The road to the Indianapolis 500 starts Saturday in Florida, but from all indications, it is not going to be a pretty one.
The Indy Racing League, which provides nearly all of the teams for the Indy 500, will run its opening race, the Delphi Indy 200, at Walt Disney World Speedway, near Orlando. The truth is, if it weren't for the Memorial Day weekend race in Indianapolis, there might not be an IRL.
Tony George founded the league in 1995 with high hopes but, despite millions of dollars having been poured into it, the IRL has not attained major league racing status. Without the 500, it would be nothing.
As the IRL prepares to begin its fifth season, it has lost its title sponsor, Pep Boys; its day-to-day leader, Leo Mehl; two of its race tracks, Lowe's Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., and Dover, Del., and two of its higher profile drivers, Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack to the rival CART champ car series, and Las Vegas winner Sam Schmidt because of a paralyzing injury suffered while testing at Disney World Speedway.
Even George appears to have lost interest in his baby. Most of his time and efforts are being spent on construction of a 2.61-mile Formula One road-racing circuit inside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and to the promotion of the F1 race on Sept. 24, the first in the United States since 1991 at Phoenix.
And when George isn't entertaining Bernie Ecclestone and his F1 entourage, he is racing himself--with rather impressive results. At the Chili Bowl three weeks ago in Tulsa, Okla., competing with most of the country's best midget car racers, George won a heat and was running seventh in the B Main when his car got caught in an accident ahead of him. His stepson, Ed Carpenter, also won a heat, but mechanical problems kept him out of the main event.
George's father, Elmer, drove in three Indy 500s.
Indicative of lack of structure in the IRL is that with the season beginning, there is still a TBA date on its schedule. No track has agreed to host an IRL race on Sept. 10. As it now stands, there are nine races spread over 10 months, making it difficult to sustain interest. For instance, after Saturday's opener, it is seven weeks until the next race in Phoenix, then more than a month until one in Las Vegas.
"We will have 11 races in 1998, and our priority is to add more each year," George said at the conclusion of the 1997 season. Since then, instead of adding races, the IRL has lost events.
By comparison, CART has 20 races scheduled between March and October, and there are 32 in NASCAR's Winston Cup series, with tracks all over the country clamoring to get on its schedule.
"If we can't get more races, it's almost impossible to get sponsors," said one longtime IRL team owner. "Look around, most of the drivers have empty space on the sides of their cars. It's tough."
The IRL had hoped to promote young Sarah Fisher as one of its stars of the future, but when longtime car owner Derrick Walker could not find financial support for the teenage driver, the team dropped plans to race Saturday. Walker says he hopes to have her in a car later in the season.
Spectator interest has fallen off so dramatically that to keep Atlanta and Las Vegas on its schedule, the IRL is financing those races.
Although the IRL lost two tracks, one new one, Kentucky Speedway, is on the schedule.
With Brack moving to Bobby Rahal's team, the IRL hopes to capitalize on the move from CART by Al Unser Jr. The two-time Indy 500 winner, after being dropped by Roger Penske, hooked on with his former car owner, Rick Galles.
Both parties deny it, but rumors persist that George is bankrolling the Unser-Galles operation to get his old pal, Unser, into the IRL fold. True or not, this isn't the same Al Jr. who won 31 races, among them the 1992 and 1994 Indy 500s, while racing with CART.
Unser has not won a race since 1995 and Galles' underfinanced team has never won an IRL race with drivers such as Brack, Davey Hamilton, Marco Greco, Jeff Ward and Davy Jones. If Galles was unable to properly finance Hamilton last year--coming off a second-place finish in 1998--how can he afford the big bucks Unser demands? All indications point to George's deep pockets.
Unser himself, at 37, is hardly the driver he once was. He is coming off a messy and financially disruptive divorce, his 13-year-old daughter, Cody, is suffering from partial paralysis because of a rare neurological disorder, and he is not in the best physical condition after suffering injuries to his feet and his psyche last season, when he had only four top-10 finishes.
With all of that, there are some positives about the IRL.
It has a charismatic champion in Greg Ray, a talented Texan who did not take up racing until he was 25, but has proved a worthy successor to Tony Stewart with Team Menard. Stewart, the 1997 champion, left the IRL to become Winston Cup rookie of the year last season.