As taps echoed throughout Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday,
it was unclear for whom the bugle called. Was it mere prerace
ritual--after all, the Indianapolis 500 had been synonymous with
Memorial Day weekend since 1911--or did the funereal notes sound
for the race itself? For after being bruised and battered by a
silly internecine war among the lords of American open-wheel
racing, poor old Indy's reputation as the grandest automobile
race in the world lay, if not dying, then certainly on life
The start of the 81st running of the 500 was twice postponed by
rain, first on Sunday before drivers could even ignite their
engines, and then on Monday, when they fired them up but saw the
action halted after a mere 15 laps. This second postponement
seemed more an act of mercy than of meteorology. All three cars
in the fifth row of the grid were knocked out of the race when
they crashed on the final warmup lap, and three other cars were
forced out by blown engines before the red flag came out. As SI
went to press on Monday night, the race was scheduled to be
restarted on Tuesday--without those six cars.
Even before the rains fell, the Indianapolis 500 ranked third in
quality among the three major oval-track races run during the
weekend. Slightly ahead of it was last Saturday's Motorola 300
near St. Louis, the latest stop for the big names and
technologically exotic cars of Championship Auto Racing Teams
(CART), adrift in a second year of self-imposed exile from
If you wanted to see the best auto racing America currently has
to offer, with a wealth of charismatic drivers and high-quality
machinery, the place to be was Charlotte Motor Speedway for
Sunday evening's Coca-Cola 600. Although the rain-shortened race
was called after 499.5 miles, it included 27 lead changes among
12 drivers. And as if decreed by the gods of promotion, it was
won by NASCAR matinee idol Jeff Gordon--his fifth Winston Cup
victory in 11 starts this season--in the dramatic fashion that
has propelled NASCAR's surge in popularity.
June 1, 1997
Eighty-five miles into the race Gordon, the pole sitter, dropped
to 32nd after his usually flawless crew bungled a pit stop by
knocking the jack out from under his Chevrolet Monte Carlo while
the tires were still off. He stood third when the race was
halted after 292 miles for a 2 1/2-hour rain delay--"halftime,"
Gordon called it--and when the competition resumed, he barreled
his way to second place, right behind leader Rusty Wallace. The
two played cat and mouse until Monday morning at 12:45, when
NASCAR officials announced that the race would continue for only
20 more laps, or 30 miles. Gordon took the lead with 17 laps to
go, as Wallace stalked him around Charlotte's high banks. But
the 25-year-old star, his car throwing off a trail of sparks
from a damaged fender, was able to hold Wallace off and take the
checkered flag by less than half a second, to the delight of a
capacity crowd of 150,000.
By finishing second, Wallace narrowly missed giving his boss,
motor-sports magnate Roger Penske, victories in both of the
weekend's non-Indy races. On Saturday, Paul Tracy had darted
past rookie Patrick Carpentier with two laps to go to win the
Motorola 300 in a Penske-owned car. It was Tracy's third
consecutive win, and it set him high above his rivals in the
CART point standings.
As thrilling as Sunday's race was, the Coca-Cola 600 isn't even
the showcase event on NASCAR's burgeoning Winston Cup tour. That
distinction belongs to February's Daytona 500 and--illustrative
of the sea change in U.S. motor sports--the Brickyard 400, which
has been held at Indianapolis each August since 1994 and
arguably is already more popular with local racing fans than the
500. As one veteran T-shirt vendor said at a sodden Indy, "At
the 500 they come to party. At NASCAR they come to watch the
The reason the Indy 500's reputation has been so tarnished? The
Indy Racing League. The IRL, now in its second season, is the
invention of Speedway president Tony George, who has tried to
use the 500 as a lever--his controversial 25-8 qualifying rule
guarantees 25 of Indy's usual 33 starting positions to IRL
drivers, leaving only eight for other racers--to pry established
teams loose from CART and over to his league. It hasn't worked,
and the IRL is still populated mainly by no-name drivers on
low-budget squads. The schism continues to drag down both forms
of Indy car racing just as NASCAR continues its rapid rise.
