Saturday, May 28, 2011
The Tony George era begins
In January 1990, Anton H. "Tony" George was appointed president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. George, 30, was the only son among Mari and Elmer George's four children, and his ascension to the Speedway presidency marked the first time since the death of his grandfather Tony Hulman in 1977 that the track figurehead was a Hulman family member.
There wasn't any problem with the on-track action in the Indianapolis 500 during the early years of George's tenure; the races from 1990 to 1995 were all memorable in their own right, and Indy car racing as a whole was more popular than ever. Arie Luyendyk set the race record by averaging 185.981 mph in the 1990 500, and a year later, a classic late-race duel between Rick Mears and Michael Andretti was resolved in Mears' favor, giving the Californian a record-tying fourth victory at Indianapolis.
The 1992 race is infamous as the coldest 500 in history, causing several heavy crashes. Andretti dominated but broke with 11 laps to go, opening the door for the closest finish in Indianapolis history as Al Unser Jr. edged a charging Scott Goodyear by 0.043 of a second.
In 1993, reigning Formula One world champion Nigel Mansell chose to compete in Indy car racing, and the Englishman brought such a large international media contingent that the Speedway had to expand its media center. Mansell lived up to the hype and led late in the race, only to be jumped on a restart by eventual winner Emerson Fittipaldi, who caused a furor by chugging orange juice in Victory Lane instead of the traditional milk.
Although CART was the sanctioning body of Indy car racing as a whole, USAC maintained control of the Indianapolis 500 and its rulebook offered an alternate engine specification intended to promote use of stock block pushrod engines. For many years, a turbocharged Buick V-6 enjoyed moderate success at Indianapolis; the extra boost allowed by the USAC rule package gave the engine more power, which made it very effective in qualifying. However, the Buick was unreliable and not as competitive in race conditions.
In 1994, Roger Penske's partners at Ilmor Engineering created a purpose-built V-8 pushrod engine for USAC's Indy specifications. Penske sold the badging rights for the engine to Mercedes-Benz, and after frantic last-minute development, the top-secret project paid dividends as Unser Jr. drove to his second Indianapolis win in three years. USAC's pushrod engine specs were promptly changed and the Mercedes-Benz 500I project instantly became an expensive (albeit successful) one-off engineering exercise.
The 1995 race was shrouded in controversy. Leader Scott Goodyear passed the pace car while it was still on track during the final restart, and after failing to heed a black flag, he was placed 14th after crossing the line first. Goodyear would again come agonizingly close to winning the 500 in 1997.
By then, things had changed in Indy car racing, and at Indianapolis itself, as Tony George wasted no time in asserting himself as the Speedway president. From the start of his tenure, George was unhappy about the small role that IMS played in the overall government of Indy car racing, and after a proposal he made for IMS leadership was rebuffed by the CART team owners in late 1991, George began making plans to radically alter the Speedway's role within the sport.
In March 1994, he announced initial plans for the Indy Racing League, with the intention of emphasizing oval racing, cutting competitor costs and increasing American participation from the ranks of USAC short-track racing.
In the meantime, he used the lure of the Speedway as a trump card to create leverage against the CART team owners in his claim for leadership of Indy car racing. NASCAR was invited to stage a closed tire test at Indy in June 1992, and an August 1993 NASCAR test open to the public attracted some 50,000 curious fans. The first NASCAR Brickyard 400 was held on Aug. 6, 1994, and in one of those stories just too good to be true, Jeff Gordon, a local hero who attended high school in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., swept to victory.
The Brickyard 400 has since proved to be a double-edged sword; it was a tremendous moneymaker for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the presence of stock cars on the hallowed IMS oval legitimized that form of racing to a fan base that had always remained loyal to open-wheel racing. Indianapolis is now every bit as much of a NASCAR town as any traditional stock car stronghold in America.
More critically, the financial success of the Brickyard also allowed George to fund the IRL, which staged its first race in January 1996 at a temporary oval constructed in the parking lot of Walt Disney World. There was no CART team or driver participation at Walt Disney World Speedway, nor was any expected at Indianapolis for the 500 because as part of his attempt to seize control of the sport, George mandated that 25 of the 33 starting spots in the Indianapolis 500 would be reserved for IRL points leaders. CART's response was to lease Michigan International Speedway from Roger Penske to stage its own 500-mile race on Memorial Day weekend.
By now, the sad story of CART's inaugural U.S. 500 is legendary; the so-called "Stars and Cars" of Indy car racing made a mess of the start and a multicar accident swept up nearly half the field. Jimmy Vasser won the restarted race for Chip Ganassi Racing and famously quipped "Who needs milk?" in Victory Lane.
Meanwhile, four hours to the south in Indiana, 33 drivers lined up in 1995 and older CART cars to contest what many observers at the time considered an ersatz Indianapolis 500. Buddy Lazier, who had never qualified higher than 17th for a CART race, with a best career finish of seventh, emerged as the gutty victor at Indy. Lazier had suffered a broken back eight weeks earlier in an IRL race at Phoenix International Raceway when he was swept into Lyn St. James' accident, and he drove at Indianapolis in intense pain.
