Cary Agajanian, a Los Angeles attorney whose father, J.C., was a major force in the U.S. Auto Club for many decades, has assumed the task of trying to restore it to a position of power in Indy car racing.
It will not be an easy task.
Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc., which took over operation of Indy cars--except for the Indianapolis 500--from USAC in a bitter parting in 1979, has vowed to retain the status quo. That means a mix of international oval, road and street races in Brazil, Australia and Canada, as well as the United States.
The Indy Racing League, a new organization formed by Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and operator of the Indianapolis 500, is planning to run five races, all on ovals, next season in addition to CART events. The Indy 500 would be the IRL's centerpiece.
The 500 has been part of Cary Agajanian's life since 1948, the year his father entered his first car at Indianapolis. Cary was 6.
"When I was 17, I went there as a crew member, and I've been there in some capacity every May since," he said. "Last year was my 35th at Indy."
The senior Agajanian entered cars at Indy for 30 years and had two winners--Troy Ruttman in 1952 and Parnelli Jones in 1963.
"A lot of my racing philosophy comes from my dad," Cary said. "He was one of USAC's staunchest supporters and I feel proud to be associated with the same organization."
Agajanian, USAC's new executive vice president, is in the picture because the organization is the formal sanctioning body for IRL--and both organizations needed a strong man to steer the uncharted course.
"My appointment recognizes that USAC will administer the racing side," Agajanian said. "The IRL will become more or less a marketing organization. I will be working closely with Jack Long [IRL executive director], but USAC will become the sanctioning body, imposing, promulgating and enforcing the rules. Mine will be a new division, pretty much autonomous from the rest of USAC and its sprint car, midget and other divisions."
Agajanian is fully aware of the problems that led to the 1979 split, when a group of car owners led by Roger Penske, Pat Patrick and Dan Gurney revolted and formed CART. His father was on the USAC board at the time.
"Nothing has changed in USAC since then, I know that, but I guarantee you it will change now," he said. "Dick King will remain as president, but I will develop a staff of my own. The USAC Indy car image must change. That is my challenge, and I expect to succeed."
The most controversial proposal involving IRL is George's decision to reserve 25 of the 33 starting positions in next year's Indy 500 for teams that compete in IRL races Jan. 27 in Orlando, Fla., and March 24 in Phoenix.
"Personally, the 25-and-8 rule is not one I would like to keep, but initially it was the only response IRL could make after CART announced its schedule, with races on the same weekends," Agajanian said.
Although there is no CART race on March 24, CART franchise teams will be transporting their cars between Brazil and Australia at that time. An IRL race Aug. 18, 1996, at Loudon, N.H., was topped by a CART race the same day at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
"It is my hope [the 25-and-8 rule] will be unnecessary in the future," Agajanian said. "The only response Tony [George] had to assure himself of a field of cars was to make a rule binding on running at Indy. There's not a sponsor in the sport that doesn't want his car at Indianapolis. I keep hearing that the CART owners won't have their cars at Orlando or Phoenix. I hope that's not the case because the way the IRL looks at it, there's room for expansion in our sport.
"There are only 15 venues for racing in North America from CART's viewpoint. We don't see why there can't be a dozen more. Areas like Seattle, Houston, Denver, Dallas, St. Louis, to name a few, would certainly welcome major league racing.
"The people at CART say there aren't enough cars. That's silly. There are 22 to 24 car owners in CART. That's the way they want it, but the sport would be a lot healthier if there were 30 or 35 of them. There are a lot of potential owners out there who would love to get into the Indy 500. Some of them are running World of Outlaw sprint cars, or USAC midgets or even Busch Grand National [stock] cars today."
Agajanian also wants to see more young American drivers get shots at the 500, rather than having the field filled with drivers from Europe, South America and Japan.
"The foreign drivers have added a lot to Indy cars recently, just as they did when the Indy 500 was started in 1911, but the problem, as I see it, is not foreign drivers but the lack of opportunity for drivers from American oval-track backgrounds. It's discouraging when a driver like Jeff Gordon is driven away from Indy cars, which is what he wanted to drive, because of a lack of opportunity.
"Look at what he's done for NASCAR, and think what he could be doing for Indy cars if he had been offered a ride. Instead, we get Hiro [Matsushita] filling out the field because he can buy his way in, and Derek Walker providing a car for Christian Fittipaldi because he brought $5 million to the team.
"We're freezing out a lot of fine young American drivers because there are only 24 Indy car rides and nearly half of them are taken up by foreign drivers. We don't want to keep out the Fittipaldis, Fabis and de Ferrans. We would rather have more cars, with more drivers, running in more races at more sites.
"We don't wish any harm to CART. We hope it prospers. If we can expand the sport, we'll all prosper. The Orlando race is almost sold out five months ahead of time. That should indicate how much interest there is in new racing venues."
Although Cary Agajanian isn't as recognizable as his flamboyant father, who died in 1984, he is just as involved in racing. He is:
--President of Paradama, an offshoot of the American Motorcyclist Assn. designed to run the AMA's professional racing programs. Among his first duties is to find a new promoter for the Anaheim Supercross in January, the most successful in the series, following the bankruptcy of the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group.
--The point man in a project working toward construction of a superspeedway on the Portland Southwest Cement Co. property in Victorville.
--An agent for aspiring young drivers, such as John Andretti, now in NASCAR after running Indy cars, top-fuel dragsters and sprint cars.
--A promoter, with publicist Ben Foote, of ventures such as the World of Outlaws sprint car program and the Turkey Night Midget Grand Prix at Bakersfield Speedway.
--Senior partner in the law firm of Agajanian, McFall and Tomlinson, which employees 12 attorneys.
"Sometimes I think I may have too many balls to juggle, but right now I don't want to let any of them go," he said.
"This is a critical time for Indy cars, so that will be my main focus. I would hope that not far down the road, the two groups [IRL and CART] will reach some points of agreement, but in the meantime I hope CART realizes that we're for real."