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CART'S MARLBORO 500 / CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY

Having to Play Catch Up

When CART comes to Fontana, despite record revenues and increased attendance, the split it had with the IRL has let NASCAR take a commanding lead over both for fan interest. Sunday's race, however, could be a breakthrough event.

October 28, 1998|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

They look like Indy cars, they sound like Indy cars. Heck, a few years ago they were Indy cars.

But when the transporters roll in, carrying the open-wheel racers for Sunday's Marlboro 500 at the California Speedway in Fontana, they won't be hauling Indy cars. They're called champ cars now. Well, that's what they're called in one organization, Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART.

In another, the Indy Racing League, or the IRL, similar looking open-wheel cars are called, ta-da, Indy cars.

Isn't it queer that in this golden age of auto racing, the crown jewel looks more like a wrench? One lost deep in the innards of an engine, where it is clanking up the works.

Who ever would have thought, in the heady days when the Indianapolis 500 was drawing drivers from Formula One, NASCAR and U.S. sports car tracks, besides the usual oval-track guys, that it would become the most divisive force in the sport?

Is it any wonder that, in the ensuing confusion, the good ol' boys from NASCAR have taken a commanding lead with their Winston Cup stock car series that has become the envy of the business? A Winston Cup weekend practically ensures a successful season for any track in the country. The Winston Cup season still has three races to run but when it's over, the 35 racing weekends will have drawn around 6 million fans. That's an average of more than 170,000.

Not to mention the TV audience. A week and a half ago, for instance, NASCAR's Pepsi 400 at Daytona Beach, Fla., drew the same share of Southern California cable viewers as the USC-Washington State football game, which was on opposite it.

And had that race been shown on CBS, rather than cable, as was scheduled before central Florida wildfires forced a postponement last summer, the prime-time race doubtless would have done much better.

A CART race from Australia, shown delayed the next day on cable, drew half as big a viewing audience here. And there is no chance that CART will average 170,000 live fans any time soon.

All of which means CART is in trouble?

Far from it. CART may not be NASCAR, but it has never had it so good. In early August, CART announced record revenues, $30.1 million, and net income, $7.8 million, for the first six months of 1998. And that's only the corporate side.

"We're coming down to the end of what I think's been a very successful season," Andrew Craig, CART's chief executive officer, said. "We had 28 full-time [drivers]--we've never had so many before--a record 19 races [20 are scheduled next season], increased sponsor interest in the series . . .

And attendance?

Up, almost everywhere, with a number of oval-track sellouts. And that street race in Surfers Paradise, Australia? Drew in the neighborhood of 250,000 for the weekend.

Still, things could be better, both on the track and in perception. If attendance was up, or at least steady, for most races, there were some clinkers, the Rio 400 in Brazil, for one, but more notably the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, Detroit-headquartered CART's "home" track. The race that was to have been CART's answer to the Indy 500 drew 60,000--to a track that seats 112,000. NASCAR routinely sells it out.

It turned out to be what is widely considered the best race in CART history--wheel-to-wheel racing, 62 lead changes, Greg Moore passing Jimmy Vasser on the last lap for the victory--but even that artistic success was overshadowed by the deaths of three spectators, struck by a flying wheel and other debris after an accident on the track.

And there still are some people confused by the CART-IRL split.

"If these are the best drivers, how come they don't drive in the Indy 500?" goes the reasoning.

They don't because, when he started the IRL in 1996, Tony George, the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, made the 500 the centerpiece of his new venture, reserved most of the 33 starting spots for his drivers and, in effect, told CART to take a hike and to stop calling their cars Indy cars.

The split is old news now and no longer as painfully urgent as a toothache. But it's still there, distracting as a cross-eyed Mona Lisa, nettlesome as a sliver. CART drivers, many of them, still itch to go back to Indy but if there is a get-together on the horizon, it's still a big secret.

In fact, in announcing an 11-race schedule for next season, the IRL reduced its engine rpm limit, slowing its cars and widening the split. As if it needed to. CART uses turbocharged racing engines in its cars, the IRL normally aspirated stock-block engines. The difference could hardly be more pronounced.

If it's any consolation to CART, the Indy 500 has lost some--there are plenty who would say most--of its luster, and the 500's baby brother, NASCAR's Brickyard 400 has, in only five years, gained pretty much equal stature and possibly more fan interest.

Craig suggests that NASCAR's growth, at the probable expense of open-wheel racing, is directly related to the Indy 500.

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