Like most American kids that grew up in the 80's I watched the Indy 500 every year and became interested in motorsports thanks to that race, but I didn't really get hooked until I started watching Formula 1 racing in the late 90's. My favorite era were those years with the great Mika Hakkinen/Michael Schumacher battles. (I was a Mika Hakkinen fan) So my fondness for Formula 1 waned once Mika retired and Schumacher started winning everything, even at the expense of his teammate Rubens Barrichello. My interest in F1 has only been lukewarm since.

Then I turned to Champ Car racing here in the US for my motorsports fix. However that was quickly extinguished once Champ Car and Indy Car merged and we were stuck with Tony George and his many foibles. (It was entertaining to watch the Hulman/George drama I'll admit.) My interest has been less than lukewarm with Indy Car lately, even without Tony George at the helm.

Over time however, the excitement I once had for motorsports has slowly gone. Maybe it has to do with my age, I don't know. But I think I will pour my efforts into my Trooper and my interests in the outdoors to add excitement to my life.

Thanks for checking out my blog, I hope you enjoy it. I will still post racing news when I find something interesting or noteworthy.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Friday, May 28, 2010

KV Racing - Takuma Sato - Lotus sponsored



I will admit, this is a good looking car.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

George's devastating victory

(part 4 of 4, by Ed Hinton espn.go.com 5-27-10)

A year after Leo Mehl, the executive director of the IRL, had said the CART teams "would get their doors blown off" if they ventured to Indy in IRL equipment, team owner Chip Ganassi took him up on the challenge.

It was the first return to Indy by a CART team.

In 2000, Ganassi bought IRL cars for the Indy 500 only, for a team that featured Jimmy Vasser but starred '99 CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who was essentially farmed out to Ganassi by Formula One team owner Frank Williams.

IRL partisans considered Ganassi's entry the first stage of a CART surrender.

Some surrender.

Ganassi's team would crush the IRL competition.

For Montoya, the Indy 500 was child's play. Conventional wisdom had been to proceed cautiously through the first 400 miles and get the car just right for the final 100. Montoya shattered that notion, running all-out, all the time, due to his F1 training.

The "rookie" dominated, taking the lead on the 27th lap. From there he led all but six of the total 200 laps, falling out of the lead only briefly after pit stops. It was as near to a perfect Indy 500 as had ever been driven.

So much for the CART teams getting their doors blown off.

Mehl had agreed from the outset to serve only three years at the helm of the IRL. By 2001, with Mehl retired and his prediction refuted, storied Team Penske returned to Indy and won it with Helio Castroneves.

In two 500s, the score was CART 2, IRL 0. There was absolutely no doubt which side had the quality and the talent.

But later that year, CART suffered the debacle at Texas. Running their own cars, much faster than those of the IRL, on the 24-degree banking, drivers became disoriented due to high G-forces. The cars couldn't be adjusted enough. CART physicians, including Dr. Steve Olvey, called conditions too dangerous. The race was cancelled. Texas Motor Speedway sued CART, and the expenses of defending that suit, plus the settlement, plunged CART further toward bankruptcy.

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By '02 it was clear that any reconciliation would now be far too little, far too late. And yet, for the 500 itself and the 500 only, most of the top CART teams returned that May, in IRL equipment.

You could say everybody who was anybody in American open-wheel racing was back at the 500. Trouble was, hardly anybody there was anybody anymore on the world stage of motor racing, with the exceptions of Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, both in the twilight of their careers.

Team Penske in '02 became the first major, full-time defector from CART to the IRL. Roger Penske's pragmatism was showing: he could run Indy regularly, and the pickings were easy both in the 500 and out on the IRL tour.

But such movement now meant little to the general public, what with both leagues struggling and NASCAR all the rage.

Indeed, between qualifying and the 500, on a midweek flight from Indianapolis to Atlanta, I sat directly behind Castroneves. Nobody else on the plane seemed to recognize the defending Indy 500 champion, who was trying for a repeat win.

By comparison, NASCAR stars such as Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. flew only on private jets, not daring to take commercial flights, lest they be mobbed by fans.

Then on Thursday of race week, another wall collapsed on beleaguered CART, with one announcement.

"Today, American Honda announces that we plan to enter the Indy Racing League next season, 2003," Robert Clarke, the manufacturer's U.S. racing director, said at a news conference.

In the interview room I turned in my seat, looked at fellow journalists Robin Miller and Gordon Kirby and mouthed, "It's over." Meaning the war. This wasn't quite checkmate, but CART was now being checked at every move.

Mercedes-Benz had already pulled out of CART, and now Honda was leaving. That left Ford as the sole supplier, and a tenuous one at that. Honda would join Toyota, GM and Nissan among IRL engine suppliers.

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When Castroneves won his second straight Indy 500, this time as an IRL points competitor in a controversy with CART driver Paul Tracy, favoritism was charged.

On the next-to-last lap, Tracy of CART's Team Green passed Castroneves just as a caution came out. IRL officials ruled Tracy had passed a split second after, rather than a split second before, caution lights had come on in the turns and in the cockpits, officially stopping all racing for position.

The win was awarded to Castroneves, and made official after an initial appeal the following day. The appealing went on for months of examination of electronic data, but Castroneves kept the win.

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CART was checked again from another direction when the series sponsor, FedEx, pulled out at the end of '02.

Struggling to restructure, CART even jettisoned its name.

For 2003, embracing its remaining sponsors, tire supplier and engine supplier, the series gave itself arguably the most awkward and cumbersome name in the history of motor racing: Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford.

Intending humor, I asked the publicists for the carcass of CART if we could shorten the series name in print to "BPCCWSPF." Nobody laughed.

By the end of '03, with its stock trading at pennies per share, the organization declared bankruptcy.

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Here sat Tony George, reigning over scorched earth. Here sat the two of us, in his private suite, high in the tower above the pit road at Indianapolis, with a panoramic view of the world's most massive grandstands, which were empty.

This was in May of 2004, eight years into the war, on a late qualifying day for the 500. Only occasionally would a lonely sounding car rumble onto the track.

In bankruptcy court, George had bid to buy the carcass of CART, but the judge had ruled in favor of a small group bent on keeping the body twitching, rather than driving a stake through its heart, as George would have.

For a man who had all but won the war (but what had he won, really?), George seemed very tired that afternoon. At first I thought he must not have slept much lately. But as an hour or so passed, I wondered if this was war-weariness, deep and lasting.

For all he'd tried to do, all he'd spent, all the enormity of the controversies he had stirred, the IRL had become "another CART," critics said -- dominated by foreign drivers the public simply wasn't embracing.

Now he yawned occasionally as I reminded him of all the drivers who could have bolstered his domain, who had started out in open-wheel cars, but had been lost to NASCAR: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne … and soon, defections to NASCAR from the top ranks of the IRL would start, as drivers chose to move up to the dominant series in America -- the real and clear winner of the Indy car civil war.

Years ago, under the old United States Auto Club feeder system, the dirt-trackers would have come here.

"Years ago meaning decades ago, meaning the '50s, '60s, possibly even the '70s," he said, clearly meaning the ladder -- the steps necessary to aspire to Indy car racing -- was long gone.

George thought back through history, back to his teenage years and young adulthood, when the CART barons came and took over.

"Once USAC ceased sanctioning the championship trail, all races beyond Indianapolis, is when that [the USAC ladder] ceased to be the case," he said. "The CART car owner organization, which was comprised primarily of road racing car owners making up their fields, they were more oriented toward developing more road races as opposed to more oval races … and as a result they brought [in] drivers that would contest for a championship. At that point the focus and the emphasis shifted."

Now George included a name that had been in his mind as he'd founded the IRL.

"Having missed the opportunity with Jeff Gordon, we tried to create some opportunities by having the IRL be predominantly an open-wheel, oval series, to afford some guys some opportunities to advance. Some did, with varying degrees of success.

"But for the most part, car owners again didn't want to take the risks."

The IRL owners, many of whom he'd subsidized -- by that point rumored to be to the tune of more than $250 million of the Hulman-George fortune -- had become like the CART owners, seeking drivers who could buy rides.

Even A.J. Foyt had gone international, with various drivers, and even won the '99 Indy 500 with Sweden's Kenny Brack.

"They were either going for drivers with experience and money, or drivers with money," George said.

The one exception had fizzled: "I think everybody knows that John Menard had an opportunity to sign Tony Stewart to a long-term deal," George said. "He chose not to, or he wasn't successful in doing it."

This, even though Menard, George reminded me, was (and remains) a multibillionaire.

And now George acknowledged something monumental, something impossible to overcome, something that flashed the sign, "Game Over."

The USAC ladder system was impossible to restore because it no longer worked for Indy cars at all. It had become, in fact, a fine feeder system for NASCAR.

Through evolution, rear-engine Indy cars by now behaved very differently than front-engine sprint cars and midgets, which now behaved more like front-engine NASCAR cars.

"As far as having a feel for the way the cars drive, off the right rear, coming up through those series [of sprints, midgets and Silver Crown on ovals] -- [drivers are] probably more suited today towards a career path toward NASCAR. They seem to do better," George said.

The USAC system that had produced A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti and all the Unsers for Indy was now churning out the likes of Gordon, Stewart, Newman and Kahne for NASCAR.

So George's quintessential intent for the IRL, bringing heartland Americans to Indy from the dirt tracks, was finished.

Any ladder system for Americans to Indy now must include a progression of rear-engine formulas.

For that, "We have a sort of disjointed, dysfunctional ladder system here in the United States," George said. "It's not as clearly defined as it is in Europe."

