Postcard from America: Leagues apart?

The great American divide continues. Who holds the upper hand

The Indy Racing League opened its new Walt Disney World Speedway last month and, in early December, released an entry list for the inaugural IRL race at Disney World.

Although the innovative new facility's track was positively received, the entry failed to meet even the most mediocre of expectations. The list featured a whopping 41 cars, but there were just 18 drivers named and, of those, a mere handful have IndyCar experience.

And, in stark contrast to the IRL's stated purpose of making IndyCar racing accessible to drivers schooled in oval track racing, only Davey Hamilton and Johnnie Parsons cut their teeth on America's bull rings. The rest -- including Arie Luyendyk, Roberto Guerrero, Eddie Cheever, Scott Brayton, Eliseo Salazar and Michele Alboreto -- are either IndyCar or Formula One drivers in the twilight of their careers, career also-rans or worse.

Only 1995 Toyota Atlantic champion Richie Hearn, perennial Indy Lights midfielder Buzz Calkins and IMSA sedan champion Johnny O'Connell remotely qualify as young lions. Others, like 5I-year-old Bill Tempero and 55-year-old Jim Buick are, to put it kindly, career journeymen; Rick De Lorto is a laughing stock and Tony Turco is a complete unknown.

Who will pay to see these men race? The Walt Disney World 200 is already a sell-out, with the majority of the seats taken by fans packaging a winter getaway to the Magic Kingdom around an IndyCar race billed as featuring "the stars and cars of the Indy 500." Just what the paying customers will think when they see Messrs De Lorto, Turco, Tempero and Buick instead of Al Unser Jnr, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and Robby Gordon remains to be seen.

Ironically, critics of the PPG IndyCar World Series have castigated IndyCar racing's street circuit events for appealing to 'casual' race fans...

Nevertheless, the news is not all bad from the IRL side of the fence. For example, Valvoline recently announced it has signed on as the IRL's official lubricant and fuel. Valvoline, of course, has made a significant investment in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 itself over the years, and knows well that the value of the world's largest single-day sporting event is not likely to vanish in a Sunday afternoon. What's more, the oil giant is convinced that George has the stomach for a pitched battle with IndyCar, and that his concept of staging races on permanent tracks with a temporary infrastructure, a la Disney World, has broader applications.

Firestone and Goodyear will service IRL teams; SIP, Raybestos, AC Delco, Bosch and Champion have signed on; and Pennzoil will almost certainly have an IRL presence as well

Miller Brewing, on the other hand, isn't buying the IRL. Baulking at being strong-armed into expanding its sponsorship of the Indy 500 pit stop contest to the entire IRL series, Miller bowed out of its involvement with Indianapolis altogether and will focus on its long-term association with Bob Rahal. Speaking of Rahal, Shell Oil substantially increased its sponsorship Team Rahal for 1996, with virtually chance of participating in the Indianapol 500 or the IRL. That shows that not all companies think the sun rises and sets at 16th and Georgetown.

Although the 'defection' of Valvoline and some automotive products sponsors to the IRL represents a chink in the IndyCar solidarity of last summer, it was inevitable. Despite the team owners' united front, the fact of the matter has always been that individual sponsors would choose to support the IRL, IndyCar or both based on their business plans, not their emotions.

Similarly, in motor racing's version of "the customer is always right," a team owner like Derrick Walker has little choice but to co-operate with his sponsor. That, or seek a settlement based on not attending the Indianapolis 500 and have that sponsor begin cultivating a relationship with a rival willing to go to the Brickyard and compete in the IRL. So Walker will make a business decision and enter the Indy 500, while readily conceding he is no subscriber to the IRL doctrine. Other team owners, Rick Galles for one, will likely follow in his footsteps.

On the other hand, with IndyCar's growing popularity at home and abroad, not all sponsors need the Indianapolis 500 like Valvoline and SIP. The beer and tobacco companies can't go near Disney World for fear of waving a red flag in front of the anti-beer and anti-tobacco forces. And while KMart, Target, LCI and the rest surely benefit from the publicity attendant to the Indianapolis 500, they derive even greater benefits from the 15 races on the PPG IndyCar World Series schedule.

"Indy is still the most important event in IndyCar racing by a long shot," notes one major sponsor. "But the days when Indianapolis represented 80 per cent of the value of the series are gone. Today, Indy is more like 20 or 30 per cent of the value of an IndyCar sponsorship, and the remaining value comes from the other races."

Nor are those values static. Despite the Speedway's claims that, "The Indianapolis 500 makes the stars; the stars don't make the Indianapolis 500," lndy's value will diminish to every sponsor if the race is tainted due to the seeded qualifying or by a succession of no-name winners. Who's won the Indianapolis 500? Michael Andretti or Arie Luyendyk? Who's the bigger star?

On the other hand, if Tony George sticks it out through the IRL's inaugural season and pushes ahead into 1997, adding some more dates at Disney Speedway clones at other theme parks, the value of the Indy 500 and IRL together could grow.

After a year and a half of utterly inept decisions, the IRL has begun to establish some credibility as an organisation. Bringing Cary Agajanian on board was a plus. Unlike Jack Long or 'Scarey' Jerry Hauer, Agajanian has real world experience in the successful administration and promotion of racing series and race tracks. But can he create an infrastructure that does not rely on the usual suspects from USAC, who are such an anathema to IndyCar mechanics, engineers, designers and drivers?

Like 'em or not, the Indy 500 qualifying format and the IRL points system are ingenious insofar as they encourage series participation. The widely discussed four-litre engine rules might be attractive to some engine manufacturers although, if rumours are true that the specs are suspiciously close to the WSC Oldsmobile engine, it would appear to be a stacked deck. As for holding the Disney World 200 on the day before the Super Bowl, only time will tell if it's the shrewdest or the lamest marketing move in sports history.

On the other hand, in Andrew Craig, IndyCar has a savvy sports marketer, fully at ease wooing and working with international giants like VISA, Coca-Cola and Kodak (another rumoured casualty at the Speedway). He will need all that savvy in finding a sponsor to back an Indy 500-less series, if PPG decides to pull out of IndyCar racing altogether at the end of 1996. Though Craig has not attracted much in the way of new corporate sponsorship over his first three seasons, consider how much of his time has been wasted trying to keep the sport from going Humpty Dumpty.

IndyCar also has a Roger Penske more fully behind the organisation than at any point since the original CART/USAC war. In the intervening years Penske was rarely out front on the issues; recall that although he was fiercely (albeit privately) anti-Bill Stokkan, he sided with Stokkan in Houston in 1991 once it became clear which way the wind was blowing.

But this time, Penske is the driving force behind the IndyCar Memorial Day race; there is no way IndyCar can hold a race at Michigan International Speedway on Memorial Day without his full support. That, more than anything, should give the IRL cause to reflect. Is there any doubt IndyCar's Memorial Day 500 will move to Fontana the moment Penske's California Speedway is up and running? Or that, in the IRL/IndyCar meltdown, Penske sees the opportunity to establish the re-born California 500 as America's premier single-seater racing event?

In short, if Tony George is willing to stick to his guns, an IRL grounded in the Indianapolis 500 and expanding to new theme parks can make a go of it; so too can an IndyCar with a California 500 and increasing support from international sponsors with no investment in the Indy 500. The tragedy is that, while both the IRL and IndyCar can survive, the sport of IndyCar racing will never realise its potential with two separate series divided by egos and politics. DP