One way or another the Indianapolis 500 will never be the same. That was virtually assured with last Saturday's running of an otherwise innocuous 200-mile race on a hastily constructed banked oval track at the unlikely venue of Disney World.
It was the first event of the Indy Racing League (IRL), the brainchild of 36-year-old Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George. His bold venture has so riled the racing community that established owners of many of the fastest cars in Indianapolis-type racing and almost all of the big-name drivers have vowed not only to boycott the Indy 500 on May 26 but also to stage a race in direct opposition—the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway.
These moguls of Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART) claim that the IRL series is intended to put their annual 16-race series out of business. George counters that he launched the IRL in order to develop more American drivers and help control rising costs. Each side is so entrenched that the 1996 Indy field threatens to become a patchwork of outdated cars and replacement drivers that could tarnish the international prestige of a race that dates to 1911. At the same time, CART's long-term survival without the showcase 500 could be in jeopardy.
One CART member, owner Carl Haas, calls the situation a real war. If that's the case, then George won the first battle. A sellout crowd of more than 51,000 paid as much as $90 a ticket to watch a ragtag collection of mostly young and/or hard-up drivers put on a credible show.
According to Haas the war is all about long-term control of Indy Car racing. "Why should a track promoter take over the whole series?" he says of George.
"As president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I am obligated to a leadership role in this sport and its directions," says George, for whom it is an obligation not only of office but also of lineage. George is the grandson of the late Tony Hulman, who as president of the Speedway from 1954 to 1977, is credited with making the Indy 500 the enormous event it has become. After Hulman died in '77, top owners on the circuit grew infuriated with his Speedway successors and then tried to take advantage of them. In late 1978 they formed CART hoping to increase revenue and seize control of the sport. CART now sanctions every Indy Car race except the Indianapolis 500. George's critics say his IRL series is an effort to avenge that power grab.
George ascended the family throne in 1990 and almost immediately began to clash with CART. During an 18-month stint as a nonvoting member of the CART board, he tried unsuccessfully to restructure the organization. "They hate him," one of the few remaining neutral insiders says of the attitude of CART barons toward George.
The latest and most divisive issue is George's attempt to strong-arm CART teams into participating in his five-race IRL series. Last July he decreed that beginning this year 25 of the Indy 500's 33 starting spots will be reserved for the drivers who accumulated the most points in the season's first two IRL races—last Saturday's in Orlando and one set for March 24 in Phoenix—provided those cars meet minimum speed requirements (yet to be determined) at Indy time trials in May. The move was a drastic departure from a long-standing Indy tradition in which the 33 fastest cars after four days of qualifying started the race.
"It goes against every principle I've ever known about Indianapolis," says Mario Andretti, who is so adamant in his support of CART that he is considering coming out of retirement at age 54 to drive in the U.S. 500. "I've always felt you had to earn your way there. Nobody was guaranteed a thing. Look at who failed to qualify last year. [Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr., respective winners of the 1993 and '94 500s, failed to even make the field in '95.]"
The reserved-spot provision brought cries of lockout from CART teams, which typically occupy 25 to 30 positions at Indy. But why not just show up for the IRL races and garner some points? "Our teams, our owners, our drivers are not prepared to be bullied," says CART president Andrew Craig.