Last Sunday in Atlanta, at the second Indy-car event ever conducted by Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc., even the winning team couldn't get very excited over victory. Tyler Alexander, manager of Team McLaren, which owns the car driven by Johnny Rutherford that won both 125-mile races of the Gould Twin Dixie, said that it certainly wasn't like winning the Indianapolis 500. As a matter of fact, just 36 hours before, Alexander had learned that his chances of seeing his car rolling onto Victory Lane at the Speedway this year may have been reduced to zero. That was when he opened a Mailgram that read: "Your entry...in the 83rd Annual 500-Mile International Sweepstakes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway scheduled for Sunday May 27, 1979 is refused by the United States Auto Club, the Organizing Committee, because you are not in good standing with USAC."
There was more, such as the news that the $1,000 entry fee per car would be returned, but that opening sentence really said it all. What happened was that after five months of fairly gentle pushing and shoving over who is going to control Indy-car racing, USAC had taken out a tire iron and clobbered its rival, CART, upside the head. Whether the young splinter group has enough resources to pick itself up off the garage floor and continue the fight remains to be seen.
Indeed, the question of whether Indy-car racing, be it conducted under USAC's or CART's auspices, can survive this bareknuckle boardroom brawling is almost as chancy a proposition. In addition to Rutherford, a two-time winner of the 500, drivers such as Al Unser (three Indy victories), his brother Bobby (two), Gordon Johncock (one) and Rick Mears (who qualified in the front row at the Speedway last year as a rookie) now also find themselves without rides for this year's "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" because the owners of their cars received identical rejections last Friday morning.
Probably the only driver who can see any joy in this situation is A. J. Foyt, who was physically far removed from the action last weekend overseeing the training of his string of thoroughbreds in Kentucky. But the 44-year-old four-time Indy 500 winner is probably the biggest drawing card in racing, and as such he is very much a part of the controversy. In November, Foyt defected from USAC to CART, only to have a change of heart. He returned to USAC in February, saying, "I left because the original goals of CART have changed and I don't like some of the politics that's been played. They used me to get CART formed, and now there are only one or two guys doing all the talking. They're on an ego trip and want to conquer the racing world, but I have no desire to do that."
Certainly Foyt's chances of an unprecedented fifth Indy 500 have not been harmed by the new developments. Johncock, a staunch CART backer, said, "They [USAC] are going to do anything to let him win. He saved them...." In fact, the CART drivers' reactions to Foyt's decision are as vehement as the owners' to USAC's. "Let them have their chicken-feed race," said Johnny Rutherford. "Let Foyt win his fifth Indy. Then maybe he'll announce his retirement in Victory Circle. Then we'll be rid of him."
As things stand, no other previous Indy winner will challenge A.J. at Indy, nor will last year's USAC point champion, Tom Sneva. Until last week Sneva had been actively trying to bring the two sides together. Now, with the polarizing effect of the Mailgrams delivered at Atlanta, Sneva appears to have given up that role, although the owner of his car, Jerry O'Connell, has not had his entry rejected. Sneva has indicated he would stay in the CART camp. The same is true for Danny Ongais, who led much of last year's 500. Ongais had remained aloof from the bickering, despite the fact that he had been offered a post on CART's board of directors. But as of last weekend he, too, intimated that he would be sticking with CART whatever might happen between now and May 5, when the Speedway opens for practice.
That figures to be plenty—and plenty costly for both sides. On the same evening the Mailgrams were delivered, CART President Pat Patrick announced at a press conference, at which CART lawyer John Frasco was present, that "We will explore every legal avenue and take whatever steps are necessary to race at Indianapolis."
At stake is more than the glory, or even the nearly quarter of a million dollar purse, that comes with winning the 500. Indy-car racing is a very big business, and how that business is being run is what started this acrimonious dispute. A competitive 1979 model Indy car costs $135,000, and the operating expenses for a season approach $1 million, what with crew salaries, travel costs and the inevitable expense of replacing blown engines at $35,000 per copy.
Last year Jim Hall's Chaparral, driven by Al Unser, won not only the Indy 500 but also USAC's two other 500-mile races, at Ontario, Calif. and Pocono, Pa. "Our team won more money than any other team in the history of motor racing—over half a million dollars—yet we lost money," says Hall. "Heck, all the owners lose money. But look at the Indianapolis Speedway. It's done nothing but prosper for the last 30 years."
It was recently pointed out by Robin Miller, a sportswriter for the Indianapolis Star and sometime USAC midget driver, that while top ticket prices at the Speedway have gone from $35 to $55 in the last five years, the Speedway's contribution to the purse has dropped from $877,500 to $873,250. This from a total take from the month (including practice and four days of qualifying) that Miller estimates to be as high as $20 million.
Motivated by such horrific incongruities, the top Indy-car owners (among them Roger Penske, Dan Gurney, Bob Fletcher, Alexander, Hall and Patrick—who also happen to be the six recipients of the entry rejections) formed CART. What it would seek, they said, was a voice in scheduling, in changes in the division of purse and TV money and in car specifications. Their contention was that USAC's 21-man board of directors was too unwieldy (in addition to the Indy-car representatives, its membership includes figures from USAC's stock-car, sprint-car and midget racing divisions, as well as several nonaligned businessmen and USAC administrative officers) and too slow-moving to keep pace with the contemporary realities—specifically economic realities—of Indy-car racing.