What was needed? He described a system America didn't have, and still doesn't, and probably won't have anytime soon:

"If we had a better single-seat, rear-engine formula ladder system to encourage and develop young American drivers from go-karts up through IndyCar [now the brand name of his series] to Formula One, there'd probably be a lot more American drivers. Not from the USAC sprint, midget, Silver Crown divisions, but American drivers nonetheless. Someone like a Sam Hornish or an Alex Barron who grows up with an orientation toward racing formula cars."

(Hornish, George's best American hope of the time, would of course eventually defect to NASCAR himself.)

At this point, I thought, "Game Over."

With one feeder system diverted to NASCAR, and the proper feeder system virtually nonexistent, just where was George supposed to get stellar young American drivers the public would embrace?

Out of the blue?

Maybe. Just maybe …

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A few days after my long, subdued interview with George, Bobby Rahal -- a one-time CART hard-liner, who now owned a team in the IRL with TV host David Letterman -- held a news conference.

Beside him sat a diminutive, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman with a cold, determined glare. Rahal would enter a car for her in the next year's Indy 500.

Danica Patrick.

I went straight back to my laptop in the media center and wrote immediately that the next year, a woman would enter the 500 capable of winning -- not just participating, as Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher had done before her.

I'd been introduced to Danica by St. James some years earlier, when Danica was 15, a go-kart champion and interning with St. James' team at Indy. St. James had advised me I'd better talk to this teenager and pay attention to her career, because she was going somewhere.

Danica soon set off for England, to train in the British "schooling formulas" -- a ladder system starting with simple cars such as Formula Vauxhall, and building up. It was slam-bang racing, brutal, cold, unforgiving -- and rife with British mechanics bewildered by the notion of a woman racing.

At a Formula One race in '99, I was working on a story about whether any Americans had hopes of an F1 ride, and three-time world champion Jackie Stewart enunciated one name clearly and firmly to me: "Danica Patrick."

Stewart and his son Paul, with Ford Motor Co., were backing Danica in the schooling formulas and hoped to move her up to Formula 3, only two steps away from F1.

But after Danica's first year in England, Paul Stewart fell seriously ill and Danica was left pretty much on her own. Her father, T.J. Patrick, would tell me years later he'd spent about $500,000 of the family's money to keep her racing in Europe.

Coincidentally, Bobby Rahal had taken a job as team principal of the Ford-backed Jaguar F1 team. It was during his brief stint there that he discovered Danica, when she finished second at a Formula Ford festival in France.

During Indy race week of 2003, I saw one of the publicists for Rahal's Indy car team, walking maybe 30 yards away through the Speedway's enormous media center, accompanied by a tiny woman who -- there was something familiar.

It was the cold, confident glare in the eyes. Rahal had brought Danica home from England for good, and would field a car for her that year in the Formula Atlantic series in the U.S.

By May of '04, Rahal was confident enough in her ability that he called the news conference at Indy. He surprised even her. She learned along with the media that she would drive at Indy in '05.

Her response?

A cool, poker-faced, "Thanks, Bob."

As for the 500 itself that year, the winner's name, Buddy Rice, was so obscure that most of the media focused on the angle of, "David Letterman's car won the race," even though Letterman was mainly a figurehead partner with Rahal.

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She arrived at Indy in '05 almost literally as a blur, clocking the fastest lap of pre-qualifying practice, 229.880 mph. In qualifying, a gust of wind kept her from winning the pole, turning her car sideways on the first of her four laps. But she caught it, and still averaged 227.773 to earn the fourth starting spot, highest to that point by a woman at Indy.

In the race, she made some mistakes early but came back to become the first woman to lead the Indy 500. She led twice, the second time being electrifying, when she blasted past Dan Wheldon with 11 laps remaining.



She could win this thing. For the first time in years, the hallowed old grounds were electrified, and the roar of the crowd was virtually drowning out the engine noise.

And you could sense the long-comatose Indianapolis 500's eyes flickering open.

Just as suddenly, they closed. Trying to conserve fuel to finish, Danica's crew ordered her to turn her fuel-management system from richer to leaner, stifling her car's power. Wheldon got past her with six laps left, and then came Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta, to leave her fourth at the checkered flag -- still best to that point by a female driver.

But she hadn't won, and the enormous gasp of life that had welled in Indy's throat subsided.

But not until the next race, at Texas Motor Speedway, did I realize this diminutive, determined, talented -- and, yes, she's glamorous, and she flaunts it -- woman could not save Indy car racing singlehandedly.

From the drivers' meeting at Texas, Buddy Rice emerged wearing a T-shirt that read, "Danica's Teammate."

Vitor Meira's T-shirt read, "Danica's Other Teammate."

And Dan Wheldon's T-shirt read: "Actually Won Indianapolis 500."

Cute, but the T-shirts smacked of resentment. The three young males flouted the positive impact the woman had had. They felt slighted, robbed of their own self-perceived importance.

This was a core sampling of the motley driving corps Tony George had managed to scrape together -- Rice the only American among them -- and they had a tough time accepting Danica.

She could not save the IRL; it would not let her.

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Indy's eyes flickered open again in '06, late in the race, over a 19-year-old, third-generation driver from the best-known, most-beloved family in American racing: Marco Andretti.

On Friday, I sat in the team compound with Marco's "Nonno Mario," the family's Italian term for Grandpa Mario, and asked the patriarch -- the '67 Daytona 500 winner, the '69 Indy winner, the '78 F1 world champion -- if there was any realistic chance a 19-year-old rookie could win this race.

He looked me in the eye. All the sadness of the Andrettis at Indy was there, all those disappointments, all that atrocious luck for all those years for him and son Michael, Marco's father. For 37 years of Andretti tears, they had just Mario's '69 win to show.

Mario pondered for seconds; it seemed like minutes.

Then he said, "You're damn right there is." And he repeated, even more adamantly: "You're damn right there is." Again and again he repeated it, until it was but a whispered refrain

Then the haunting caveat came back.

Fast as Marco had been that month, there remained the Andrettis' longtime nemesis, the purveyor of much of their heartbreak, especially for Michael -- Roger Penske.

After the "damn right" refrain had died away, Mario sat silent for another moment, then added: "But you've still got to beat Penske."

Penske's drivers over the years had won the Indy 500 a runaway record 13 times, and now his team was going for No. 14. So it was not prescience that darkened Mario's tone; it was just reality.

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With two laps left in the race, Marco shot past his father into the lead, leaving Michael doomed to an 0-15 record at Indy. But the prospect of a 19-year-old winner, an Andretti, electrified the crowd of nearly 300,000 as not even Danica Patrick had the year before.

But then there appeared the nemesis, in a red-and-white blur, Sam Hornish Jr. of Team Penske, rocketing past Michael into second place and then going after Marco.

Marco at first blocked Hornish, broke his momentum and got some margin as Hornish fell back.

"That's the race," Robin Miller said to me in the media center. We both knew what that meant: the resurrection of Indy in the world's headlines the next day.

Andretti was a globally charismatic name. How deep did it run through the world's social fabric? Well, Mario wanted for his grandson the same sort of gratifying grassroots recognition he had felt, he'd told me years earlier, when he would "walk into some drugstore in some obscure section of Paris or Madrid or Sao Paulo … "

The names Andretti, and Indy, were at the brink of rocketing to the pinnacle again.

But the red-and-white nemesis kept coming, regaining ground, and Mario's words of Friday flashed through my mind: "But you've still got to beat Penske."

Hornish's car was a missile off the fourth turn, and at the checkered flag, he beat Marco by a car length.



Somehow I could sense the Indy 500's eyes closing forever, lapsing into permanent coma, at that moment. For the second year in a row, an inkling of recovery for the grand old race had flickered and then faded.

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EPILOGUE

By 2008, as many Indy 500 winners (four) would try to qualify for the Daytona 500 as for the Indy 500 itself.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. competed at Daytona, and '95 Indy winner Jacques Villeneuve failed to make the Daytona field.

At Indy that year, the former winners who showed up were Helio Castroneves, Dan Wheldon, Buddy Rice and Buddy Lazier.

During Daytona 500 week, on Valentine's Day, what was left of CART -- called, without sponsors, just the Champ Car World Series -- filed for its final bankruptcy.

On Feb. 22, a "merger" into the IRL was agreed to, but amounted mainly to the IRL's purchase of what few desirable assets the old rivals had left, including their highly respected medical unit, and lucrative road and street racing events such as the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Tony George finally had driven a stake through CART's heart.

But he had failed to re-Americanize Indy car racing, and in the end had to resort largely to road racing by foreign drivers for what was now known solely as the IndyCar series.

In June of 2009, George was ousted as CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway by his three sisters, all reportedly weary of the hemorrhaging of family money -- by this point as much as $500 million, by some estimates -- into the IRL.

George then resigned as president of the IRL.

To this day, neither Danica Patrick nor Marco Andretti has won the Indy 500. Each has but one win in the IndyCar series.

Now, Patrick is transitioning to NASCAR. While she continues to drive Indy cars, she is learning NASCAR from the ground up and is expected to land there full time in the next few years.

In January of 2010, George appeared to be disappearing from auto racing altogether, after he closed the individual IndyCar team he had founded.

He declined an update interview for this series. Lately he has refused, via e-mail, to tell me what he's up to. But word is, he's trying to reestablish the team.

The essence of Tony George's intentions, throughout the two tempestuous decades since he ascended the Indy throne, is reflected in the team's name.

He calls it Vision Racing.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Divide widens while fatalities mount

(part 3 of 4, by Ed Hinton espn.go.com 5-25-10)

By March of 1997, the upcoming Indianapolis 500 seemed so makeshift, so gutted of the enormous public interest of yore, that some editors at Sports Illustrated were asking whether we should even staff the race.

