No refunds, but lots of resentment

A day after the U.S. Grand Prix debacle in Indianapolis, officials and fans react.

Auto Racing

June 21, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

Auto racing fans calling the Indianapolis Motor Speedway yesterday after Sunday's United States Grand Prix fiasco were greeted by a recorded message with cheery background music saying track officials sympathized with their displeasure over what became a six-car race - but that there would be no refunds.

Meanwhile, Internet chat rooms crackled with criticism, some of it bitingly nationalistic. And overseas, headlines dripped with scorn.

Embarrassment, outrage and finger-pointing were running a close 1-2-3 as the Formula One race world - which has a largely European constituency - continued to reel from the sloppy way the only U.S. stop on the tour unfolded as 14 of 20 teams refused at the last minute to compete.

Red-faced speedway officials, powerless to keep the race from unraveling, directed fan complaints to Formula One organizations in Europe but, for now, declined to issue refunds for tickets that cost between $60 and $150.

"Obviously, we are as disappointed over this event as anything that we've had in our history," said Joie Chitwood, the speedway's president and chief operating officer.

The drivers who pulled off the track after taking a warm-up lap did so after being notified by Michelin that the manufacturer's tires were unsafe on the course's Turn 13.

The stunned crowd, estimated to be between 100,000 and 125,000, responded with boos, epithets and a modest shower of spring-water bottles and cans of imported beer.

On the Internet yesterday, fans ripped French manufacturer Michelin for supplying tires that could not hold up to the track's demands, and the sport's sanctioning body, Federation Internationale de l'Automobile in Paris, for failing to come up with a compromise.

In one MSN discussion group for Formula One enthusiasts, an irate fan wrote, "It's always the bleepin' French. Beef, Rainbow Warrior ... Napoleon."

In Europe, the problems at the old Brickyard resonated more loudly than in most American sports circles.

The main sporting papers in Italy and France, Gazzetta dello Sport and L'Equipe, used enormous front-page headlines saying, "Formula Zero!" In Germany, where the media usually regard Michael Schumacher, who won the race, as a national hero, Die Welt said, "A catastrophe for the sport."

The response was more muted locally, where local sports broadcaster Mark Viviano reported that the topic never came up on his 10 a.m.-1 p.m. sports-talk show on WJFK (1300 AM).

"I meant to bring it up," Viviano said. Instead, fans wanted to chat about the Orioles "and believe it or not, even in June, about the Ravens," he said.

After Sunday's race, a clearly discomfited winner, Schumacher, racing for Ferrari, passed on popping the customary bottle of champagne.

At the eye of the Formula One storm were Michelin tires that the company said might not hold up under the demands of the track, especially Turn 13. Two cars had experienced problems with the tires during practice Friday, and shortly before the race, Michelin asked FIA to either allow the manufacturer to bring in different tires or have a chicane placed at Turn 13 to slow the entire field - including the cars using Bridgestone tires.

FIA said both ideas were violations of its rules.

When the Michelin drivers realized no compromise was forthcoming, they pulled out to the bewilderment and anger of dumbfounded fans, who chanted "Re-fund, re-fund."

Fans were divided about who should shoulder the blame - Michelin for providing inappropriate tires, the FIA for not coming up with a solution and even Ferrari, which some drivers said refused to compromise on the chicane.

"Ferrari's position has been very clear," said driver David Coulthard, one who didn't race. "They wouldn't accept the change. ... Sometimes you put your own selfish interest to one side for the greater good."

In defense of Ferrari, Schumacher said, "I don't think you can ask people who are not responsible to take the responsibility."

The Indianapolis event is the only American showcase for Formula One, and the sport's contract with the speedway expires after next year.

Chitwood said Sunday that discussion about voiding the track's contract with Formula One was "premature" but conceded that the race was a major setback for the sport in America.

However, track officials said yesterday that fans were renewing their tickets for next year's race. Compared with other countries, where Formula One is extremely popular and ticket prices are hundreds of dollars higher, the American event is a bargain - even for overseas visitors.

It appears, though, that where Formula One stumbled, others see opportunity. Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland organizers announced yesterday that when their event is held this weekend, they'll honor tickets from the short-field Indy race.

Sun staff writers Michael Hill, Kim Phelan, Robert Ruby and Gene Sweeney Jr. contributed to this article.

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