In new era, roar of crowd muted As hot ticket, famed race not up to old standards

May 23, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- The glory days are no more.

The Indianapolis 500 race week -- month? -- isn't what it used to be, but Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George said the city fathers haven't been on his back.

"Obviously, a lack of loyal sponsorships has hurt the hospitality industry here," he said. "But I'm not sure how deep it permeates."

Motel rooms are available, he admitted. But, he then added, a lot more hotel rooms have been built.

"The restaurant industry is strong here, even outside the month of May," said George. "Business is brisk. When people talk about things not going well, it always seems to be only a few references that seem to be made over and over again."

Still, gaining entrance into the speedway in any day during May used to require great patience. Now, only qualifying day really presents a problem.

Carburetion day, the last day of practice before the 500, used to pack the place. But this year, you could drive within three blocks of the track's entrances before hitting a traffic backup.

Last year, Speedway, Ind., the town where the speedway is located, issued about 280 vending licenses for the race. Only 170 were issued this year.

Big-name sponsors are few and far between. Names like Conseco, Pennzoil and Crest are rare. Rachel's Potato Chips, Primadonna Resorts and Royal Purple Motor Oil are the more normal fare.

"As we develop more corporate support, there will be more bookings," George said. "It will take time. It wasn't by design for all those sponsors to leave -- and they're welcome to come back."

Ray of hope

Driver Greg Ray sits in the middle of the front row. Until XTC yesterday, he had no major sponsor. Now, the car wearing No. 97 will be co-sponsored by Texas Motor Speedway, TNN Motorsports, True Value and Best Access Systems.

"This is the way it's supposed to work," Ray said. "You show up. You perform and the sponsors come. When I started racing on the lower levels, there was never any support, never any money forthcoming. We've beat the trees for six years. It's a big relief to know, when you get to the top level, support can be found."

Ray then took a deep breath.

"Now," he said, "I'm starting to feel the pressure that I have to perform in the 500. If I do, the future could be bright."

On the cover

Baltimore free-lance artist Dennis Simon designed the cover of the official program for tomorrow's 500. Simon's designs are known for being "reminiscent of the great poster designs of the '20s and '30s," and the cover for tomorrow's race program reflects that reputation.

The design involves the silver Borg Warner Trophy with a generic, yellow Indy Car superimposed over a brick-red background.

Chances are

Asked what his chances are in tomorrow's 500, Scott Goodyear said, straight-faced, "One in 33." Then he added, "How can you say more? Every time I've come close to winning, the only thing that has been the same has been the knowledge that you have to still be racing at the end. It's then that you find out what your chances are."

Safety advancement

Besides having installed 550 feet of padding along the inside of the Turn 4 wall, the Indy Racing League also has had a yellow light installed in each race car to correspond with the caution lights on the race track.

The yellow light will go on automatically when the caution comes out and go off when the green flag is waved.

Pub Date: 5/23/98

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