To my knowledge, that was the first time coverage of the Indy 500 had been questioned since the magazine's launch in 1954. For decades, Indy officials' only question to SI had been whether the race was going to make the cover or not.

Editors came up with a hybrid plan for a major story. It would combine the skyrocketing popularity of NASCAR with the plummeting interest in, and the self-destruction of, Indy car racing.

I shuttled between Indy and Charlotte for weeks. Both events were besieged by rain, but Charlotte fared much better. The rain-shortened 600 was called a complete race in the wee hours of Monday, Memorial Day, leaving Jeff Gordon the winner.

It was that night that Gordon, by this point an enormous star in NASCAR, told me the story of the "Show us the money and we'll show you the seat" rejection by CART years earlier. Gordon could have been an enormous force, especially alongside Tony Stewart, for the IRL. But by this point Gordon had no interest in turning back to open-wheel, especially with its schism and questionable future.

Indy was washed out entirely on Sunday, and Monday's brief start caused more harm than good. Three cars crashed on the parade lap, more embarrassing even than the CART start at Michigan the previous year. Then rain halted the race after only 15 laps.

Finally, on Tuesday, Arie Luyendyk won the race in a confused situation over whether the caution was out or not, yelling on his radio, "What the f--- are they doing?" to his crew, meaning United States Auto Club officials.



This incident, along with a scoring gaffe 11 days later at Texas Motor Speedway that resulted in an embarrassing victory circle scuffle between Luyendyk and A.J. Foyt, would end USAC's 42-year reign as the sanctioning body for the Indy 500. Technically the IRL had been an arm of USAC, but now IRL CEO Tony George and executive director Leo Mehl put the league directly in charge of conducting the 500, and USAC was left to regulate only its long-running minor league series, such as sprint cars and midgets.

SI had gone to press already, Monday evening, and Indy officials were upset that I'd filed the story before their race was even completed. I never could get them to understand that the point of the story was not at all the Charlotte and Indy races themselves, but the situation in which they were run.

But it was the headline on the story that infuriated them: "What Ever Happened to Indy?"

Considering the magazine's national influence on not only the public but on the opinions of thousands of local and national sports journalists, Robin Miller of the Indianapolis Star warned me that I'd catch the blame for dealing a devastating blow to Indy's prestige.

Each side, the IRL and CART, claimed by now that I was biased in favor of the other. To me, and to my editors, that was confirmation of my neutrality. The only thing I was firmly against was the damage to an American institution, the Indianapolis 500.

At one point in the war, I wrote a Scorecard item headlined, "A Pox on Both Their Pits."

At another point, some IRL partisans cornered me in a hospitality tent at Indy for a heated debate.

"Surely you'll admit," an angry George supporter said, "that this race belongs to him."

"I'll admit no such thing," I said. "Tony owns the track. But the Indianapolis 500 belongs to the American people. They're the ones who made it."

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The CART barons in 1998 took another step that would come back to haunt them. They took their organization public, selling $100 million worth of stock.

Roger Penske, arguably the best businessman among them -- and unquestionably the best racing businessman among them -- had his doubts. Wall Street loved cost-cutting, and its analysts would respond only to significant profits.

Racing, Penske knew, was the last business that could withstand tight, set budgets and cost-cutting. To win, racers had to spend, rolling the dice on technology, as needed.

But the CART barons as a whole had traditionally raced for profit. They banded together in strategic situations. But usually, each voted according to his own business interests.

Leigh Steinberg, the powerful NFL agent, mastered the art of negotiating with owners. He once reckoned the typical American sports franchise owner had already made a fortune in some other business by going against conventional wisdom, and sometimes even rational advice. So he was likely to apply that maverick, damn-the-torpedoes attitude to sports. That template translated well to the CART team owners.

And so the CART barons, against the historic tides of motor racing business, went for the quick $100 million in extra funding.

Beyond the public offering, CART's public image took a terrible hit in July of '98. During a race at Michigan, three spectators were killed and six more injured by flying debris from a wreck. To make PR matters worse, they restarted and completed the race after the tragedy.



Only nine months later, the IRL would suffer an almost-mirror disaster.

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If there was a single year that sealed the decline of Indy car racing, it was 1999. It began with hope -- yes, again -- of reconciliation. But it ended as the most tragic year of the war.

Regularly now, CART was sending emissaries to George. Regularly, he wouldn't budge.

CART had hamstrung itself for negotiating with George by going public. Now, merging the two organizations would mean dealing not just with the barons, but all the CART stockholders, to gain the complete control George wanted.

George, like his grandfather Tony Hulman -- and indeed like NASCAR's France dynasty -- didn't want partners.

Mehl, running the IRL operations day to day, had not become the reconciler many had hoped. He'd become such a hard-liner on behalf of Tony George that CART partisans began calling him "the man formerly known as Leo Mehl."



At Indy that May, Mehl was atypically animated as he told Robin Miller and me that if the CART teams came back to Indy and tried to compete in IRL-legal cars, "they'd get their doors blown off! Their DOORS blown off!"

Indy cars of course didn't have doors, but that was a universal racing term, and Mehl had been a universal racing man before he'd become an IRL man.

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But that spring, there was a strong undercurrent that the most powerful mediator possible was emerging: NASCAR czar Bill France Jr.

France didn't deny it; he just said it would be "premature" for him to comment.

He had kept his public posture of neutrality, even though he recently had laughed on the phone to me as he confirmed that the Indy car war "sure hasn't hurt us any, has it?"

Fans who were weary of the Indy car schism were now helping to fill the grandstands at NASCAR races and increase NASCAR television ratings.

But now, the France-controlled track conglomerate International Speedway Corporation was in the process of taking over the group of tracks controlled by CART's Roger Penske: Michigan Speedway, the new California Speedway (in the Los Angeles market the France family had long coveted), North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham and Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania. All but Rockingham regularly hosted CART races.

It was in the best interests of both the France family and rival track owner Bruton Smith at Speedway Motorsports Inc. to make one tidy series of Indy car racing, if they were going to use it for additional racing revenue weekends at their primarily NASCAR tracks.

Meanwhile, engineers from CART's wealth of engine suppliers, Ford, Honda and Mercedes-Benz, were devising an offer to the IRL of a common engine formula that could lead toward technological compromise. If only they could get the IRL's sole engine supplier of the time, General Motors, to agree …

"There's no question that we can pull the Indy 500 and American open-wheel racing back together," Penske said, "but one man has to make that decision, and Tony is the guy."

But on May 1, 1999, George suffered a devastating distraction.

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At Charlotte, in that year's last IRL race before the Indy 500, three spectators were killed and eight more injured -- again, as in the CART disaster at Michigan the year before, by flying tires and debris from a crash.

Now both leagues had serious image problems with regard to fan safety, and they scrambled to harness the shrapnel inherent in crashes. Built with driver safety foremost in mind, Indy cars tended to disintegrate -- except for the central "tub," where the driver sat -- on impact, to dissipate energy.

Formula One, just that year, had mandated the tethering of wheels to chassis for just such incidents. And in May, before either CART or the IRL could revise their safety regulations, NASCAR -- where fan safety had always come first -- announced preemptive measures, tethering wheels and hoods to cars in case they broke off in wrecks.

Mehl, George and the IRL deliberated with caution, concerned that tethering might "make things worse," as Mehl worried, by unintended consequences -- such as wheels coming back into cockpits, or being sent with even greater force into grandstands by some slingshot effect.

Meanwhile, I wrote a column suggesting further safety measures on behalf of spectators, including higher protective "catch" fences with broader overhangs.

Never had a column of mine led to such an uproar.

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"Hinton!" Chip Ganassi shouted at me from his hospitality tent as I walked by, at the St. Louis track where CART was running, on the day before the '99 Indy 500. "You know that race [Indy] is in trouble when the biggest story to come out of there this month is you."

He grinned.

As I walked up the pit road, I got applause from drivers, owners, crewmen … Mario Andretti waved me over to where he and Paul Newman were standing.

Newman stuck out his hand and said, "Welcome to the ranks of the unwanted."

Unwanted at Indy, he meant.

Of Tony George, Newman said, "It's damn near criminal, what he's done."

He didn't mean to me. He meant to the American people, by devastating the Indianapolis 500.

But Ganassi was right about this incident, in the fourth spring of the Indy car war. It was a sad state of affairs when the ongoing story out of Indy, for much of May, had been the attempted ban of one sportswriter from covering the race.

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On the evening of the spectator deaths at Charlotte, I was in Fontana, Calif., covering a NASCAR race. When news of the tragedy came, my editors put together a plan.

The magazine's news bureau was retaining two local reporters in Charlotte, and SI staff reporters were working the phones from New York. I was to stay put -- no time to fly cross-country. I would receive files of information from the reporters in New York and Charlotte, and would do additional reporting myself.

Then I would write a column about the spectator deaths in both CART and the IRL in the past nine months, and explore ways to prevent such tragedies.

Writing from a hotel room in Ontario, Calif., I had absolutely no say in either the photo selection or the headline on that column. That was all done by editors in New York.

Yet it was the headline, "Fatal Attractions," and the photograph, of a security guard standing over a body covered by a bloody sheet in the grandstands, that upset George, I was told later.

The week after that column came out, the editor of Sports Illustrated received a letter stating I would be denied press credentials for the Indy 500. Editors could send any other staffer, just not me -- strange, in that George's primary complaints, about the photo and the headline, were with the magazine as a whole, more than with the text I'd written.

I could buy a ticket, George announced to the public, but I would forever be denied media credentials, and access to media facilities, for the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 and all other events in the future at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

(A NASCAR publicist phoned immediately to promise privately that I could get into the Brickyard 400, accompanied by NASCAR officials, if push came to shove the following August.)

