At hallowed Brickyard, shifting of gears

Though proud of past, Indy builds its future by going with racing flow

Auto Racing

September 22, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - From the seventh floor of the new Pagoda Tower at the start-finish line of the redesigned Indianapolis Motor Speedway, track president Tony George has a view to be envied.

Below him, track-side, is the remaining yard of bricks from the original speedway to remind him of the past. Behind him, where the view stretches to downtown, is the original garage area that houses Indy Cars in May for the Indianapolis 500 and Winston Cup stock cars in August for the Brickyard 400. They speak to the present.

And stretching out on his left is a row of new garages and corporate suites designed expressly for the Formula One series that will debut here Sunday with the SAP United States Grand Prix.

Formula One at Indy is the realization of George's 10-year-old dream, a major part of the blueprint that he believes will take his speedway into the 21st century.

"I don't know that we've totally reinvented ourselves," George says, sitting at a rosewood table in the seventh-floor lounge. "We're just expanding on the speedway's heritage.

"From the very beginning, the founders made the commitment to plow revenue back into developing the race track. My grandfather [Tony Hulman Jr.] followed that plan and, ultimately, we've maintained the philosophy."

George doesn't know if everyone shares his vision. Are American racing fans ready? Time will tell, but George is a risk taker and given the popularity of motor sports, he believes the time is now to make the most of his inheritance and return Formula One racing to the United States for the first time since 1991.

And George has gotten lucky. When the Formula One cars take the green flag Sunday, not only will the race be a chance for Americans to see the series up close, but the lead in the F-1 World Drivers' Championship will be at stake. Just two points separate defending F-1 champ Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher.

"The founders had originally planned for a road course and for the speedway to be a showplace," George says. "It didn't happen for 90 years, but we have a road course now and we have a facility that looks better now than it ever has.

"This place is 90 years old. But look around, it's just hard to believe."

It is hard to believe. As Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever told George one day, his speedway is "a living, breathing entity."

Its evolution is easy to trace.

George remembers when he was 10, and his grandfather began talking about plans to build the first hospitality suite.

"A sky suite," George says, the lines around his eyes deepening as he remembers. "I was a little boy and I had envisioned a Jetsons' house on a pedestal overlooking the track. It was the 1970s. I think we built ours and then Ontario [Calif.] Speedway was built with luxury boxes - or maybe it was the other way around. But whether we were first or not, I don't know of any other speedways at the time with luxury boxes. If we weren't first, we did it first-class when we did build them."

Indy probably could have gone on as it was for decades. After all, the speedway and its original big race, the Indianapolis 500, have weathered near-bankruptcy, World Wars I and II and, most recently, a split in open-wheel racing that has seen most major teams and drivers desert the Indy 500 for the Championship Auto Racing Teams series.

But even CART car owner Chip Ganassi, whose team returned to Indy for the first time last May, has to admit The Speedway creates the biggest glow.

Ganassi-owned cars have won four CART titles, including last year's with Juan Montoya. It was Montoya who drove in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time this past May and won.

"After winning the Indianapolis 500," says Ganassi, "people who had never been interested in auto racing mentioned to me that they knew about Indy and knew Juan was the winner. It was front-page news on sports pages across the country. And, for us, it was obvious something big had happened.

"Indianapolis," says Ganassi, "is the Cooperstown of auto racing."

It is an apt description in terms of the meaning of the sport to the town. And yet, it sounds a loud contrast. In Cooperstown, N.Y., as Detroit Free Press writer John Lowe wrote recently, "The loudest noise all day ... might be the noon whistle."

In Indy, engines roar.

And hearts pound.

Even from a European perspective, says Formula One car owner Eddie Jordan, "I think the Indianapolis 500 is No. 1. And I say that without reservation."

Jordan says: "We can talk about Monaco, Monza or wherever you like, but ... I [have] stood on the front row of Indy for an Indy 500 race. To see those stands full of 450,000 to 500,000 people in one arena is probably the biggest and the greatest sporting thrill that I've ever witnessed.

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