George's Big Gamble Could Ruin Indy 500

PHILADELPHIA - An acronym beginning with "IR" makes Mario Andretti's radiator boil over.

It's not IRS. Try IRL.

The Indy Racing League is the invention of Tony George, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Worried that the established IndyCar racing series would be muscling in on control of the Indianapolis 500 and that the cost of racing was soaring, George launched the IRL this year. The Indy 500 has been sanctioned by the U.S. Auto Club for decades.

George also is concerned that the IndyCar circuit, sanctioned by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), is overflowing with foreign drivers who crowd out promising Americans.

The inaugural IRL series has five oval races, with the Indy 500 as its centerpiece. CART's 16-race schedule includes only six oval events.

The political give and take between George and CART might not have erupted into a car war had George not guaranteed the top 25 drivers in IRL a starting position in this year's 33-car Indy 500 field. This move infuriated the major car owners in CART such as Roger Penske, Pat Patrick, Carl Haas and Rick Galles.

"What Tony is doing is a travesty to the sport, and to himself," Andretti, a racing legend, said from his home in Nazareth, Pa.

Battle lines drawn

The battle lines are drawn.

Next Sunday, the Indy 500 will be run for the 80th time. A few hundred miles away, CART will stage the first U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway.

The U.S. 500 will have two-time Indy 500 winners Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal (winner of the 1986 Indy 500) and Paul Tracy.

The only "name" drivers at Indy will be Arie Luyendyk, winner of the 1990 Indy 500; Roberto Guerrero, who holds the fastest qualifying time ever at Indy; Scott Brayton, last year's Indy pole-sitter; and Eddie Cheever.

After watching the IRL opener in late January at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., Tracy said, "It's not the Michael Jordans or the Emmitt Smiths. It's not the top-class guys. People want to watch the best."

Car owner Derrick Walker normally is an optimistic person. But Walker, formerly with Penske Racing, based in Reading, believes unity in Indy-car racing is beyond repair.

"Will there ever be a compromise that will bring us all back together again?" asked Walker. "Personally, I doubt it. I think we may be separated forever as long as both sides have two distinct philosophies about the way the sport ought to be run."

Gap widens

Walker, whose drivers are Robby Gordon and Scott Goodyear, emphasizes that the issue is more about philosophical differences than who will be racing at Indy this year.

"If Tony George had changed the qualifying rules and made it an open competition," Walker said, "perhaps this conflict would not have reared its ugly head as soon as it has. But it would always be an issue as to whether the sport should have all oval tracks, or should have no Brazilians, all Brazilians or whatever the issues are.

"We initially took a stand in IndyCar, saying that races should be for the fastest cars, not for a club or an entry to another race. That became a line in the sand, which is now a river, and is really almost impossible to bridge at this point."

John Menard is an IRL car owner. For years, the owner of a large, Wisconsin-based lumber and home-improvement chain limited his racing involvement to the Indy 500. Now he fields three cars in the IRL for Brayton, Cheever and Tony Stewart, a promising American driver.

Menard said he watched the recent CART race in Rio de Janeiro won by Brazilian Andre Ribeiro.

"When I got to seven Brazilians, I quit counting," Menard said. "I wonder if racing fans from Keokuk (Iowa) and Terre Haute (Ind.) want to come and watch Andre I-can't-pronounce-his-name. I think they're more interested in watching Tony Stewart."

George inherited position

George, 36, is the grandson of Tony Hulman, who developed the Indy 500 into the world's most prestigious auto race. George raced in some Indy prep series to get a feel of what the sport is like from a driver's view.

To many observers, George reluctantly inherited the top management position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway six years ago. It took him a few years to get up to speed before he decided to assert himself. Some people believe George, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is on a power trip, attempting to rule Indy car racing.

Chip Ganassi, a CART car owner who is a partner in the Pittsburgh Pirates' new management team, labels George's initiative "a thinly veiled hostile takeover."

Menard, who has known George a long time, disagrees.

"Tony is one of the most unassuming, gentle people I know," Menard said. "He was thrust into management of the Speedway at a young age. It's taken him a couple years to get the confidence and experience he needs to run it.

"He has good vision of what's happened in racing and what will happen in the future. He could see this coming, CART trying to minimize the importance of the Speedway to that series. If I have any criticism of Tony, it's that he should have done this a year ago."

War escalates

It angers Andretti when he hears Menard and others talk about CART trying to seize control of the Indy 500.

"I was on the board of CART," Andretti said, "and that question was never an issue. No one has ever threatened the integrity of that race."

Andretti also gets annoyed with people who say there are too many foreigners racing in CART.

"That shows a lot of ignorance," Andretti said. "The sport today is showcased worldwide. When I raced in Formula One and Indy car (in the late 1970s), they knew about Indianapolis, but they couldn't care less about Trenton (and other Indy-car races). Today, they know as much as we know."

In a letter to the Indianapolis Star that the Speedway circulated nationally, George wrote that the IRL was formed for "the long-term protection of the (Indy) 500." He wrote that the 500 depends on "a solid series of top-level, open-wheel, oval-track races. CART provided no long-term guarantees to the `500' or to oval-track racing. I care deeply about the history and traditions of the `500,' but I care more deeply about the future of the `500.' "

Three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby Unser believes George erred by making participation in the IRL a condition for racing at Indianapolis.

"All he needed to do was cut the cost of racing 50 percent or maybe 30 percent," Unser said. "CART has the best show in open-wheel racing. It's just too expensive. At least two-thirds of the CART car owners can't afford to be there."

Indianapolis to feel pinch

In an effort to reduce costs, the IRL next year will use normally aspirated, stock-block, 4.0-liter, V8 engines. CART cars are powered by more expensive, 2.65-liter, turbocharged engines. In another cost-saving step, all cars in the IRL are 1995 models, or older.

Not having the top drivers and their sponsors at the Speedway during May will deliver a significant economic jolt to Indianapolis and the state. Andretti said Texaco, one of his car sponsors that he continues to work for, spent $482,000 at Indy last year on hotel rooms, plane fares and hospitality. Texaco and other major sponsors won't be at Indy this year.

Can the two series coexist? Because George and the Speedway have deep pockets, Andretti can see two series competing for a few years.

"But ultimately, one side has to die," Andretti said. "This could go on for years. Look at all the blood that will be spilled. For what? At the end of the battle, you'll probably be where you are today."

Tony George is taking the gamble of his young life. He could either wind up a hero, as the man who gave young American drivers their chance. Or he could forever be known as the man who ruined the Indy 500.