BROOKLYN, Mich. — Jumping from the cockpit of his sleek Indy race car, Al Unser Jr. could be mistaken for a walking billboard. Seemingly every inch of his red jumpsuit is covered with corporate logos.
Unser's garb is a fitting symbol for Indy car racing. Its high-decibel, high-tech machines--capable of 240 mph on the straightaways--have fostered a $1-billion-a-year enterprise that has become one of America's fastest-growing sports industries.
But as the 80th installment of the Indianapolis 500--the sport's premier event--draws near, the boom has been engulfed by gloom.
Like baseball, hockey and football before it, Indy car racing is being ripped apart by an internecine dispute. Its very future is the focus of a bitter battle for control among its strong-willed owners and promoters.
For the first time in modern history, the biggest names will not be among the gentlemen starting their engines on Memorial Day weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the famed 2 1/2-mile oval known as the Brickyard.
Instead, heavyweight drivers such as Unser, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Emerson Fittipaldi and the sport's wealthiest owners are heading to rural south-central Michigan, where they are staging an inaugural, upstart event they call the U.S. 500.
The competing races are noisy manifestations of a dispute that dates back nearly two decades but recently erupted into a civil war. And this Sunday promises to be the racing equivalent of Gettysburg.
"To put it simply, this is a battle for control of Indy car racing," said Cal Wells III, an Indy car team owner from Rancho Santa Margarita who will shun the Indy 500 to race in Michigan.
The nasty feud pits two philosophically opposed camps against each other.
One--embodied by Brickyard owner Tony George and his new Indy Racing League--wants to regain the control it lost in the 1970s and to democratize the sport that it argues has strayed from its oval-track roots and now is too expensive, elitist and removed from U.S. fans and drivers.
The other--represented by Championship Auto Racing Teams, the rich and famous of Indy racing who seized control of the sport in the 1970s--says its formula for success has worked. CART plans to keep raising the technology ante, offer a variety of racing venues and expand abroad to attract ever-bigger crowds and purses.
The dispute's outcome is likely to decide whether the Indy 500--an unparalleled American pageant and party that attracts 400,000 fans and last year drew a live TV audience of 12.8 million--will continue to be what its promoters call "the greatest spectacle in racing."
Already the spectacle of competing races has left many fans angry and dispirited. And the dispute threatens to undermine corporate support and stunt the sport's growth. It has driven away such familiar sponsors as Valvoline, Texaco and Honda from this year's Indy 500 and appears to have begun eroding the sport's all-important TV audience.
"This could end up killing the goose that laid the golden egg," said Jim Andrews, vice president of IEG, a Chicago-based firm that monitors corporate sponsorship of sports and entertainment events.
The split is certain to diminish this year's Indy 500, already clouded by the death Friday of driver Scott Brayton during a practice run. Winning will be no less lucrative--the champion gets more than $1 million--but the weak field studded largely with little-known rookies inevitably will cheapen the achievement.
The rift in Gasoline Alley, as the Speedway's garage area is called, comes as motor sports undergo a key renaissance. Much of the growth is attributed to NASCAR, which has used clever family-oriented marketing to expand beyond its good-ol'-boy Southern roots and ride its modified Chevys, Fords and Pontiacs to financial glory.
The faster, more exotic Indy-style cars--rear-engine, open-wheel machines whose only purpose is speed--may not have reached NASCAR's commercial speed. But in attendance Indy racing is the third fastest-growing sport, lagging only stock cars and ice hockey. For the 16-race PPG Indy Car World Series, it is at an all-time high, up 50% since 1989 to an average of 141,000 per race.
The demographics are an advertiser's dream: The typical fan is a young, college-educated, professional man who has an average household income of $51,000, 42% higher than the national average.
Every race is shown on network or cable television, and viewership has grown impressively. The average race is broadcast in 180 countries and, with delayed reruns, draws 65 million viewers worldwide, CART says.
Sponsors are expected to dole out $357 million this year to support Indy teams in 21 races, up 24% in two years, according to IEG.
The sport's growing appeal has helped spark a racetrack development boom. At least a half dozen are being built, including the $80-million California Speedway in Fontana.