Television ratings tell the story. So far this season CBS is
averaging a 7.6 rating for its NASCAR telecasts, while ABC is
averaging 1.8 for IRL races and 1.7 for CART events. The
open-wheel race that drew the highest rating this year, before
the 500, was CART's ABC-televised April 27 race at Nazareth,
Pa., which had a 2.0 (and that was probably because the NASCAR
race at Talladega, Ala., was rained out that day). NASCAR did
more than four times better with its top-rated race, the Daytona
500, earning an 8.6 on CBS. Indy, easily ABC's top-rated
open-wheel race each year, plunged from an 8.4 rating in 1995 to
a 6.6 last year, when CART drivers first boycotted the race.
That tied the lowest rating for the event in the past 25 years.
"Our cable TV ratings now are as good as those of any sport
other than NFL football," boasts Steve Schiffman, a NASCAR vice
president who runs the sanctioning body's recently opened New
York marketing office. "In fact, we exceed the NBA
regular-season ratings, though their playoffs outdo us. We are
really the Number 2-rated regular-season sport, behind the NFL."
Attendance, too, is off at the Brickyard. May 10 saw the
lightest Indy pole-day crowd in 51 years, only about 35,000.
Even some IRL drivers said privately that qualifying was boring
this year because virtually all IRL teams were assured starting
spots. On Sunday and Monday scalpers, who as recently as 1995
demanded three times face value for tickets, were glad to get
less than half the official price. They didn't take the bath
they did last year, however; they had bought blocks of tickets
at steep discounts from corporate junketeers who had decided to
stay away from the race.
CART teams shunned Indy mainly for technical reasons. Before the
IRL season began, George had mandated drastically different car
and engine specifications from those employed by CART. The goal
was to slash the cost of racing in the IRL series and "to keep
the Indianapolis 500 accessible--not out of the reach of anybody
who had it as a goal," says George, who felt that the price of
racing an Indy car had been getting out of hand (chart, page 30).
The IRL specs outlaw the expensive, turbocharged engines CART
uses and require that cars be reconfigured to make them simpler
and cheaper. George claims those changes put more emphasis on
the talent of the drivers and less on that of the engineers.
"They want to take Indy car racing back to the 1960s, back to
the days of backyard mechanics," complains Carl Haas, who with
his partner, actor Paul Newman, fields CART cars for Michael
Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi. Some CART drivers expressed
concerns about the safety of the new IRL cars. They noted that
one consequence of reconfiguring the design was to reduce ground
effects, the aerodynamic properties that help prevent cars from
At Indy qualifying and in two previous events, the engines in
the new IRL cars proved unreliable. Not only were the
Oldsmobile- and Nissan-built power plants in short supply, but
they were also blowing too often for comfort. That led to fears
that only a handful of cars would finish this year's 500. When
the engines on three cars quit before 37 miles had been run on
Monday, those fears seemed well-founded.
George's chief lieutenant, IRL director Leo Mehl, categorized
the glitches as start-up pains. "We've been running these cars
and engines for four months, and we're having problems you would
expect from such new equipment," Mehl says.
NASCAR's biggest problem lately has been handling the traffic in
and out of its races. Stock car racing aficionados are growing
not only in number (the 31 Winston Cup races last year drew 5.6
million spectators, up from 5.5 million in '95) but also in
diversity--geographic and ethnic. "NASCAR is booming in leaps
and bounds," says Julius Erving, basketball Hall of Famer Dr. J,
who announced last week that he and former NFL running back Joe
Washington will field a Winston Cup team next year. Adds
Washington, "After you attend one of these events, there's no
way for you not to be a fan. If there's a NASCAR event on TV,
there's no way I can walk past it. It's as if Lawrence Taylor
jumped in front of me and tackled me. I stop dead."
Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler agrees
that the sport has tremendous visceral appeal. "A lot of people
are very, very mistaken in thinking that the more complicated
you make a car, the more Americans are going to love it," he
says. "They don't care what's under that sheet metal. All they
want inside is a hero. Here we've got an all-steel car. Is it
primitive? Good lord, yes! But it's cheap, and it puts on a
As a rule, marquee NASCAR drivers earn less, starting at about
$750,000, than their CART counterparts (but more than IRL
drivers). But NASCAR drivers usually more than make up the
difference in prize money, endorsements and licensing fees for
souvenirs and apparel. Dale Earnhardt's agent, Don Hawk,
estimates Jeff Gordon's salary at about $2 million. But Gordon's
stepfather, John Bickford, says the wunderkind's overall annual
income is between $10 million and $15 million.
It's worth noting that when Gordon was a boy, his family
relocated from their native Vallejo, Calif., to the Indianapolis
area in the hope of getting young Jeff, then a dirt-track-racing
phenom, a ride in an Indy car. Jeff made inquiries to several
teams in the Indy Lights series, a minor league version of the
big open-wheel events, but was rebuffed. "They basically said,
'Show us the money and we'll show you the seat,'" Gordon said in
the wee hours on Monday at Charlotte. But Gordon does not regret
ending up in NASCAR rather than open-wheel racing. "I'm much
happier here than I would ever have been there," said Gordon.
"People give you an opportunity in NASCAR."
The trend of top young drivers' moving from open-wheel to stock
car racing is another indicator of dramatic change. Tony Stewart
is widely called the IRL's poster boy because, at 26, he is the
best result so far of George's efforts to bring young American
drivers off the down-home dirt tracks and up to Indy. (Stewart,
starting from the second spot, led all 15 laps of Monday's
truncated race.) But beginning next year, Stewart will also
drive a busy schedule in NASCAR's version of Triple A baseball,
the Busch Grand National Series. "I think it's pretty evident
that NASCAR racing is where the popularity is," says Stewart.
Indeed, NASCAR is streaking ahead on its own merits. Schiffman's
task of acquiring more corporate sponsorship for NASCAR, its
teams and its tracks is made easy by companies that are standing
in line to get in on the promotional bonanza. "What they see is
a sport [with gross revenues] growing at 20-plus percent,
attendance quadrupling over the past six or seven years," says
Schiffman. "We have an image that fits what they want to be
associated with. We don't have people spitting at referees or
kicking people or doing drugs." Drivers can't even cuss: After
racer Geoff Bodine uttered "goddam" in his complaint about a
competitor on a live TV interview in April, NASCAR zapped him
with a $10,000 fine.
NASCAR racing is often compared to the current style of
Hollywood action films--but with real-life danger. Jerry
Bruckheimer, executive producer of the NASCAR-based Days of
Thunder, as well as many other action movies, believes both
Hollywood and NASCAR are selling "a great adrenaline rush.
People can sit there and get excited. It's like an amusement
"Of course we sell adrenaline," says Wheeler. "We always have.
The American public is beginning to realize that. It's been a
long time coming."
There have been some very small signs of a thaw between CART and
the IRL. George announced on May 16 that the 25-8 rule would be
dropped for next year's race. CART driver Al Unser Jr., a
two-time winner of the 500, calls that "a step in the right
direction." The IRL also opened the competition to more
manufacturers but rigidly resisted modifying its technical specs
to bring them more in line with CART's. There the conflict
stands, with little hope for resolution anytime soon.
CART drivers very much want to be back home again in Indiana
next Memorial Day weekend. As Unser says, "I want to go back to
the Indy 500. I've told Roger Penske, my boss, that. I've told
Marlboro, my sponsor, that. But we need to do it right. They
need to adopt the '97 CART rules. That change needs to happen
for us to go there and feel safe, feel competitive and run in
the tradition that the Indy 500 deserves."