The story of the ban went out worldwide on the wire services. Immediately, the Chicago Tribune ordered its motorsports writer to turn in his credentials and leave Indy. The Los Angeles Times held its reporter back, stopping him just before he boarded a flight at LAX. Quickly, many of the nation's major daily newspapers followed suit, informing Indy publicists they would not staff the race if the Sports Illustrated motorsports writer were not issued credentials.

Tribune sports editor John Cherwa, who'd led the newspaper protest, announced that it was not a matter of supporting Sports Illustrated, or me, per se. It was, he pointed out, a censorship issue -- a serious precedent of media organizations being told who they could and couldn't send to cover an event.

There was bitter backlash among IRL loyalist fans. Internet threads sprang up like wildfire, spreading rumors as outlandish as that I had personally taken the pictures of the sheet-covered bodies at Charlotte. In fact, the photos were taken and transmitted by The Associated Press.

One SI writer, driving through the Italian countryside on his honeymoon, was listening to the news on the radio. He didn't understand much Italian, and made out only "Indianapolis 500," "Sports Illustrated" and "Ed Hinton" -- and thought I might have been killed in some freak pit accident there.

Purdue University's public radio station phoned me at home for a lengthy interview, which I thought would be broadcast only in Indiana -- until one evening an SI writer in New York phoned me in Atlanta and said, "Quick! Turn on NPR! You're on 'All Things Considered' [a national in-depth news program]."

This would all have been hilarious if it weren't so terribly sad. For decades, news out of Indianapolis in May had gone worldwide about drivers and memorable races and the enormous happening that was the 500.

Now, Chip Ganassi was right: This was the most interesting story the media could find about Indy this time?

That told you just how disemboweled of prestige, and of stars, the grand old race was.

Finally, faced with the prospect of a thinning media center on race day, George relented and reinstated me. The great irony was that the race was now so weakened I hadn't originally planned to cover it. I'd planned to go to Charlotte for the 600 or Monaco for the F1 race. But back in March, as an afterthought, just in case, I'd asked editors to put in a request for Indy credentials -- and that's what gave George something to deny, and therefore detonate the whole hoopla.

Now, with the reinstatement, the editors in New York told me I had to go to Indy, if only to acknowledge the newspapers' anti-censorship movement.

There was no track activity the day I returned, so the media center was almost deserted.

One old friend, a veteran West Coast writer, looked up from his keyboard at me and said "You sonofabitch."

I smiled. With this guy, there was always a punch line.

"We were all getting ready to leave this place and never come back," he growled. "We were done covering this dog. Now you get reinstated, and we have to go on covering it. You … son … of … a … bitch!"

A little later I was walking out toward Gasoline Alley when a high-ranking IRL official came flying up on a motor scooter and screeched to a halt.

He told me he'd advised against the ban, and then he told me the essence of the reason for it.

"Tony knew what was under those sheets," he said. "That's what had him so upset."

He revved the scooter and rode away.

The next day, the IRL announced measures to tether wheels and suspension pieces to the chassis of the cars. And, in ensuing months and years, tracks would continually heighten safety fences and broaden the overhangs.

All told, the IRL did everything I had suggested, and more, in the column that got me banned.

It all went back to that old NASCAR philosophy that killing and injuring your paying customers just isn't good business.

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What promised to be the biggest, broadest-based summit meeting of the war was scheduled for that September, in the Detroit offices of Herb Fishel, General Motors' racing director. GM, primary engine supplier for the IRL, had agreed to discuss the proposal of the CART suppliers, Ford, Honda and Mercedes-Benz, for a common engine formula that could begin technological reconciliation of the two leagues.

So here were chieftains from all these manufacturers, and the chief mediator present was Bill France Jr., chairman of NASCAR.

Only one mogul failed to show: Tony George.

The one man who could make the decision for reconciliation, as Roger Penske had said, didn't even come to listen.

When I heard George had skipped the meeting, I phoned France at home in Daytona Beach to ask how he felt about being stood up.

France was so nonchalant you could almost hear him shrugging on the phone. He didn't sound very disappointed.

"He had other commitments," France said, excusing George matter-of-factly.

That was a board meeting at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. How in the world, I wondered, could any meeting at Indy be more important than the Detroit meeting that could have affected Indy for years, even decades, to come?

But there were rumblings that meetings at Indy were becoming more and more vital, in that Tony George's three sisters, all heiresses to the Hulman & Co. fortune, were growing more and more uneasy about the hemorrhaging of family wealth into Tony's IRL adventure.

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For the first 20 years of its existence, CART had suffered only two driver fatalities at events it sanctioned. The '99 season alone would bring two more.

In September, rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez, driving for Roger Penske, was killed at Monterey, Calif., when his car slammed head-on into a wall and vaulted over it.



The death devastated his senior teammate, American household name Al Unser Jr. "That kid … that really got me … such a good kid, such a good teammate," Unser said to me, voice cracking, eyes welling, in Miami Beach later on.

Coincidentally or not, Unser's career ebbed from there, and never flowed to the heights again. His run as the American banner-carrier for CART was over.

CART had prided itself on safety technology for its drivers. But something had gone terribly wrong this time. Usually, forward head-whip was lessened when CART drivers' heads hit the steering wheels, well-protected by their full-face helmets. This time, the nature of the impact had sent Rodriguez's head whipping out over the steering wheel.

Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's attending physician at the scene, told me Rodriguez died of basilar skull fracture, a syndrome that would later plague NASCAR, in which cracking bone in the back of the skull cut vital arteries and damaged the brain stem in one terrible motion, due to violent whipping of the head.

Rodriguez had been barely known. But the popular, mischievous, effervescent young Canadian Greg Moore was a skyrocketing star in CART. His style and personality amounted to a pillar of CART's hopes for the future.

But on Halloween weekend at California Speedway, a bizarre series of events unfolded. First, Moore, riding a motor scooter through the paddock, collided with a car that backed unexpectedly out of a parking space. Moore suffered a broken wrist and was unable to qualify.

Doctors cleared him to start CART's season finale that Sunday, but he had to start at the back of the field. Back there, his car underwent horrific buffeting from turbulence, then broke loose, skated across the infield grass and rolled wildly out of control, ripping up the turf.

Moore was killed.

You could hear the terrible strain and sorrow in Olvey's voice as he made the official announcement. In less than two months, CART's all-time fatality toll had doubled.

Enough of the pretty infield grass that let the car skate wildly, a heartsick and outraged Mario Andretti said. The infield areas inside the corners must be paved, to slow down the slides.

"You want a pretty green color for television?" Andretti growled to me. "Then paint the goddamned asphalt green!"

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With reconciliation still out of reach, the France-controlled ISC -- taking control of the Penske tracks -- would simply toss CART out of Michigan and California and instead run IRL races -- none of which drew more than smatterings of spectators to the grandstands.

Now everybody was losing, even the track-owning arm of the France/NASCAR empire.

That effectively finished off CART racing on high-speed ovals in the U.S. One more CART attempt at a big track, at Texas in 2001, would be canceled, leading to a lawsuit that would drive another nail into CART's rapidly sealing coffin.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

May '96 memorable for wrong reasons

(part 2 of 4, by Ed Hinton espn.go.com 5-20-10)

Before I'd left for that inaugural Indy Racing League race at Disney World, militant CART team owner Carl Haas had asked rhetorically, "Why should a track promoter take control over a whole series?"

That had been CART's attitude toward Tony George all along, that he was just another track promoter.

In Florida, George replied that, "As president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I am obligated to a leadership role in this sport and its directions."

With this sense of noblesse oblige, George took his stand. The Disney Indy 200 played to a sellout crowd of about 51,000 that Saturday, Jan. 27, 1996.

On the surface, the race went off as a surprising success. But on the track, there remained questions as Tony Stewart lost a late duel to another 24-year-old American rookie, the far less known Buzz Calkins, for the win.

Those were the only two drivers who finished on the lead lap.

Only 20 cars had been entered, with almost no visible sponsorship. None of that boded well for Tony George's edict from the year before that 25 starting spots in the Indy 500 would be reserved for teams with IRL points.

The CART teams would stay away from the next IRL race, at Phoenix in March, further forfeiting any IRL points that would count toward Indy 500 starting spots.

It didn't matter, they maintained, because they weren't coming to Indy anyway. And they wouldn't just sit idle, either. They would retaliate mightily, running their own alternative race, the U.S. 500, at Michigan International Speedway on the same day as Indy.

They would bill their event as featuring "the stars and cars of Indy," while Indy itself hosted mostly also-rans, malcontents, backmarkers and one poster boy.

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A few weeks later, on Friday before Daytona 500 Sunday, my message light was blinking when I returned to my hotel room. It was from one of the higher-up editors at Sports Illustrated. Please call. Urgent.

The editors had met in New York that day and discussed our upcoming Daytona coverage, and they had a question for me.

With the Indianapolis 500 sure to be fragmented in May, and all of NASCAR's stars in place for its showcase race, wasn't there a case to be made that the Daytona 500 was emerging as America's premier motorsports event?

Sadly -- sad because the Indy 500 had been such a national and international institution for so long -- I concurred. There was no denying it.

In the following week's issue, for the first time ever, we would treat the Daytona 500 as America's biggest automobile race.

On race day morning, Richard Petty opined to me that not only was the Daytona 500 a bigger race now, but that NASCAR actually would be welcomed by the public if it took over the Indianapolis 500.

"If we didn't have a conflicting date [the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte], they could change it [the Indy 500] into a NASCAR race," Petty said, "and I don't believe the American public would blink an eye. They wouldn't be upset at all.

"In fact, they'd probably be more enthusiastic now, because it would go back to being an all-American sports spectacular."

