As long as your name wasn't Mike Tyson, the last sports person in the world you wanted to be Sunday afternoon was Scott Sharp. Six hair-raising seconds after the green flag fell on the Samsonite 200, pole-sitter Sharp slid high up on the track at 170 miles an hour and back-smacked car number one into the second turn wall at brand-new Pikes Peak International Raceway, just south of downtown Fountain.
It was an unhappy restart for big-time Indy car racing in Colorado.
Initial reports said the driver was groggy but fine. The appearance of Sharp's wife, Kim, half an hour later told another story. Hands shaking, she was carrying her husband's helmet and fireproof gloves--achingly intimate items--through the paddock. Her face was dead white. Later, doctors said Scott Sharp had suffered a subdural brain hemorrhage and was in serious condition.
In the one hour and fifty-nine minutes following Sharp's crash, nine other Indy Racing League drivers you wouldn't have wanted to be Sunday also lost it on the swift, one-mile Pikes Peak oval. The cars of Johnny Unser, Jimmy Kite, Billy Boat, Roberto Guerrero, Greg Ray, Jack Miller, Arie Luyendyk and Kenny Brack were all reduced to various states of disrepair, from dinged-up to grievous. Robbie Groff survived a scary spin to finish his adventure intact. Post-crash, a couple of the unfortunates blamed what they said was a slippery track surface for their woes.
"Pretty hairy," one of them called it.
The surface was fine with Tony Stewart, age 26. A leadfoot who's had a lot of previous hard luck, he managed to zing through trouble, rubble and ninety-degree heat to notch his first win in an Indy car--by just two-tenths of a second over France's Stephan Gregoire. Something like 38,100 race fans cheered Stewart home.
"If this is what it takes for us to win," he said, his spirits a mile high, "they'll have to start elevating racetracks."
Because 82 of the crash-marred race's 200 laps were run under the yellow caution flag (the same color, come to think of it, as Stewart's Team Menard race car), the winner's average speed was just a tick over 100 miles an hour--slower than Bitin' Mike's corner men went into hiding Saturday night.
At the end of the race, only twelve cars were still running.
That's twelve more than managed to get out of the PPIR parking lots in the next three and a half hours. To begin with, these are not "lots" by the usual definition. They are dusty, axle-busting pastures comprising some 200 acres, uncharted and unmarked but for the leavings of the local wildlife. Those who lost their cars outright were the lucky ones. Ten thousand other boggled motorists found themselves fuming and cursing in mile-long snakes of traffic pointed but not moving toward what was once Interstate 25. Colorado State Patrol officers assigned to the event--both of them--practiced assorted arm-waving techniques. That was no help for the sun-scorched inmates of the pastures, who had certainly noted the irony of the day: See trained professionals drive 200 miles in two hours; see yourself drive two yards in two hours.
One of the more reasonable souls in this lynch mob was a woman in her sixties, who spoke for many: "This was the debut, and it was goodbye for us. We wouldn't come back here next year if the management flew us in and out by helicopter."
So much for the bad news. Scott Sharp's head injury. The accidents. The brutal heat. Parking by Stalin. Traffic control by Curly, Larry and Moe. Let's not even mention the two-and-a-half-hour crawl back to Denver that people endured once they finally reached I-25.
Was the racing exciting?
Absolutely. It was first-rate from green to checkers, and the relative equality of the cars made for high-speed drama.
The fledgling Indy Racing League has had its growing pains since Indianapolis Speedway kingpin Tony George broke away from the high-profile, big-money CART ranks, where Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy ply their trade. In some circles, IRL cars have been judged unreliable and inferior, their drivers inexperienced. And this year, some gross embarrassments made things worse: Race officials from the United States Auto Club botched light signals so badly during a crucial restart at the end of the Indianapolis 500 that the outcome was almost changed. Two weeks later, in Texas, they made such a mess of the lap scoring that the wrong "winner" was declared, and racing legend A.J. Foyt physically attacked actual winner Arie Luyendyk in victory lane.
Much of that is changing fast. IRL has taken sanctioning and scoring out of the hands of the moss-backs of USAC. After a spate of mechanical problems in earlier races, the stock-block, naturally aspirated Oldsmobile Aurora and Nissan Infiniti racing engines all IRL teams now use are beginning to come into their own. The prime example: Not one of the 22 starters in Sunday's 200-mile race suffered a mechanical failure. As they roll up racing miles in Indy cars, the drivers are getting faster, and the IRL's goals--good racing for fewer bucks, new-driver development, blue-collar heroism--no longer look like pie in the sky.
Could Tony Stewart and Buddy Lazier, driving current equipment, go wheel-to-wheel with, say, the stars of Team Penske and their state-of-the-art machines? Probably not--not yet. But the Indy Racing League doesn't look like Double-A ball anymore, either. In two seasons and just ten races, the IRL is closing the gap--as long as hot-headed ol' A.J., who won four Indy 500s and drove more than 12,000 race miles at the Brickyard, doesn't turn the whole thing into the Indy Wrestling League.
The big question remains whether CART and IRL can solve their differences anytime soon--as football leagues and even nations sometimes do. If not, Indianapolis itself may never again be the best-of-the-best spectacle it was on so many Memorial Days past.
Meanwhile, how about Pikes Peak International?
The mind behind this seeming rustic madness is one C.C. Myers, a developer and contractor whom Southern Californians learned to love when, in 1994, he rebuilt the earthquake-damaged Santa Monica Freeway 74 days ahead of schedule and saved the state a cool $100 million. A racing fan, Myers took one look at the defunct and decrepit Pikes Peak Meadows horse-racing track--a gambling hell so undistinguished even in its heyday that the wise investor counted the animals' legs before heading for the betting window--and imagined in it another kind of horsepower. It had not escaped Myers's notice, either, that Colorado's insatiable sports fans support six major-league teams (yes, Virginia, soccer and women's basketball count, too), three major college football programs, assorted lower-level car racing and, for that matter, whichever beach volleyball tour happens to drop in. Why not big-time car racing? The IRL may still be perceived as a minor league in some quarters, but not once you see these guys scream down the backstretch and you feel the bracing sting of the methanol in your nostrils.
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Smart guy, Myers. The new PPIR grandstands accommodate 42,787, the "D"-shaped racing oval (if not the parking lot) and attached road course have been judged as smooth as a baby's bottom, and the sight lines around the track are as clear as any layout in racing. NASCAR will run a 500-kilometer race at PPIR July 27, motorcycles come in August 17, the Trans-Am cars arrive in early September, and big-displacement sports cars make their debut at the end of that month.
But the IRL's 200-miler will probably become PPIR's signature event. Good thing, too. Denverites remember (many of them unhappily) the last time the fast open-wheelers came to town. In 1990 and 1991 CART/PPG races on a temporary downtown street course enflamed environmentalists, pedestrians and financial analysts alike: While the organizers drove off into the night, local citizens were left to clean up the mess.
Indy car fans with a little more mileage on them will remember top-of-the line races in 1968, 1969 and 1970 at the old Continental Divide Raceways in Castle Rock. But only the most obsessive among them will recall the winners. In order: Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti.
Down the pavement a piece, the gentlemen are once more starting their engines. Let's hope they don't run out of gas. And that someone decides to fix the damn parking lot, not to mention the access roads. As it is, the state of Colorado doesn't even understand that drill yet: Signs directing traffic to the track read "Pikes Peak International Roadway.