Indy Racing League revs up controversy Indy 500 spots at core of clash with CART

January 26, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The peace that had existed in the world of Indy Car racing ends tomorrow and civil war begins with the running of the new Indy Racing League's Indy 200 at Walt Disney World.

The IRL's five-race series is challenging the 17-year-old Championship Auto Racing Team's PPG IndyCar World Series, and though it hasn'tyet lured many of the circuit's stars, IRL can offer a tasty carrot at the end of its stick -- a spot in motor sports' biggest race, the Indianapolis 500.

More than two-thirds of the berths in the Indy 500 will be reserved for teams that race in the IRL series. And that has been more than enough to break the peace.

Tony George, the president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has said his IRL is about protecting the integrity of the Indy 500. He says it also is about providing an alternative to CART's series, which he said favors road-course racing to the detriment of the sport's oval-racing roots.

It is, George said, his only reason for the oval series that begins in Orlando, Fla., and ends May 26 at the Indianapolis 500.

"It is not about power or greed, and it was not our original intent to compete against CART," George said. "Nov. 14 marked 50 years exactly since my grandfather, Tony Hulman, bought the Speedway to save the Indianapolis 500. The IRL and the Indy 200 are about preserving its future."

But that is not how CART sees it.

The CART board and its president, Andrew Craig, see George's IRL as an effort to turn back the clock to an undesirable time, when the sport was poorly run and going nowhere fast.

The bottom line, said Craig, is control of the sport.

"It may be dressed up differently, but see it for what it is," said Craig. "It's a straightforward power play.

"Our teams have worked too hard, too long. It is our group of teams that has made this sport what it is today."

LTC In 1979, CART took control of the sport when car owners Roger Penske and Pat Patrick led the revolution. Their plan was to take control of Indy-style racing from the hands of the United States Auto Club and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and set it on a revitalized course.

"The problem CART saw then was that Indy Car racing was an entirely oval series," said Patrick. "That series did not draw crowds or fans. People couldn't relate to it. People want to know how you can drive city streets, like, say, in Baltimore.

"Ovals as a sole entity aren't popular enough. We realized you need a mix -- street races, road courses and ovals. A combination.

"What Tony is saying now is we have to race ovals and race in his series with last year or older cars and equipment. It would be like the Cleveland Browns owner telling the NFL, 'Not only am I moving to Baltimore, but you all have to play all your games in Baltimore under my rules because I want to control everything the league does. If you don't like it, you can't play.' "

Under CART's direction, the sport has grown to 16 races and is more successful than ever before in terms of competition, fans and television exposure.

According to Neilsen television surveys released by CART, the PPG series reached 29.3 million homes in 1995, compared with 12.5 million homes in 1991. And according to the annual attendance figures released by Goodyear Tire Co., the PPG series is the fastest-growing motor sports series in the country, showing 12-percent growth last season.

But the IRL does have some clout of its own. The five-race package has a season-long television agreement with ABC, $12 million in purse money, ties to Walt Disney World and the all-American race, the Indianapolis 500, the biggest one-day sporting event in the world.

"I certainly think there is a passion for the past at the Speedway," said Craig. "And I guess all of us always look back and perceive what preceded us was a better age. I think that's human nature.

"But the fact is the past is the past, and I think what's terribly important is not to set the clock back to an easier time, but to recognize that, in 1996, times are hard and we better make sure we're able to meet the challenges of 1996 and 2000 and beyond."

But the IRL sees the return to oval racing as a step to the future, encouraging new opportunities for young drivers and creating new interest from engine shops and engine builders in the United States.

"It's just a difficult situation," said driver Lyn St. James, who will drive in the IRL. "My assessment is that it is now a bigger universe. The PPG series had the market to themselves and did a great job. But there is nothing to say it is the only one that can exist."

But St. James said she isn't sure there is room for two, and Patrick and Craig also pointed to limited amounts of sponsor dollars and fan dollars to go around.

The two sides might have coexisted peacefully, with IRL creating its new series with its new opportunities, except that George decided to establish what has come to be known as the "25-8 Rule" for qualifying at the 500.

That rule allocates 25 of the race's 33 starting positions to IRL teams and eight to all other competitors.

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