Indeed, fan discontent with the dominance of Indy by imported drivers was by now a groundswell.

Tony George was now rushing, against the odds, to remedy that.

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As April of '96 passed, so did any chance of reconciliation. The CART boycott of Indy was on.

One side said Indy couldn't do without its prime league of cars and drivers. The other said the CART series couldn't do without cornerstone Indy.

Ultimately, tragically, both sides would prove ruinously right.

I phoned some of the CART barons to ask if they really, truly thought the world's greatest race could be brought down.

One, Chip Ganassi, put it this way.

"I'm sitting in my office in Pittsburgh, OK? And I'm looking out the windows, to where the world's largest steel manufacturer used to be. It isn't there anymore. The point is, one management change here, one strategy change there, and the greatest of a lot of things in the world aren't the greatest anymore."

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For open-wheel racing's battle of Gettysburg, in May of '96, the IRL teams were a motley, ragtag army, underfunded, undermanned, under-equipped, except for billionaire John Menard's personally financed team featuring the sudden star Tony Stewart and the veteran American Scott Brayton.

But the IRL held the strategic high ground, the storied Speedway itself, albeit a rather stark, barren, desolate sight to behold without the glitz, the opulence, the high technology and the lavish entertainment of CART.

The CART teams were massing up in Michigan, preparing for their alternative U.S. 500, practically giving away seats to fill the grandstands to look good on television, and taking pot shots via the media at what they deemed the makeshift goings-on at Indianapolis.

They billed themselves as "the stars and cars of Indy" in promoting the U.S. 500.

Down at Indy, A.J. Foyt responded that "It's Indianapolis that makes the stars, not the drivers who make Indianapolis."

Robin Miller, the nationally renowned -- or notorious, depending on your point of view -- veteran motorsports columnist for the Indianapolis Star, had been scathing in his commentaries on the split.

It was Miller who articulated the gravest truth for both sides.

"All the stars and cars," he said to me in conversation, "are now in NASCAR."

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On the morning of May 17, Tony Stewart prepared to leave his Indianapolis apartment and drive to the track. This would be another tough day, he knew -- the media had mobbed him all month as the quintessential example of what Tony George was trying to accomplish with the IRL.

Racing on his own since age 19 when his parents ran out of money for him, Stewart had worked day jobs -- in a machine shop, or driving a tow truck -- and raced at night in sprint cars.

Often he would drive the tow truck down Georgetown Road, behind the frontstretch grandstands at the Speedway, and wonder what it must be like to go 200 mph there.

Now he knew -- and he also knew what it was like when you got out of the car: minicams and microphones everywhere, the same shouted questions over and over about the split, about his sudden stardom, about whether he could handle it all …

Well, at least his veteran teammate, Brayton, had taken a lot of the heat off Stewart the previous weekend.

After Brayton won the pole, the genial Michigander, at 37 the most experienced driver in the entire makeshift field, assumed the role of senior statesman, naturally and well, for the IRL.

"I am an Indy car driver," Brayton emphasized. "That means I race at Indy." His loyalist words resounded up to Michigan, his home state, yet the staging area for the CART rebellion.

Stewart had qualified second, in the middle of the front row for the race, but Indy tradition channeled the brunt of media attention to the pole sitter going into the race.

Now, about to walk out of his apartment, Stewart reached to turn off his TV set -- and stopped.

He saw, on the screen, one of the Menard cars crashing horrifically. In a split second, the car snapped around backward in Turn 2, and pancaked the wall on its left side.

Stewart thought at first it was a replay from an earlier incident in that Friday morning's practice. Then he realized it was live -- or at least an immediate replay from a crash that had just happened.

He hurried off to the track. There he found his team's garages all but deserted, learned that Brayton had been taken to Methodist Hospital and was told to go to the Menard shop in Indianapolis.

The dour Dutchman Arie Luyendyk had also chosen to stick with Indy, where he had won the 500 of 1990 with owner Doug Shierson's CART team.

When Luyendyk heard Scott Brayton was dead, "I didn't think, 'He died doing what he wanted to do,'" he told Miller and me. "I didn't think, 'He would want us to go on,' and I didn't think, 'He's in a better place.'

"I thought, 'God damn it!'"

The sudden death of Brayton cast a pall all the way up to Michigan, where the CART tongues went silent, stunned, heartsick. They were just as grief-stricken as their IRL foes.

There was something of a truce on May 22, as members of the warring parties met in Coldwater, Mich., for Brayton's funeral.

For all the CART criticism of the ragtag Indy effort, nobody questioned Menard's well-prepared cars, which were every bit as safe as that year's CART cars, or Brayton's ability. Something had just broken on the car, the car had snapped around and Brayton's helmet had hit the concrete wall.

What they did question was that the IRL put less restriction on turbocharger "boost," heightening horsepower, and that Indy had recently been repaved -- both guaranteeing higher speeds for a field of drivers not nearly as experienced as those in CART.

Up in Michigan, Mario Andretti called the Indy situation "a kind of Russian roulette."

If Stewart had felt bewildered and overwhelmed with all the attention before, the storm surge increased exponentially. The poster boy was now also the pole sitter, and, inextricably, the face and voice of his dead teammate.

TV crews encircled the Menard racing shop, and Stewart had to be spirited in and out, in an inconspicuous vehicle, through a service entrance. Through this ordeal, Stewart became more and more bewildered, disappointed, exasperated and confused about the media.

Those scars have never gone away entirely. To this day, when media colleagues ask why Stewart can be so impatient and indignant with us, I tell them about that week in '96 at Indy.

On Saturday morning, a handful of media people were invited to the Menard shop. I managed to corner Stewart one-on-one, to ask him the very questions he didn't want to hear, but the ones my job demanded that I ask -- about the enormity of his situation, the shock of the death of his teammate and his own fears.

For the first of many times, I saw how his brown eyes could blaze with anger and disgust.

"I'm a race driver," he said. "I don't have time to dwell on things like that."

He turned and walked away.

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On Saturday night, the Indianapolis Star sent a reporting team down to the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, by the Speedway, where historically Indy 500 eves had been mob scenes, wild as any Mardi Gras. Now the crowd was sparse.

Scalpers were in a panic, and the price of tickets with a face value of $125, which in recent years had brought as much as $1,000 apiece, plunged to $40.

One savvy scalper, a veteran of wheeling and dealing at The Masters, the World Series, the NCAA Final Four and Indy in the glory days, shouted to a Star reporter through the drizzle: "This race is over, and it ain't never comin' back!"

He was partly prophetic. The race wasn't over, finished, per se. But it would never come back to where it had been, at the pinnacle of the motor racing world.

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"It's a crucial day for us," Tony George said on race-day morning, Gettysburg day, in Indiana, with the opposing legions camped in Michigan. "But I doubt that a clear winner will be declared at the end of the day."

George had admonished his drivers to spread out and be cautious for the start of the race. The last thing the IRL needed, under the harsh scrutiny of the CART critics, was to fulfill their predictions of a disaster at the Indy start.

They indeed spread out to take the green flag, and rookie Stewart streaked far out front, turning laps at a race-record 232 mph-plus, then breaking his own records lap after lap … until a little device for controlling turbocharger pressure, called a "pop-off valve," literally popped off permanently. It broke.

Chased by a media mob back to his garage, beleaguered with questions about what had happened, Stewart kept repeating, "ask USAC … ask USAC … ask USAC …"

The United State Auto Club was still the sanctioning body, with the IRL considered a new branch. USAC officials had handed out, at random, the pop-off valves that were all supposed to be equal. There was no answer as to why Stewart's valve broke.

As the most crucial day of the war wore on, Indy became more and more deflated. The pall of Brayton's death was still palpable, and now the great young hope for public-relations vindication, Stewart, was out of the race …

But within minutes the tide of battle turned. In the media center, some monitors were tuned to the start of the U.S. 500. Suddenly the media center exploded in shouts of disbelief, and I looked up to see a massive pileup on the start … at Michigan.

The car of CART's pole sitter, Jimmy Vasser, somehow wiggled and collided with that of the other front-row starter, Adrian Fernandez, and a 12-car melee ensued.

CART red-flagged its race while the drivers involved, including Vasser, went to their backup cars. That was some Mulligan they'd given themselves -- crash, and then throw out that start and do it over. Vasser, in his backup car, won the race.

But as Indy droned on, nameless, colorless, sad, there remained, as George had predicted, no clear winner. Both sides were losing, with a global audience.

There was a dramatic ending, but only if you were a close follower of Indy car racing. To general populations, the name of the winner of the 80th Indianapolis 500, did not resonate: Buddy Lazier.

Lazier drove with 25 fractures in his backbone, an injury suffered in a crash in the second-ever IRL race, at Phoenix that March. The most touching sight of the Indy 500 had come under a late caution, after Lazier had taken the lead with eight laps to go under green. Cruising up front under yellow, he agonizingly stretched his arms outside the cockpit and shifted his weight in the seat, trying to ease the excruciating pain.

Dramatic as the scene was, Foyt's formula for Indy stardom would fail Lazier, whose fame would be fleeting.

But CART, more than Indy, finished the day embarrassed.

"What they predicted would happen to us," said Lazier's car owner, Ron Hemelgarn, "happened to them."

Tony George left the grounds signing autographs for flocks of loyalist fans who thanked and congratulated him for what he was doing.

The next morning, I saw him on the steps of the Speedway Motel on the grounds.

"Well," I said, "you held your ground."

"I was wondering when we were going to convince you," he said.

But as he'd predicted, there was no winner, and I was convinced only that more devastation for both sides lay ahead.

The race technically had been a sellout, on the sheer momentum of Indy's history, and the widespread hope that the sides would reconcile in time for the race.