As a result, the car owners found themselves spending most of their time scurrying around the country trying to woo sponsors who would think enough of painting their names on the sides of race cars that they would cough up six-figure amounts for that honor. And even that time-consuming salesmanship was proving not to be enough to make the top teams solvent. More threatening over the long run was the fact that an unproven team, or driver, was increasingly being shut out. It's enough of a gamble to ante up for a first-rate team, but to back an unknown can be rationalized only as a charity donation. "There was no chance of racing ever working under the USAC control structure," says Gurney. "People who weren't paying the bills were negotiating on our behalf, and many of them knew very little about what was going on. USAC's been holding back people's careers."
In the months between CART's formation and last week's call for all-out war, concessions were made on both sides, as well as what appeared to be sporadic movement toward a reconciliation. CART staged the first race of the season on March 11 at Phoenix International Raceway, a former USAC track owned largely by Bob Fletcher, a member of CART's board of directors. The race drew a capacity crowd, plus a national television audience that watched Johncock win and collect almost $19,000. Two weeks later USAC opened its season with a non-televised race at Ontario. In front of a meager crowd, Foyt predictably won from a weak field and banked $16,700.
But all that was just feeling out the opposition. Everyone agreed the big test would come at Indianapolis, even if this whole exercise, as some insiders had begun to suspect, was a gambit by Penske, or Foyt, or Patrick—or someone—to buy Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a not too farfetched notion, because the family of the late Tony Hulman now controls the Speedway, and is not as obsessed by the sport as he was.
Indianapolis is the greatest spectacle in racing, and not just from the fans' standpoint but from the sponsors' as well. So much so that virtually every Indy-car contract includes a penalty clause to the effect that if a team is unable to participate in the 500 the sponsor's financial obligations can be either voided or greatly reduced. The reality of this hideously expensive game is that a team could sweep races at Phoenix, Atlanta, Trenton and Brooklyn, Mich. (CART-aligned tracks), or at Ontario, College Station, Texas, Milwaukee and Pocono (USAC tracks), and still have a "bad" season. Try to justify the cost of a win at Trenton or Milwaukee to a comptroller. Is it worth $200,000? $300,000? But a win at Indy! It is worth every cent.
In short, a team has to at least make the field for the 500 or the money well runs dry. That is what USAC apparently has in mind. By threatening to make its showcase event into an antique-car run—one that might well turn out to be an A. J. Foyt benefit—USAC seems to be gambling that those who sponsor the cars of the CART members will force them to defect.
As of last weekend, however, CART was hanging tough and there were no breaks in the ranks of owners, drivers or sponsors. There was even a rumor that USAC may have cost itself more than it thought. According to gossip, the ABC same-day Indy television contract stipulates that 15 of the "top" drivers must be in the race. Without CART's contingent of former 500 winners, that condition cannot be met. CART can, and probably will, go to court, asking first for an injunction against the banning of its cars, then against the 500 itself—which is as impressive and destructive a cudgel as the one USAC wielded last week. At the same time, CART will undoubtedly register a protest with the Automobile Competition Committee for the U.S. (ACCUS), which is currently chaired by Tom Binford, who is also chief steward of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It figures the protest will be futile.
Binford and USAC President Dick King made one final attempt at reconciliation early last week. On the Tuesday before the Atlanta event they met with Penske and Patrick in Detroit with a proposal. A counterproposal was made by the two CART members, and on Thursday King claims to have polled the USAC board of directors on it. According to King, the counterproposal was rejected, and that night the Mailgrams went out. What no one wanted had happened.
There appears to be no room for either side to back down. The best anyone now expects is a surrender before May 27 by one group or the other. Anybody want to buy a nearly new 700-hp single-seat car? Will trade for 2.5-mile place to race at Indianapolis on Memorial Day. Cost no object. No deals. Egos at stake.
Last Saturday night in a hotel room in Atlanta a deeply concerned Dan Gurney said, "What hurts me most is that USAC is tagging us as rabid radicals out to destroy racing. That's very, very unfair. We've dedicated our lives to this sport, we've put our souls into it. USAC says we're greedy and rich car owners who don't care about anything but ourselves. But we are doing this for the sport—if we succeed it will benefit everyone in the long run. How much can USAC claim its latest moves are benefiting the sport? People have bought tickets, planned vacations, expecting to see drivers like the Unsers at Indianapolis this year. Not only that, but both Porsche and Renault were planning Indy efforts in 1980, but they've called them off because of USAC's latest rule changes. Things like that reflect USAC's attitude; that's what's hurting the sport."
Last season an old gag was making the rounds of the pits. It went, "How do you make a small fortune out of racing?" The answer: "You start with a big fortune." No one is laughing anymore because the real punch line has now been delivered. With brass knuckles.
The first six cars on the opening lap of the 1978 Indy 500 were driven by men who might not be at the Speedway this year. They are (top, from left) Danny Ongais (car No. 25); Tom Sneva (1); Johnny Rutherford (4); and (bottom) Gordon Johncock (20); Rick Mears (71); and winner Al Unser (2).
[See caption above.]
A. J. Foyt, who returned to the USAC fold, will be at Indy with a terrific chance to win his fifth 500.
Jim Hall received the grim news at Atlanta.