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Collision Course : Regrets Rule the Day as Upstart U.S. 500 and Venerable Indy 500 Rev Up for Showdown


BROOKLYN, Mich. — The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is 235 miles southwest of here--over the old Chicago Road and down Interstate 69--so what are former Indy 500 winners Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Bobby Rahal, and super challengers Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and Jimmy Vasser doing here on pole qualifying day?

They are here to qualify too, but not for Indy. The race they want to drive here is the fledgling U.S. 500, a counter-culture attempt by Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. to blunt interest and confidence in the Indianapolis 500. It is scheduled on the same day as the Indy 500, May 26.

They may be here, at Michigan International Speedway, which is being leased to CART by franchise holder Roger Penske, but their hearts are at Indy. Not a person here--driver, crewman, owner or sponsor--would not rather be at Indianapolis, the shrine of American racing.

But they aren't, and from the way the winds of Indy car racing are blowing, they are not likely to be there in the near future.

"Every team and every driver wants to race at Indianapolis," said Vasser, the PPG Cup points leader and winner of three of five CART races. "On the other hand, that's not possible. So the U.S. 500 is the race to win this year."

The distance between MIS and IMS, owned by the family of Indy Racing League founder Tony George, is shorter than the distance drivers will race on Memorial Day weekend, but the difference in philosophies of how open-wheel racing should be conducted can't be measured in miles.

With the arrogance of youth--CART is 17 years old, the Indianapolis 500 goes back to 1911--U.S. 500 officials are trumpeting their event as not only the race of 1996, but the race of years to come.

"The running of one race is not likely to change the Speedway's position, but our future must be developed over a number of years," said Andrew Craig, the Britisher who is president and chief executive officer of CART. "We must see our race in the context of a series championship, and we don't think any one race, not even the Indianapolis 500, should control the series."

George's IRL is a five-race oval-track series with Indy as its anchor. The CART season is a 16-race conglomeration, ranging from street circuits in Long Beach and Australia to road courses at Laguna Seca and Elkhart Lake to ovals in Brazil, Michigan and Milwaukee.

Press releases proclaim the U.S. 500 as "A Legend in the Making." An advertising campaign calls this the "inaugural" race, indicating that there will be more to come.

"Five, 10 years down the road, if conditions at the Speedway don't change, it's a definite likelihood we will continue to have a U.S. 500, and perhaps two or three races, in May," Craig said. "If the Speedway changes its thinking, and agrees to free and open competition, we would welcome a return to Indianapolis.

"We would be there today if it weren't for Tony George establishing rules that restrict free and open competition. Our teams have been the backbone of the Indianapolis 500 for many years, but we could not accept its standards this year."

The sticking point is that 25 of the 33 starting positions in the Indy 500 have been reserved for teams who participated in two IRL races, at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and Phoenix. Only two CART franchise holders, A.J. Foyt and Dick Simon, elected to run IRL races, leaving only eight positions available for all the other teams, including those owned by Penske, Rahal, Pat Patrick, Carl Haas, Chip Ganassi, Dan Gurney and others.

"We tried to keep the door open with the Speedway as long as possible, but when it became evident there was no room for compromise, we had to do something to satisfy our sponsors," Craig said. "Without sponsors, there would be no Indy car racing as we know it. We can never lose sight of that."

The answer was the U.S. 500.

To finance it, CART put the arm on its 16 major sponsors for $200,000 each--over and above the $5 million to $15 million they pay to finance top-flight teams for the season.

The $3.2 million just about makes up the purse, announced as $3.6 million, with the race winner receiving $1 million. Last year's Indy winner, Jacques Villeneuve, collected $1,312,019.

"If there is any one thing that has surprised me in all this, it is the solidarity of the CART sponsors and car owners," said Jack Long, IRL executive director. "I was sure, as late as a month ago, that there would be a break in their ranks and we would have several more of their drivers in our race. They really held the line."

Two car owners, Derrick Walker and Rick Galles, have compromised somewhat and will have drivers in both races. In each case, however, the primary driver--Robby Gordon for Walker and former world motorcycle champion Eddie Lawson for Galles--will be here, the secondary drivers racing at Indy.

"I don't see that [Walker and Galles fielding cars at Indy] as significant," Long said. "It's only an aberration, I'm afraid."

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