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Indy 500: Revving Up for War

COLUMN ONE

A fight for control of the billion-dollar sport will reach a climax Sunday, when big name drivers shun Indianapolis for their own upstart event.

May 21, 1996|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wall Street is helping to build the new tracks. When Penske Motorsports Inc., the track subsidiary of racing mogul Roger Penske, went public in March with an initial stock offering, demand was so great that the price rose 33% to $32 a share on the first day of trading.

Overall finances are difficult to ascertain, but insiders estimate Indy car racing generates well over $1 billion in annual revenues from sponsors, sanction fees, event receipts, TV rights and licensing fees for accessories.

"It's unfortunate that when things are going so well that we have to be distracted by this," said Rahal, a former Indy 500 winner and CART director.

Storied History

Disputes are nothing new to the sport. Its storied history, which dates to 1911, is replete with power struggles and fist-fights. But this is the first conflict that pits the epic event itself against the biggest stars and cars.

Anton "Tony" Hulman George, a third-generation owner of the speedway, talks of returning Indy car racing to its oval-track roots. He wants to make the sport less expensive, adopt rules that ensure close competition and bring more young American drivers into the top echelon of the sport.

CART, whose franchise owners include Penske, E.U. "Pat" Patrick, Dan Gurney and entertainers David Letterman and Paul Newman, favors a variety of venues--ovals, permanent road courses and temporary street courses, such as the one used for the Long Beach Grand Prix, which is part of the CART Indy series. They are strongly opposed to restraining advances in engine and other technology. And they see Indy racing as an American sport that should be exported.

The struggle is a very personal one. George aims to return his family to the throne as Indy cars' rightful rulers. His supporters blast CART as a virtual cartel awash in conflicts of interest.

The team owners in turn call George crude and backward-looking, and insist they will not relinquish the driver's seat.

"The feelings run deep," said Cary Agajanian, a Los Angeles attorney aligned with George and whose family has long been involved in Indy car racing. "This is all about 80 years of history."

Always a grueling endurance test of man and machine, the Indy 500 was brought into the modern era by Indiana baking-powder magnate Anton Hulman, who acquired the rundown track in 1945 from a group headed by World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Hulman refurbished the brick-laden speedway and created a monthlong extravaganza that annually pumps more than $100 million into Indianapolis' economy.

He also helped to establish the United States Auto Club as the sanctioning body for Indy car racing. Hulman died in 1977. The following year, seven of USAC's top officials were killed in a plane crash. Their loss left a power vacuum that quickly was filled by team owners who were upset with USAC's arbitrary rules decisions and lack of promotion of the sport.

Led by Patrick and Penske, these owner-drivers formed CART and began an Indy car racing series independent of USAC and the Brickyard. The two sides coexisted uneasily: CART ran its series sponsored by PPG Industries, but its teams continued to run in the Indy 500 under USAC rules.

Change came when Hulman's grandson, Tony George, became speedway president in 1989. George--a former race car driver of little distinction--moved to modernize Indy, brought in stock-car racing and upgraded the golf course on the Brickyard's vast infield to championship caliber.

Most important, he began planning to reclaim what CART had wrested away. But, in an interview after being honored this month by the Indianapolis Athletic Club, the 36-year-old George denied he is trying to even the score.

"This is not about revenge," he said, choosing his words carefully. "Anybody who says that is misinformed. I'm more concerned with the future than the past. This is about having a chance to create a new vision."

CART, however, likens George to a corporate raider mounting a hostile takeover. They characterize his tactics as heavy-handed and his vision as rooted in the past. "He is trying to turn the clock back 20 years," said Patrick.

From the start, George pushed CART's 24 franchise owners for changes, without much success. After several failed political maneuvers, in 1994--while the IndyCar teams were en route to Australia for a race--he announced the formation of the rival Indy Racing League. It was to be a five-race series anchored by the Indy 500.

After lawsuits and counter-suits, George declared in mid-1995 that 25 of the 33 starting positions at the Indy 500 would be reserved for the leading IRL point leaders. The move was intended to force CART teams to compete in George's new IRL races if they wanted a decent chance at making the Indy field.

CART said its teams had been effectively locked out of the Indy 500; the speedway said the teams were boycotting its race.

Thus was born the U.S. 500.

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