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COMMENTARY

Peace Part of the Action This Time

Political battles are put in rearview mirror and racing excitement moves to center stage as the 500 makes a welcome comeback from recent troubles.

May 26, 2003|Mike Kupper | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — Devotees of the Indianapolis 500 -- of open-wheel racing in general -- heaved a big sigh Sunday and said, "Thanks, we needed that."

And indeed, the 87th running of the 500 was a ray of sunshine for a race that for nearly a decade has been run under storm clouds.

A power struggle between rival organizations in the mid-1990s led to the exclusion of many of the best drivers and the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" became more something to squabble about than to brag about.

Then, when Tony George, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the breakaway Indy Racing League, relented and allowed his rivals from Championship Auto Racing Teams back in the 500, CART drivers promptly won the next two races, setting off choruses of "See! We told you we were better," irritating George all over again.

So, when CART made peace overtures, they were ultimately rejected and racing was left with what had come to be known as "the split" -- the IRL, with the 500 its crown jewel, on one side of the chasm, CART on the other.

Eventually, CART's best teams decided -- mainly to keep their high-buck American sponsorships -- that they really needed to be at Indianapolis every May, not Japan or Australia or some other country.

Last year, CART's premier outfit, Penske Racing, jumped to the IRL and won the race, for the second consecutive year. The finish was controversial, though, with CART driver Paul Tracy claiming he had won, the IRL denying his protest and CART backers grumbling that politics had determined the winner.

This year, more CART teams jumped to the IRL, CART moved into rebuilding mode and when May rolled around, the prospect of an old-time 500 unmarred by political hassles loomed as a definite possibility.

Of course, a competitive race figured to make an improving situation all that much better.

And for once, nobody gummed up the works.

There was, for instance, a stirring finish:

Helio Castroneves, looking for his third consecutive victory, didn't get it -- but only because he couldn't catch Penske teammate Gil de Ferran late in the race, when less than a second separated them.

De Ferran won, and Castroneves finished second -- reversing the order of their finish two years ago and, as team manager Tim Cindric said, "I guess we showed today we don't have team orders in our camp."

There was the racing move that put De Ferran ahead of Castroneves:

Both had just made their final pit stops, Castroneves beating De Ferran out and resuming the comfortable lead he had enjoyed for much of the race.

"I was having a phenomenal race," Castroneves said. "The car was very good and I was just taking it easy. Too easy, I guess. All of a sudden I was behind a back marker [lapped rookie A.J. Foyt IV] ... so I have to push on the brakes and downshift to fourth."

Then watch, as he said, "the whole train passing by."

De Ferran was driving the train, going outside Castroneves on the backstretch. "So that was the move of the race," Castroneves said.

There was at least one other pretty good move:

Tony Kanaan, who finished third, lost a lap on a pit stop early in the race, then hustled to make it up and get back in contention. On a restart after a caution period shortly after mid-race, he chose the outside line and passed four cars down the main straightaway and through the first turn. Two of them were lapped vehicles but the other two were contending and Kanaan's boldness moved him from sixth to fourth in seconds.

Startling car owner Michael Andretti, Kanaan said, "I just closed my eyes. When I opened them, I was in the middle of Turn 1. Today is my lucky day."

There was no acrimony when it was all over:

Said Andretti, who has never won here and was driving his last race -- here and elsewhere -- and led much of the early going before his car fell victim to a broken throttle linkage: "It was a day that could have been great.... I think we had a car to win the race.... We still had a lot more speed left in the car to dial into by trimming it.... For whatever reason, it wasn't supposed to happen.

"Having said that, I have no regrets about anything. I am proud of what I have been able to do. I know I could have won this race many times. I just wasn't supposed to."

And, said Castroneves, who would have made race history with a third consecutive victory: "Well, today was obviously a little bit about disappointment but I guess this is part of the game. The good news is, my teammate won, so at least it's a part of the team.... Gil is a great person."

Peace in the valley and good solid racing -- just what the Indy 500 needed.

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