"The scalping market crashed," I said.

"I don't care about the scalpers," George said.

But it meant that his sellout had been soft -- face-value tickets were no longer precious. If you could buy a prime seat for $40 on race day, why pay $125 in advance? The erosion had begun for Indy.

And never again would CART attempt to run a race directly opposite Indianapolis.

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George took three major steps for the 1997 season that were sure to widen the chasm between his IRL and the CART barons -- and one huge step the motor racing world hoped might help close the schism.

He changed the car and engine package entirely -- part of his strategy for lowering costs -- and he gained strong allies among the owners of NASCAR tracks. The technical changes were sure to push CART farther away. The formulas were now completely incompatible.

The new IRL venues at tracks such as Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and New Hampshire gave it a stronger season tour that assured the war would continue.

But on the other hand, George hired Leo Mehl to run the IRL for him, as executive director.

I knew of no one in the motor racing world, from short tracks to Formula One, who didn't like Mehl, recently retired as Goodyear's director of worldwide racing.

Mehl was, purely and simply, the world's best and most effective auto racing diplomat.

"He's a dear man, bless him," F1 team owner Frank Williams once said to me, largely reflecting the opinions of owners and drivers worldwide, from Dale Earnhardt to A.J. Foyt to Ayrton Senna, of the man who supplied the vital transfer of all that horsepower to pavement.

A chemical engineer by training, Mehl had gone to work for Goodyear as a tire compounder in 1962 and worked his way up the ladder until he was chief manager, spokesman and negotiator for all of the company's racing efforts.

He was equally at home on any pit lane, from Indy to Le Mans, Daytona to Monaco -- or from Eldora Speedway in the Ohio dirt to Volusia County Speedway in the Florida hinterlands.

But this time, Mehl walked into a schism that was getting dangerously close to irreparable.

The IRL would have its own, very different, cars and engines for its second year, replacing what had amounted to leftover CART cars in '96.

Though new, the IRL package would be more primitive. It amounted, Carl Haas complained to me on the phone, to "going back to shade-tree mechanics."

The engines would be of stock configuration, and normally aspirated -- that is, non-turbocharged. The cars would look more like Formula One cars of the time, featuring "ram boxes" -- those high tunnels with the openings above the driver's head -- to feed air to the atmospheric engines.

The cars were clunky and unsafe, and the regressive engine formula would be unreliable, CART owners and drivers said. CART's top two American drivers of the time, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, wouldn't even test the things.

So the two paths diverged even more on technology. There simply was no middle ground between the car and engine formulas of '97.

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The new IRL package was just fine with George's Southern allies. To them, high-tech was uppity. The feeling was deep-seated. Once, I'd even heard Big Bill France, the NASCAR founder, advise one of Tony Hulman's lieutenants, "You all need to change to stock-block engines."

Primitive was good, in the Southern mindset.

George's intentions and his cars were oriented toward oval tracks -- and ovals, the Southern tycoons had aplenty. All wanted more events annually for their facilities.

"These tracks wake up every morning, 365 days a year, and devour money," H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of the Bruton Smith-chaired Speedway Motorsports Inc., told me in '97, in explaining why SMI was forming a broad and close alliance with the IRL.

The idea was to make the tracks work to pay for themselves -- that is, host more events and sell more tickets and TV rights -- as many weekends of the year as possible. Two NASCAR Cup races a year weren't enough for the cash-insatiable track moguls.

But by no means did the track owners want Indy car racing to overshadow their NASCAR events. They wanted the IRL mainly as a nice, novel support series to open each track's gates once or twice more a year.

Smith's intermediate-size tracks were especially suited to IRL cars -- fast, but not too fast. In the France-family controlled International Speedway Corp., the two crown-jewel tracks, Daytona and Talladega, were far too fast for Indy cars.

By 1997 for the '98 season, Tony George's series had a secured a solid circuit that included the NASCAR-oriented tracks at Atlanta, Charlotte, New Hampshire, Las Vegas and Texas, in addition to George's own Indy, and then-independent Phoenix International Raceway and Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado.

CART would continue on its largely road and street racing circuit in the U.S. and Canada, but with two major 2-mile tracks, Michigan and California Speedway, both owned by CART stalwart Roger Penske at the time.

By now the Indy car fan base, already confused as to who was racing in which league, had divided and bitterly polarized. And some were turning to the more harmonious, solidly unified NASCAR, bulging with stars and cars they could count on seeing every Sunday.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Honor, blood and a brewing battle

(part 1 of 4, by Ed Hinton espn.go.com 5-18-10)

On the afternoon of July 3, 1995, I was faxed a preview of a document that amounted to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of major open-wheel racing in the United States. It was sure to lead to civil war.

But unlike the American Civil War, both sides would be devastated, and neither side would recover.

From this one document would ensue 13 years of mutual destruction between two leagues, sending the Indianapolis 500 plummeting from the pinnacle of all the world's motor racing, and eroding Indy car racing to second class in the American public mind.

There they languish today, two years into the aftermath of the war, going into the 94th Indy 500, the 15th one since the split.

That fateful fax was preceded by a phone call from an anxious-sounding Bob Walters, then chief publicist at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I want to run something by you," he said. "We've prepared a press release, and I want to hear your thoughts before we send it out to the rest of the media."

Why me? Probably it was where I worked at the time, and maybe experience. I was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, then the most influential sports publication in the U.S., if not the world. I was the auto racing specialist, having covered all forms of the sport for more than 20 years.

Even before the fax cleared the machine, the impact was clear: If this edict were carried out, the destruction of Indy car racing would be a matter of time.

The release stated that beginning with the 1996 Indianapolis 500, 25 of the traditional 33 starting spots would be reserved for teams from the new Indy Racing League.

This was astounding because the IRL had yet to turn a wheel on a racetrack, and had yet to demonstrate that it could even attract 25 cars.

This was a blatant surprise attack on the powerful Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART), which since 1979 had accounted for most of each Indy 500 field. Now, if these teams complied, they would have to come on their knees with upwards of 40 cars to compete among themselves for only eight starting positions in the 500.

And this was revolutionary: The edict would shatter Indy's most inviolable tradition -- that "the fastest 33 cars start the race," no matter where in the world they came from.

The intent of the "25 and 8 rule," as it would come to be called in notoriety, was to force CART teams to compete not just at Indy but in all races of the new IRL, if they were to gather enough points to get Indy 500 reservations.

Outside Indy in May, CART owned the rest of the year with its own series, which was the most lucrative ever developed for open-wheel cars in the U.S.

Clearly, CART would never stand for the new rule. The glamorous teams would stay away from Indy entirely. Then inevitably would come the terrible test of who could do without whom: CART without the cornerstone race, or the Indy 500 without CART and its supporting series of races.

I phoned Walters back immediately with my opinion: This would be taken by CART, and by the motorsports media nationwide, as nothing short of a declaration of war.

This would rip open-wheel racing asunder, just when there was enough trouble maintaining prestige and popularity with one series.

But Indy car racing was in denial about the growing threat from another form of racing, rising rapidly out of the South and spreading nationwide, into mainstream popularity: NASCAR.

Walters listened, then sighed. "Well," he said, with a resigned tone in his voice, "Tony wants to go with it."

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Anton Hulman "Tony" George had ascended the throne of Indianapolis Motor Speedway by hereditary right in 1990, at age 30.

He was the only male heir to his grandfather, Anton Hulman, who had saved the Speedway and the 500 after World War II.

Tony George arrived with a plan for sweeping change, and a chip on his shoulder. Indy had run too long on tradition, he decreed, and henceforth it would be run as a business.

I liked that. And I liked him -- still do, even now that he has fallen almost completely out of auto racing, his 20 years of bold plans no less noble for their terrible failures.

What had passed as tradition at Indy had seemed to be largely stodginess to me. But with young George in charge, the air seemed fresher and the grounds brighter every time you drove through one of the tunnels into the infield. He was making large-scale physical changes, fast.

And he was plunging into new business that would bring far more racing to Indy than just the 500.

He had begun hosting NASCAR races in 1994 -- even though traditionalists deemed it heresy -- and the first two Brickyard 400s had been landslide sellouts.

He had entered into a transoceanic flirtation with the treacherous, ruthless realm of Formula One and its czar, Bernie Ecclestone, with an eye toward bringing a U.S. Grand Prix to Indy.

So, going into the declaration of war in '95, Tony George had been a bullet train of change in motor racing.

Except for that chip on his shoulder.

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Throughout the years of Indy car civil war, many would believe it was all about money through control of the sport. I thought that was true on the CART side, but never on George's side.

His motive, I still believe, was mainly a matter of family honor and noblesse oblige toward open-wheel racing.

As a teenager he had followed his grandfather around Gasoline Alley, meeting the tough and towering figures of Indy's golden era: A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby and Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby … Americans all.

Then the late 1970s brought a series of annually occurring tragedies into the young life of George.

On the night of the 1976 Indy 500, when Tony was 16, his father, Elmer George -- a former driver married to Tony Hulman's only child, Mari -- was shot and killed in an argument with a trainer at the family's horse farm outside Terre Haute, Ind.

When Tony was 17, his grandfather died, and even the hallowed Speedway itself seemed somehow orphaned without its gentlemanly owner/dictator, known throughout motor racing simply as "Mr. Hulman."

When Tony was 18, in 1978, former Formula One and Indy driver Dan Gurney circulated a letter to other progressive team owners. It proposed that America's premier open-wheel series, then controlled by the United States Auto Club (USAC), could and should be much bigger, better and richer than just a satellite tour to the cornerstone Indianapolis 500.

