The Indianapolis 500 has been the world's biggest single-day sporting event for years, and since 1911 has been motor racing's premier attraction. As many as 400,000 jam the Indianapolis Motor Speedway each Memorial Day weekend to watch.
For drivers from every form of racing, from karts to midgets to sprint cars and even at times to Formula One, Indianapolis has been the Mecca. Just as every little kid playing baseball dreams of playing in the World Series, every young driver dreams of getting to Indy.
Now, if you listen to the Championship Auto Racing Teams, the dream will become, "I want to get to Brooklyn, Mich."
In a spiteful and mind-boggling decision that defies logic, the CART board of directors--read that Indy car owners--decided to run the U.S. 500 head to head against the Indy 500 at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 26, at Michigan International Speedway.
What began as a power struggle between Tony George, president of the Speedway and the founder of his Indy Racing League, and the CART board, headed by Chairman Andrew Craig, has escalated into all-out war.
"There's going to be a lot of blood spilled before this thing is over," predicted Les Richter, a highly respected NASCAR official who was brought in briefly in a futile attempt to mediate the conflict.
The situation has been festering for several years, back to the time George was a member of the CART board and got upset when the owners would not listen to his proposals. George's response, like the rich little kid who brings the ball and says he's going to be the pitcher or the game's over, was to resign and form his own IRL, which is little more than window dressing for the Indianapolis 500.
Last July 3, George dropped the bomb: He was reserving 25 of the 33 starting positions in the Indy 500 for teams and drivers running in the IRL series. Essentially, it meant that the IRL inaugural, Jan. 27 at Orlando, Fla., and a race in Phoenix on March 24 would be qualifying races for Indianapolis.
Understandably, CART owners were upset. They couldn't run at Phoenix because their teams would be traveling from a race in Brazil to another in Australia at the time. And except for Dick Simon and A.J. Foyt, George's longtime buddy, CART car owners said they had no intention of being at Orlando.
"We don't look on it as free and open competition," Craig said of George's iron-fisted new restrictions on the 500 field. "It is much too expensive for our teams to spend a month there and be allowed only eight places, and then find cars slower than theirs on the starting grid. That doesn't make sense."
But does it make sense to run in direct competition with a race that will pay at least $8 million in purse money, will be televised live on ABC and will have at least 300,000 in attendance? After all, the tickets to Indy have already been sold and most hotel rooms already booked.
"The IRL was created for inclusion, not exclusion," George said in a statement. "Our intent was that the IRL could coexist with CART's current series of races--which has never included the USAC-sanctioned Indianapolis 500. If anything, CART's action underscores the need for our new league."
The decision left some teams, notably Derrick Walker's, in a dilemma. His contractual obligations with Valvoline, an IRL series sponsor, and his loyalty to CART, will cause him to have cars at both races.
"We recognize [our sponsor's] need to be at the Indy 500 and that's a race that we will attend with Robby Gordon at the wheel," Walker said. "At the same time, we have a commitment to be an active franchise member and compete at all of the CART events and we will honor that commitment fully and field a car at the U.S. 500."
Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indy winner whose family has been associated with the 500 for three decades, said he agreed with CART's decision to run a rival race.
"I'm disappointed that we're not running at Indianapolis, but I stand firm with the decision not to run there under the circumstances," said Unser, who had said after last year's race that he was "going to count the days until the 1996 race."
Unser and Penske teammate Emerson Fittipaldi failed to qualify for last year's 500, which was won by Jacques Villeneuve, who will miss all the current controversy because he has left Indy cars to race in Formula One.
The U.S. 500 will be the sixth of a 16-race PPG Cup series schedule that will start March 3 at Homestead, Fla.
Not yet revealed are the purse and TV plans for the U.S. 500. The Indy 500 will be shown on ABC, which should eliminate ESPN and ESPN2 as U.S. 500 possibilities, since they are owned by ABC. According to sources at CBS, it has turned down the Michigan race, and NBC may not have enough money left after its $2.3-billion spending binge on the Olympic Games.
Another major stumbling block to compromise, perhaps an even bigger one than the eight-and-25 rule, is the IRL's announcement that in 1997 it will limit engines to four-liter, normally aspirated V-8s.
"Simply put, it was a decision made to save money," said IRL Executive Director Jack Long. "Engines being used today run close to $2 million, and that's just to lease them. Teams can't buy them. They have to return them each time they're used. From what we've learned from the manufacturers, the new engines should be available for $75,000 and the teams will own them. That's a big, big savings."
Oldsmobile has announced that its Aurora power plant will be available, and other manufacturers are expected to go racing in the next year, according to IRL officials.
"We are using the IRL as a positioning tool," John Rock, general manager of the Oldsmobile division of General Motors, told Steve Meyer of National Speed Sport News. "We can compete head to head with all other manufacturers. I would like to see Honda, Toyota and Nissan competing."
Robert Clarke, general manager of Honda's racing program, said that was unlikely.
"We are very disappointed with the recent announcement," Clarke said from Honda's plant in Santa Clarita. "American Honda . . . put a tremendous amount of time, work and effort into the development of the 2.65-liter, V-8 engine, and unfortunately this announcement effectively prohibits Honda from competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other Indy Racing League events.
"Our decision to build Indy car engines was based on a long-term commitment. In all our conversations with the IRL, we explained that Honda does not currently have a four-liter, V-8 engine in our production car lineup."
The U.S. 500 is not expected to be a knockout blow to the IRL, said CART car owner Jim Hall, but he suggested that unless compromises are made, it could some day supplant Indy as America's premier race.
"The Indy 500 is a wonderful event, recognized worldwide," he said. "But if it runs a second-class race with second-class drivers, people are not going to continue going there. Like LeMans, it could fade into the background."
Motor Racing Notes
MOTORCYCLES--Miguel Duhamel, the American Motorcyclist Assn. Superbike and 600cc SuperSport champion, was named AMA pro athlete of the year at its season-ending banquet last weekend in Las Vegas. Legendary dirt-track champion Jay Springsteen received the AMA's sportsman-of-the-year award and drag bike racer Steve Johnson of Chatsworth received the AMA's Hazel Kolb Brighter Image Award for his work with anti-drug programs.
ALL AMERICA TEAM--Driver of the year and Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon and Indy car champion Jacques Villenueve head a 12-man team selected by the American Automobile Racing Writers and Broadcasters Assn. Other selections: Dale Earnhardt, Al Unser Jr., Scott Kalitta, John Force, Tom Kendall, Irv Hoerr, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney, Ivan Stewart and Greg Moore. The team will be feted Jan. 6 at the Long Beach Hilton. The awards ceremony is open to the public. Reservations: (310) 983-3400.
NECROLOGY--Jack Milne of Pasadena, the first American to win a world motorcycle championship when he won the speedway title in 1937 at London's Wembley Stadium, died in his sleep Dec. 6. Milne was 88. In 1969, with Harry Oxley, he revived interest in speedway cycles at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa and in 1982 helped conduct the World Speedway Championships in the Coliseum.