After the simultaneous running of Indianapolis 500 and the new US 500, David Phillips contemplates the implications for American motor sports.
Indycar racing’s inaugural Mille Miglia is history. Based on the events of May 26, it’s clear we haven’t seen the last of the Memorial Day 1000.
The US 500 was a financial – if not aesthetic – success, with more than 110,000 in attendance on a day that began with a dozen cars crashing on the pace lap and finished with Jimmy Vasser outlasting at least half a dozen other potential winners to score his fourth win of the season.
Down south, a month that oscillated between the bizarre and the tragic produced a dramatic finale to the 80th Indianapolis 500, with a hobbled Buddy Lazier edging out Davy Jones even as the most serious accident of the day unfolded in Turn Four at the chequered flag.
The Indy Racing League faces colossal challenges, however. It remains to be seen, for example, whether Dallara and G-Force can build and develop enough chassis to supply full fields: whether EMCO’s transmission will be up to the job: whether the price-controlled, production based engine formula will work: or whether the fans who flock to weekly short track events will turn out in force for IRL events. (How many of Joe Gosek’s fans will make the pilgrimage from upstate New York to New Hampshire for the IRL race in August?)
But the overriding question is whether those who struggled to field teams with a glut of used equipment on the market will be able to afford new chassis and engines, let alone pay for their development. As team owner John Della Penna (who hopes to race full-time in the PPG series before long) noted at Indianapolis, there’s a world of difference between the cost of competing and the cost of winning.
But let’s suppose that the IRL overcomes these formidable hurdles. The League could develop into a nationwide, open-wheel, oval track championship that will enable the likes of Gosek, Tony Stewart and Billy Boat to ply their trade in front of a national audience and, it is hoped, earn a decent paycheck into the bargain.
Make no mistake, though. The fact that they haven’t had that chance for the past two decades is more the responsibility of a USAC that failed to provide them with a coherent national championship than it is the fault of Championship Auto Racing Teams which was pursuing its business plan of ovals, road courses and temporary circuits that has proved so successful at home and abroad. In fact the USAC’s inability to look much beyond the Midwest is precisely the reason that the World of Outlaws came into being and developed into the premier sprint car series in the country.
For its part, CART would be well-advised to focus on the things that have made the PPG Indy Car World Series one of the two most successful open-wheeled racing series in the world. Frankly, the organisation should simply forget about the Indianapolis 500. It was only human for the CART team owners, competitors and administrators to spend much of May extolling their virtues at the expense of the IRL. But the interests of CART and its constituents will be best served if the owners focus their energies on making their series the best it can be, rather than by belittling the Indy 500 and the IRL.
There is no doubt that the loss of the world’s largest one-day sporting event is a major blow to the CART series. But a wide open month of May gives CART new scheduling freedom that could see some of the traditionally underserved domestic markets brought aboard, not to mention additional opportunities and more flexibility with respect to international events. On another front, rule-making is already proving less onerous now that the team owners and engineers can chart their own course, without having to consider the technical, philosophical and political agendae of USAC and the Speedway.
Just as the loss of the Indy 500 from its schedule is a mixed bag for CART, so divorcing the PPG Indy Car World Series has its pluses and minuses for USAC and the Speedway. First, Tony George has become the benevolent dictator that CART critics have long craved. George and USAC will be able to put into practice their ideas on cost reduction and technology containment while simultaneously providing the likes of Stewart. Gosek and Boat with opportunities in Indycars rather than having them defect to NASCAR a la Jeff Gordon or just wither on the vine.
But while George may yet succeed in creating a grassroots-friendly form of Indy racing, he will do so at the cost of the international reputation of the Indianapolis 500. Outside the borders of the United States, the 1996 Indy 500 was perceived as a farce with Stewart Gosek and Gardner replacing Unser, Andretti and Rahal; Salazar, Velez and Gregoire supplanting de Ferran, Moore and Fittipaldi. And it’s a sure bet that a reigning world champion will never again grace the starting field at Indianapolis so long as it is run under the auspices of the IRL.
From the international standpoint, there’s a feeling of déjà vu to the whole situation. By isolating itself from the cutting edge technology and cornucopia of international driving talent attracted by the success of the PPG Indy Car World Series, the Indy 500 seems destined to return to the myopia of the 1950s. That mindset led to the humbling experiences of the rear-engined ‘revolution’ in the 1960s and, ultimately, renewed international interest in the race. But with what amounts to little more than a spec formula, the IRL has insured that chapter of history is unlikely to be repeated.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your perspective.