USAC was essentially a puppet of the Speedway, and rejected Gurney's proposals. So in late '78 he and other owners, such as Roger Penske and U.E. "Pat" Patrick, formed CART, and soon gathered most of the top teams into their alliance.

The glaring exception was the irascible, indomitable Foyt, the most independent-minded man in motor racing, coming off his unprecedented fourth Indy 500 win in '77 -- and fiercely loyal to the Hulman-George family and USAC.

When Tony was 19, in 1979, CART lawyers hand-delivered entries for 44 cars, right on deadline for that year's 500, to the Speedway. The entries were accompanied by demands for what it would take for that huge, vital group of cars and drivers to show up.

Then the CART teams set off to inaugurate their own series, with two races prior to the Indy 500, and await the Speedway's response.

They got it that April. As they unloaded in the garages of what was then called Atlanta International Raceway for their second race as an organization, there erupted something of a commotion among them, and I began asking them what was the matter.

They had received a telegram telling them they were not welcome at the Indy 500 that year, they said. Almost immediately they began discussing litigation. They would go to court for the right to compete in the 500. They would succeed.

From there, they effectively seized control of Indy, even though technically USAC remained the sanctioning body for the 500. What the CART teams wanted at the Brickyard, the CART teams usually got.

Quickly the USAC "championship trail" of other races died out, displaced by the CART series. CART owners unabashedly tried to emulate Formula One, with emphasis on road courses and street circuits in addition to oval tracks.

The street circuits especially made business sense, because events could be held in and near major cities by simply laying out temporary courses, rather than building permanent racetracks.

But road and street racing also meant a different kind of driver. The tough Americans, who'd come up to Indy off the heartland oval dirt tracks, were phased out, displaced by Europeans, South Americans and Australians who'd been trained from childhood as road racers.

Slowly, American fans grew apathetic toward the imported personalities, and yearned for a resurgence of the Foyt ilk. But the Americans would never return in significant enough numbers.

So, arguably, the downfall of Indy car racing began with CART's shift to road racing.

Tony George had to witness and stomach all this. But he was an heir in waiting. Not until he was 30, by family tradition, would he be given command.

Meanwhile he apprenticed in racing from the ground up, starting out as a fuel man on the pit crew of his idol and in some ways surrogate father, Foyt.

Independent as Foyt was, he had always deferred to the Hulman-George family, and worshiped them. From the outset, he acknowledged to young Tony just how important they were.

Foyt, left with no alternative, eventually participated in CART, but never cottoned to it. He longed for the USAC days when he reigned supreme at Indy, before the uppity barons in their Gucci loafers seized control in 1979.

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From early on at the helm of Indy, George was chronically at odds with the barons of CART -- Penske, Gurney, Patrick, and by the '90s Chip Ganassi, Barry Green, and most of all, the militant Carl Haas and his even more militant business partner, actor Paul Newman.

The barons treated young George more as a new force to be felt out and somehow dealt with. Word was, they considered him a punk.

Publicly they treated him, as Haas would later put it, as "a track promoter," just one of many -- even though George's track was unchallenged as the greatest in the world.

They granted George a seat on the CART board of directors, but only as a non-voting member. They thwarted his every suggestion at every turn through the early '90s, saying no when he proposed an engine formula compatible with Formula One's, saying no when he proposed a neutral Indy car czar such as the roundly respected Leo Mehl, then Goodyear's director of worldwide racing.

George wanted to achieve what not even his grandfather had. He wanted to make Indy -- which previously had stood in splendid isolation -- a full-fledged, and certainly prominent, member of the worldwide racing community.

The CART barons continued to vote for what was best for their own series -- and their own individual business interests.

Finally, thoroughly exasperated, George walked out of a CART meeting, resigned from the board, and began working on a plan for his own racing series.

Traditionalist racers and fans had always resented CART as something of an occupying force on the hallowed ground of Indy, usurpers, dripping with opulence and arrogance and racing more for profit than passion.

In addition to importing road racers, CART teams had adopted the European tradition of drivers "buying rides" -- that is, bringing lucrative sponsorships or enormous personal wealth with them.

That added yet a second padlocked gate to keep out young Americans raised on the dirt tracks.

"We went on our knees to the CART teams," Jeff Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford, told me as Gordon rose to stardom in NASCAR.

"They basically said, 'Show us the money and we'll show you the seat,'" Gordon would tell me later.

So George had to watch helplessly, with mixed emotions, while Gordon, the kid who'd grown up as a sprint-car prodigy in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., won the inaugural Brickyard 400 -- a NASCAR race.

Even then, George was watching yet another local prodigy tearing up the dirt tracks in USAC midgets, sprint cars and Silver Crown cars, winning in everything he drove -- but with no hope of buying a CART ride.

That was Tony Stewart of nearby Columbus, Ind.

Enough was enough.

Somehow, George determined, he would reopen the path to Indy for the likes of Gordon and Stewart. In 1994 he announced the founding of the Indy Racing League, with Stewart as his poster boy.

At every turn, old-liners whispered encouragement into George's ear. His was a glorious cause, making Indy again the showplace for American talent risen from the Saturday-night tracks.

He meant to accomplish this in part by simplifying technology and lowering costs, so that teams wouldn't need drivers who could bring money, and could afford to hire drivers who brought only their sheer ability.

Not the least of the old-liners, constantly in George's ear, was Foyt himself.

"Tony's a brilliant boy, and so's his mama," Foyt told me in one of his classic malapropisms, as the winds of Indy war began to blow.

Foyt would abide by -- and indeed influence -- every move the Hulman-George family made in breaking free of CART.

Many, including me, failed to take the IRL seriously enough when it was announced in '94. I thought it was mainly a bargaining ploy by George, to bring CART back to its senses from extravagance.

"The IRL will never turn a wheel in competition," I assured European journalist friends who were familiar with CART due to its international expansion, and concerned about a possible devastation of Indy car racing and the greatest single race in the world.

But as I read and reread the fax of July 3, 1995, and realized the magnitude of the "25 and 8" edict, I felt about as prescient as the North Carolina politician who in 1861 had dismissed the imminent conflict as so minor that he would "wipe up every drop of blood shed … with a handkerchief …"

The Fort Sumter of the Indy car civil war was, of all places, Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla.

The first shots were fired by the IRL, in holding its first race on Jan. 27, 1996, on a hastily constructed, three-cornered track built by Indy engineers on Disney property.

All the previous fall, there had been hope that Indy and CART would somehow reconcile -- as they had after various bickering over the previous 17 years -- and that perhaps George would even rescind the "25-8" rule for the Indy 500.

But now, a walk through the paddock at the Disney track made the gravity of the situation clear.

Conspicuous by their absence were the affluent CART teams with their posh entertainment tents, luxury motor coaches and glitzy paint schemes for lucrative corporate sponsorships.

They'd kept their vow not to give in to George's attempt to force them to compete in IRL races -- even though at this point in the technical transition, mere tweaks to the CART cars would have made them IRL-legal.

Instead, here were the upstart IRL teams, fielding mostly second-hand CART cars, or old cars from the independent owners who annually fielded teams on a "one-off" basis, for the Indy 500 only.

Tony Stewart had arrived as poster boy and was filling his role magnificently, telling any journalist who asked that there was no way he ever could have gotten a ride in CART. The IRL, with its open arms to American dirt-trackers, was a career-changer for him.

Walking among the patchwork teams in the paddock, Gordon Kirby of the British magazine Autosport asked me, "What strikes you as starkly different?"

"Pretty ragtag," I said. But there was something more profound.

"No sponsorship logos," Kirby said. And he was right. There were hardly any.

Where were they getting the money to compete? Word was already spreading that George was subsidizing teams out of his own pocket, or at least the Indianapolis Motor Speedway coffers.

This was a radical departure from any other racing league's financial model, ever. For just this one race, you could understand: Leagues and tracks often paid "appearance money" to top teams and drivers just to show up, so their names could be used in ticket promotions.

But a full season? If you'd driven the 55 miles up to Daytona Beach and proposed to NASCAR czar Bill France Jr. that he subsidize the Cup teams for a season, he'd have laughed you out of his office.

The sanctioning body provided the forum, the tracks provided the prize money, and other than that, the teams were on their own. That was the NASCAR model.

Then again, not even the France family could match the vast family wealth of the Hulman-George family, and its Hulman & Co., founded as a wholesale grocery company by Tony George's great-great-grandfather, Herman Hulman, in 1879. Now the company was broadly diversified, not only with ownership of Indianapolis Motor Speedway but with holdings ranging from Clabber Girl baking powder to television stations and the Telex communications company.

Oh, and there was one more enormous contributor to George's war chest: NASCAR itself.

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Both NASCAR and Formula One had taken public positions of neutrality in the coming Indy car war, but it was no secret that the other two giants didn't care much for CART.

F1 had fought CART's international expansion in the early '90s and had no love for the bellicose American barons who'd pushed into Australia, Canada and Europe, with designs on Japan -- all traditionally F1 turf.

But NASCAR's interest was closer and more fundamental. Organizations such as CART, in which team owners pushed the sanctioning body and track promoters around, were anathema to NASCAR's ruling France family.

When NASCAR's founder, "Big Bill" France Sr., summoned the various kingpins of stock-car racing from around the nation to Daytona Beach in 1947, he knew he had to seize absolute control of the new league. An adviser had warned him that this would work only as a dictatorship -- that a governing board would be disastrous.

And fear of any sort of union was fresh in France's mind as he formed NASCAR -- in May 1947, Anton Hulman had put down a bitter drivers' strike at the Indianapolis 500.

Now, in the mid '90s, there was undercurrent talk in the NASCAR garages that a CART-like organization of powerful team owners might arise, to take advantage of an upheaval in track ownership and demand higher purses.

