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Meanwhile, Over in Madison, Ill. . . .

Motor racing: CART drivers again shun Indy 500 and will race in Motorola 300 today.

May 24, 1997|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

MADISON, Ill. — It's Memorial Day weekend, which means it's Indianapolis 500 weekend. So what are Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, Bobby Rahal, Jimmy Vasser and the rest of those racy guys doing here?

Racing Indy cars, actually. Or at least what, until this year, were Indy cars.

Yup, on this most traditional of all racing weekends, the drivers who earn their daily bread and bumps racing in the Championship Auto Racing Teams series, the PPG World Series, are again boycotting the 500 and running a new race, the Motorola 300, on a new track, Gateway International Raceway, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

That's because Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, decided after the 500 in 1995 that he wanted a strictly American series for Indy cars, to be run strictly on oval tracks, and founded the Indy Racing League. CART conducts some of its business on ovals, but not all of them are in the United States. And CART also races on street and road courses.

To make sure his IRL would fly, George made the Indy 500 the series centerpiece and changed the entry rules, reserving 25 of the traditional 33 starting spots for his IRL drivers, many of whom only the most avid of racing fans recognized. That irked CART to the point of rebellion and on Indy 500 day a year ago, CART ran its own 500-mile race, the U.S. 500, at Michigan International Speedway.

By then, the IRL had announced that it would use cars different from those used by CART in 1997, widening the split between the organizations and further confusing head-scratching fans, to whom Indy car racing had always been simply Indy car racing. Suddenly, politics was bigger than the sport.

So, for the second consecutive year, CART cars and drivers will not be at Indianapolis on Sunday. But this time around, with an eye toward possible reconciliation someday--CART definitely wants back in at Indy--CART's Memorial Day weekend event is not going directly opposite the 500. Instead, the 300-miler over Long Beach promoter Chris Pook's new egg-shaped, 1.27-mile track hard by St. Louis' Gateway Arch will be run today, allowing fans to watch both races, either on TV or live, if they have tickets to both and don't mind a four-hour drive.

"There is confusion in consumers' minds over who's racing where," CART President Andrew Craig said Friday. "A race here Memorial Day [weekend] is very important to us. . . . It's critical that we showcase our kind of racing on the weekend when people are determining what to do on summer weekends."

And if last year's U.S. 500 was a thrown-together, last-minute event, this race will be on CART's schedule--the day before the Indy 500--into the foreseeable future, Craig said. The U.S. 500 will continue to be run at MIS, but as a late-July event.

Pook, who also runs the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April, would prefer that his event here be a Sunday race in September, but his track did not exist a year ago and to get on the schedule as quickly as he did meant taking this date.

"I made [my preference] very clear," he said. "But we must not be, and aren't, ungrateful."

Today's race is expected to draw about 35,000, which is 10,000 under capacity and about 300,000 fewer than Sunday's 500 will attract. There are plans to eventually extend seating here to 85,000, perhaps more, and Pook has plenty of time to work on boosting attendance. He has a three-year contract with CART, with two option years.

As for the race itself, Tracy, the series leader, will be going for his third consecutive victory. Driving a Penske-Mercedes, he won April 27 at Nazareth, Pa., then repeated two weeks later at Rio de Janeiro when Rahal, in a Reynard-Cosworth, ran out of fuel with slightly more than a lap left.

Brazilian Raul Boesel won the pole for today's race with a fast qualifying speed of 187.963 mph in his Reynard-Cosworth. Tracy was next at 187.739.

The new track, with corners banked at nine degrees at the narrow end and 11 degrees at the wide end, was generally hailed as a successful piece of work.

"I like the fast corners," Tracy said. "The track's got a lot of character. Every corner is different."

The fast corners, however, may make this an especially tiring race.

"Driver fatigue could be an important factor because we're pulling heavy Gs in the corners," Tracy said. "And this race is 100 miles longer than we run on other short ovals and we'll be working all the time."

Brazilian Mauricio Gugelmin, who qualified third at 187.577, put it another way.

"It's going to be tough because your eyeballs get stuck to the side of the car," he said.

Motor Racing Notes

Today's race was originally scheduled for 240 laps over what was believed to be a 1.25-mile track. When CART officials measured it, however, it was found to be 1.27 so the race was shortened to 236 laps, 299.72 miles. . . . Milestones: Michael Andretti will be starting his 200th CART race today, and Bryan Herta turned 27 Friday.

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