narrowest, most dangerous racetrack, the results could get a little more serious. Almost a third of the field in this year's mutant Indy 500 will have had to pass a 1996 "rookie test" at the Speedway, and many of their parts-poor cars may not even be capable of running 500 miles on the best of days. Just as bad, George is clearly worried that IRL may not be able to scrape up the traditional 33 entries to start at Indy next week.
Is this not war? A.J. Foyt, four-time winner of the 500 and a Tony George loyalist, says he may come out of his three-year retirement to give the race a shot of lost prestige. Up in Michigan, meanwhile, IndyCar man Mario Andretti may also un-retire to pep up the inaugural U.S. 500.
Alas, who will get the checkered flag in this race between huge egos?
Will IRL become a respected farm team for the bigs--or a kind of second-rate nostalgia racing series? Will the story have a happy ending, a la the merger of the NFL and the AFL, or will old, irksome war wounds permanently reduce America's most storied racing circuit to India No-Place? Will the Indy 500 be relatively safe
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this year? Will the big names running at charismatically challenged Michigan International Speedway draw flies this Memorial Day? Already, there is fan talk of boycotting both races--a subject Tony George and Al Unser Jr. might do well to discuss with the nearest major-league baseball player.
Who knows? In its homespun hauteur, Indianapolis never releases attendance figures, but lots of empty seats would be just as easy to spot next Sunday as bad racing would. Up in Michigan, it won't be difficult to feel a historical vacuum tugging away at an absence of soul: Mauri Rose and Bill Vukovich never saw this particular strip of pavement and, after all the smoke and bullets flying around this year, A.J. Foyt isn't likely to ever go near the place again.
Major sponsors have been a little gun-shy, but TV ratings for the dueling 500s could prove revealing. If there's an upside to the race war, it has to be this: The green flag drops at Indy about 10 AM (MDT) on May 26, with ABC carrying the telecast; three hours later, ESPN's got the start of the U.S. 500. Authentic motorheads must be grinning in spite of themselves--1,000 miles of big-time auto racing in one day, 500s back-to-back--but advertisers will be a lot more interested in the more casual fan. Who will watch what? Will the magic of a storied place prevail? Or the quality of the competition?
Who knows? While we wait, all any of us dares say is: "Gentlemen, start your arguments!