Standing under umbrellas in the rain at Talladega one weekend, in an otherwise deserted garage area, one powerful team owner had posed an intriguing question to me privately.

"How much would you pay for NASCAR right now?" he asked, amid rumors that giant corporations such as Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, or even Disney, might be interested in buying.

"You mean if I were Murdoch? Oh, $2 billion, $3 billion, I don't know," I said.

"Now then," and here the owner pointed to the haulers of NASCAR's top six or seven teams, "if those rigs were suddenly gone, those teams were out, how much would you pay for NASCAR?"

"Oh," I mused, "about $1.99."

"Exactly," he said, and walked away in the rain.

The point was, without its major teams and stars, NASCAR would be worthless. This came precariously close to the thinking that had started CART.

What had started the NASCAR rumblings, in parallel to the Indy car conflict, were the activities of O. Bruton Smith. A longtime France family rival, Smith was chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., a track conglomerate he'd taken to Wall Street as a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange.

The France family, which owned NASCAR outright and controlled International Speedway Corp., another track conglomerate, was watching Smith closely as he gobbled up tracks with built-in NASCAR race dates. He already owned the tracks at Charlotte and Atlanta, bought existing tracks such as Las Vegas and Bristol, and planned to build new ones, his crown jewel-in-progress being Texas Motor Speedway.

Smith was acquiring tracks so fast, and had disagreed with the Frances so much for so long over how NASCAR should be run, that there was much conjecture that he might start a rival stock-car series.

Then Smith, not yet able to get a Cup race scheduled for his yet-to-open Texas track, hinted that he might just run a non-sanctioned or "outlaw" race, after the NASCAR season was over, with an enormous purse.

That got the attention of the NASCAR owners, and that in turn fueled rumblings of a CART-type council of team owners to sell their services to the highest-bidding series.

Amidst all this, Bill France Jr., second czar in the NASCAR dynasty, publicly postured himself as neutral in the Indy car conflict.

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NASCAR's funding of Tony George's war chest was indirect, in the form of the enormous revenues Indy took in from the new, but firmly established, NASCAR race there, the Brickyard 400.

George would tell me years later that there was "no question" this additional bonanza from his NASCAR race emboldened and bolstered him for the IRL venture.

There was another connection with NASCAR: John Cooper, a longtime friend and sometimes business associate of the France family, and onetime NASCAR marketing director, was now one of George's closest advisers.

After working for NASCAR in the '70s, Cooper in late 1979 had been named president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in something of a quiet move, and served until 1982. Then, in the early '90s, Cooper had helped facilitate the partnership of Indy and NASCAR for the Brickyard 400.

On Jan. 26, 1996, the eve of the first Indy Racing League event, the IRL threw a lavish cocktail party in a tent outside the new track on the Disney property.

I noticed Cooper standing to the side, taking it all in. I walked over to check out some rumors I'd heard.

"Hey, John, you know what I hear? I hear the CART barons were scrambling to settle this thing, and that Tony was listening," I said.

"That right?" he asked.

"Yeah. And then I heard you to told Tony, 'f--- 'em,'" I said. "And that was it."

Cooper demurred, smiled, contemplated the ice cubes in his vodka and soda, then took a sip.

"Well," he said, "I might have said something along those lines."

Seattle Times article from 1996

GEORGE'S BIG GAMBLE COULD RUIN INDY 500.

An acronym beginning with "IR" makes Mario Andretti's radiator boil over.

It's not IRS. Try IRL

The Indy Racing League is the invention of Tony George, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Worried that the established IndyCar racing series would be muscling in on control of the Indianapolis 500 and that the cost of racing was soaring, George launched the IRL this year. The Indy 500 has been sanctioned by the U.S. Auto Club for decades.

George also is concerned that the IndyCar circuit, sanctioned by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), is overflowing with foreign drivers who crowd out promising Americans.
The inaugural IRL series has five oval races, with the Indy 500 as its centerpiece. CART's 16-race schedule includes only six oval events.

The political give and take between George and CART might not have erupted into a car war had George not guaranteed the top 25 drivers in IRL a starting position in this year's 33-car Indy 500 field. This move infuriated the major car owners in CART such as Roger Penske, Pat Patrick, Carl Haas and Rick Galles.

"What Tony is doing is a travesty to the sport, and to himself," Andretti, a racing legend, said from his home in Nazareth, Pa.

The battle lines are drawn

Next Sunday, the Indy 500 will be run for the 80th time. A few hundred miles away, CART will stage the first U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway.

The U.S. 500 will have two-time Indy 500 winners Al Unser
Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal (winner of the 1986 Indy 500) and Paul Tracy.

The only "name" drivers at Indy will be Arie Luyendyk, winner of the 1990 Indy 500; Roberto Guerrero, who holds the fastest qualifying time ever at Indy; Scott Brayton, last year's Indy pole-sitter; and Eddie Cheever.

After watching the IRL opener in late January at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Tracy said, "It's not the Michael Jordans or the Emmitt Smiths. It's not the top-class guys. People want to watch the best."

Car owner Derrick Walker normally is an optimistic person. But Walker, formerly with Penske Racing, based in Reading, believes unity in Indy-car racing is beyond repair.

"Will there ever be a compromise that will bring us all back together again?" asked Walker. "Personally, I doubt it. I think we may be separated forever as long as both sides have two distinct philosophies about the way the sport ought to be run."

Gap widens

Walker, whose drivers are Robby Gordon and Scott Goodyear, emphasizes that the issue is more about philosophical differences than who will be racing at Indy this year.

"If Tony George had changed the qualifying rules and made it an open competition," Walker said, "perhaps this conflict would not have reared its ugly head as soon as it has. But it would always be an issue as to whether the sport should have all oval tracks, or should have no Brazilians, all Brazilians or whatever the issues are.

"We initially took a stand in IndyCar, saying that races should be for the fastest cars, not for a club or an entry to another race. That became a line in the sand, which is now a river, and is really almost impossible to bridge at this point."

John Menard is an IRL car owner. For years, the owner of a large, Wisconsin-based lumber and home-improvement chain limited his racing involvement to the Indy 500. Now he fields three cars in the IRL for Brayton, Cheever and Tony Stewart, a promising American driver.

Menard said he watched the recent CART race in Rio de Janeiro
won by Brazilian Andre Ribeiro.

"When I got to seven Brazilians, I quit counting," Menard said. "I wonder if racing fans from Keokuk (Iowa) and Terre Haute (Ind.) want to come and watch Andre I-can't-pronounce-his-name. I think they're more interested in watching Tony Stewart."

George inherited position

George, 36, is the grandson of Tony Hulman, who developed the Indy 500 into the world's most prestigious auto race. George raced in some Indy prep series to get a feel of what the sport is like from a driver's view.

To many observers, George reluctantly inherited the top management position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway six years ago. It took him a few years to get up to speed before he decided to assert himself. Some people believe George, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is on a power trip, attempting to rule Indy car racing.

Chip Ganassi, a CART car owner who is a partner in the Pittsburgh Pirates' new management team, labels George's initiative "a thinly veiled hostile takeover."

Menard, who has known George a long time, disagrees.

"Tony is one of the most unassuming, gentle people I know," Menard said. "He was thrust into management of the Speedway at a young age. It's taken him a couple years to get the confidence and experience he needs to run it.

"He has good vision of what's happened in racing and what will happen in the future. He could see this coming, CART trying to minimize the importance of the Speedway to that series. If I have any criticism of Tony, it's that he should have done this a year ago."

War escalates

It angers Andretti when he hears Menard and others talk about CART trying to seize control of the Indy 500.

"I was on the board of CART," Andretti said, "and that question was never an issue. No one has ever threatened the integrity of that race."

Andretti also gets annoyed with people who say there are too many foreigners racing in CART.

"That shows a lot of ignorance," Andretti said. "The sport today is showcased worldwide. When I raced in Formula One and Indy car (in the late 1970s), they knew about Indianapolis, but they couldn't care less about Trenton (and other Indy-car races). Today, they know as much as we know."

In a letter to the Indianapolis Star that the Speedway circulated nationally, George wrote that the IRL was formed for "the long-term protection of the (Indy) 500." He wrote that the 500 depends on "a solid series of top-level, open-wheel, oval-track races. CART provided no long-term guarantees to the `500' or to oval-track racing. I care deeply about the history and traditions of the `500,' but I care more deeply about the future of the `500.' "

Three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser believes George erred by making participation in the IRL a condition for racing at Indianapolis.

"All he needed to do was cut the cost of racing 50 percent or maybe 30 percent," Unser said. "CART has the best show in open-wheel racing. It's just too expensive. At least two-thirds of the CART car owners can't afford to be there."

Indianapolis to feel pinch

In an effort to reduce costs, the IRL next year will use normally aspirated, stock-block, 4.0-liter, V8 engines. CART cars are powered by more expensive, 2.65-liter, turbocharged engines. In another cost-saving step, all cars in the IRL are 1995 models, or older.

Not having the top drivers and their sponsors at the Speedway during May will deliver a significant economic jolt to Indianapolis and the state. Andretti said Texaco, one of his car sponsors that he continues to work for, spent $482,000 at Indy last year on hotel rooms, plane fares and hospitality. Texaco and other major sponsors won't be at Indy this year.

Can the two series coexist? Because George and the Speedway have deep pockets, Andretti can see two series competing for a few years.

"But ultimately, one side has to die," Andretti said. "This could go on for years. Look at all the blood that will be spilled. For what? At the end of the battle, you'll probably be where you are today."

Tony George is taking the gamble of his young life. He could either wind up a hero, as the man who gave young American drivers their chance. Or he could forever be known as the man who ruined the Indy 500.