One way or another the Indianapolis 500 will never be the same.
That was virtually assured with last Saturday's running of an
otherwise innocuous 200-mile race on a hastily constructed
banked oval track at the unlikely venue of Disney World.
It was the first event of the Indy Racing League (IRL), the
brainchild of 36-year-old Indianapolis Motor Speedway president
Tony George. His bold venture has so riled the racing community
that established owners of many of the fastest cars in
Indianapolis-type racing and almost all of the big-name drivers
have vowed not only to boycott the Indy 500 on May 26 but also
to stage a race in direct opposition--the U.S. 500 at Michigan
These moguls of Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART) claim
that the IRL series is intended to put their annual 16-race
series out of business. George counters that he launched the IRL
in order to develop more American drivers and help control
rising costs. Each side is so entrenched that the 1996 Indy
field threatens to become a patchwork of outdated cars and
replacement drivers that could tarnish the international
prestige of a race that dates to 1911. At the same time, CART's
long-term survival without the showcase 500 could be in jeopardy.
One CART member, owner Carl Haas, calls the situation a real
war. If that's the case, then George won the first battle. A
sellout crowd of more than 51,000 paid as much as $90 a ticket
to watch a ragtag collection of mostly young and/or hard-up
drivers put on a credible show.
According to Haas the war is all about long-term control of Indy
Car racing. "Why should a track promoter take over the whole
series?" he says of George.
"As president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I am obligated to
a leadership role in this sport and its directions," says
George, for whom it is an obligation not only of office but also
of lineage. George is the grandson of the late Tony Hulman, who
as president of the Speedway from 1954 to 1977, is credited with
making the Indy 500 the enormous event it has become. After
Hulman died in '77, top owners on the circuit grew infuriated
with his Speedway successors and then tried to take advantage of
them. In late 1978 they formed CART, hoping to increase revenue
and seize control of the sport. CART now sanctions every Indy
Car race except the Indianapolis 500. George's critics say his
IRL series is an effort to avenge that power grab.
George ascended the family throne in 1990 and almost immediately
began to clash with CART. During an 18-month stint as a
nonvoting member of the CART board, he tried unsuccessfully to
restructure the organization. "They hate him," one of the few
remaining neutral insiders says of the attitude of CART barons
The latest and most divisive issue is George's attempt to
strong-arm CART teams into participating in his five-race IRL
series. Last July he decreed that beginning this year 25 of the
Indy 500's 33 starting spots will be reserved for the drivers
who accumulated the most points in the season's first two IRL
races--last Saturday's in Orlando and one set for March 24 in
Phoenix--provided those cars meet minimum speed requirements (yet
to be determined) at Indy time trials in May. The move was a
drastic departure from a long-standing Indy tradition in which
the 33 fastest cars after four days of qualifying started the
"It goes against every principle I've ever known about
Indianapolis," says Mario Andretti, who is so adamant in his
support of CART that he is considering coming out of retirement
at age 54 to drive in the U.S. 500. "I've always felt you had to
earn your way there. Nobody was guaranteed a thing. Look at who
failed to qualify last year. [Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser
Jr., respective winners of the 1993 and '94 500s, failed to even
make the field in '95.]"
The reserved-spot provision brought cries of lockout from CART
teams, which typically occupy 25 to 30 positions at Indy. But
why not just show up for the IRL races and garner some points?
"Our teams, our owners, our drivers are not prepared to be
bullied," says CART president Andrew Craig.
As for last Saturday's race, it might not have impressed an
aficionado, but the crowd seemed pleased with the show. Two
24-year-old Indy Car rookies dueled through the last lap, with
Buzz Calkins winning by less than a second over Tony Stewart. No
other driver was within two laps.
If George intends to stage the Indy 500 with a field similar to
the one at Disney World, he's asking for more trouble. Of the 20
cars that started the race, only nine were running at the
finish--which was 300 miles short of the Indy distance. At that
attrition rate, it is conceivable that Indy this year might have
no finishers at all.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS The 51,000 fans who packed the Orlando stands saw Calkins (red car) streak to his first Indy win. [Buzz Calkins in racecar]