Lazier's win polarized Indy car racing's fan base. CART fans believed that the triumph by one of their castoffs only solidified the argument that the IRL was a second-rate series; IRL loyalists claimed that his win proved what a disrespected American driver could achieve when given the proper opportunity. To his credit, Lazier developed into one of the IRL's enduring stars, winning eight races between 1996 and 2001 and the 2000 IRL series championship.
The void between CART and the IRL increased in 1997 when the IRL introduced a new chassis and engine formula. Again, the spin doctors were out in full force. To some, the new IRL formula made Indy car racing more affordable. Others claimed that the simplified chassis and production-based, 4.0-liter naturally aspirated engines badged as Oldsmobile and Infiniti dumbed down a high-tech sport to an unacceptable level. The new cars were indeed slower; Arie Luyendyk set the one-lap (237.498 mph) and four-lap (236.986) records at Indianapolis in 1996 driving a '95 Reynard/Cosworth CART car, but his 1997 pole speed in a Dallara-Oldsmobile was just 218.263 mph.
But the IRL formula Indy cars weren't necessarily safer. The bigger, heavier engine and a massively simplified but comparatively huge gearbox created a pendulum effect that frequently caused the cars to spear into the wall backward, resulting in an alarming number of spinal and head injuries. Ironically, the only deaths at Indianapolis during the 1990s were in CART-specification chassis -- rookie Jovy Marcelo in 1992 and popular veteran Scott Brayton in 1996.
The IRL-CART war was the dominant story in Indy car racing in the late 1990s, but neither side won. With NASCAR's foot already in the door thanks to the Brickyard 400, many open-wheel fans tired of the bickering in open-wheel racing and switched their allegiance to stock cars. Major sponsors, and eventually manufacturers like Toyota, followed suit. For the first time in many decades, the Indianapolis 500 was not sold out in advance, and Pole Day crowds dwindled to a couple of thousand spectators. The drop in race-day attendance wasn't noticeable at first, but by the end of the decade, vast open spaces appeared in the IMS grandstands -- at least for the 500, because the Brickyard 400 quickly developed into one of the toughest tickets on the NASCAR circuit.
Most IRL races outside of Indianapolis struggled to draw respectable crowds. In an interesting twist, attendance at the oval races that formed up to half of the CART schedule also went into sharp decline in the late '90s. But even in a somewhat diminished state, the Indianapolis 500 soldiered on. Luyendyk won the 1997 race, making him the only driver to win Indy in CART and IRL specification cars. Eddie Cheever, who never won a race in 17 years of competing in Formula One and CART, crossed the line first at Indianapolis in 1998, and a year later, A.J. Foyt returned to Indy's Victory Lane as the car owner for Kenny Brack.
The IRL achieved some of its intended goals. The number of American drivers in the field increased from 14 in 1995 to 26 in 1998, giving short-track stars like Steve Kinser, Jack Hewitt, Billy Boat, Davey Hamilton and Jimmy Kite the opportunity to compete at Indianapolis. The most notable (and most successful) product of the early IRL was Indiana native Tony Stewart, who never finished higher than fifth in five Indy 500 starts but won three IRL-sanctioned Indy car races and the combined 1996-97 IRL championship. Stewart took his talents to NASCAR in 1999 and never looked back.
But in truth, they were really standing in as substitutes for the existing stars of Indy car racing, who along with their teams had remained loyal to the CART series. While punch-line pilots like Racin Gardner, "Bronco" Brad Murphy, Scott Harrington and "racing dentist" Dr. Jack Miller filled the Indy 500 field, the politics of the era prevented CART stars like Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Jimmy Vasser, Greg Moore and Alex Zanardi from competing at Indianapolis during the peak years of their careers. Remarkably, Zanardi and Moore never raced in the Indianapolis 500.
The stars of the '90s at Indianapolis were topped by Mears, who won the 1991 race to tie Foyt and Al Unser with four wins apiece. Mears achieved his four wins in far fewer starts and added a record six Indy poles, making him arguably the greatest driver in the history of the Speedway. Then there is Luyendyk, who drove to pole position in 1993 and '97 in addition to his race wins in '90 and '97.
Unser Jr., the son of Al Unser and nephew of Bobby, led eight of his 19 Indy starts and won twice. His second generation counterpart Michael Andretti never won at Indianapolis but was always competitive. Another famous non-winner is Goodyear, the Canadian who suffered perhaps more heartbreak at Indianapolis than any other driver.
George tried to create a more family-friendly atmosphere at IMS by abolishing the popular "Snakepit" area in the Turn 1 infield, but many of those longtime Indy fans took their partying habits to NASCAR events. George also invested in substantially upgrading the Speedway's golf course, hiring Pete Dye to turn the simple municipal layout into the posh Brickyard Crossing Resort in the hopes of attracting a PGA Tour event. That never happened, though from 1994 to 2000, IMS hosted the Senior PGA Brickyard Crossing Championship.
As president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George's legacy can be summed up as: Usually good for the Speedway, but often bad for the overall sport of Indy car racing. George will mostly be remembered for forming the Indy Racing League and taking it into competition with the racing series that had formed the basis of the Indianapolis 500 since 1979. That battle, which would endure well into the first decade of the 21st century, continues to cripple Indy car racing to this day.