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Indy-Structible Even a controversial finish couldn't obscure the fact that the Indy 500, after years of decline, has roared back in fine form

June 03, 2002
June 03, 2002

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June 3, 2002

Indy-Structible Even a controversial finish couldn't obscure the fact that the Indy 500, after years of decline, has roared back in fine form

At 7:45 on Sunday night, a good 5 1/2 hours after he had climbed
the trackside fence a la Spider-Man in celebration of having
taken the checkered flag in the 86th Indianapolis 500, Helio
Castroneves was walking through Gasoline Alley when he was told
that the race results had finally been stamped OFFICIAL. He
celebrated by scaling another fence, this time the
seven-foot-high barrier that borders the garage area. But when
word came shortly thereafter that an appeal of the results would
be heard on Monday, one had to wonder just how many fences
Castroneves would have to climb to become the race's undisputed
champion.

This is an article from the June 3, 2002 issue Original Layout

Car owner Barry Green paid the $500 fee to file a protest on
behalf of his driver, second-place finisher Paul Tracy, who
claimed he had blown past Castroneves into the lead on the
penultimate lap just before the yellow caution lights came on.
(Two cars had wrecked in Turn 2.) Because the race went on to
finish under caution, Tracy felt that he should have been
crowned champion. Video replays appeared to support the initial
ruling that Tracy had passed Castroneves a split second after
the caution lights, which signal drivers to hold their
positions. On Monday race officials, after deliberating for over
five hours, denied the appeal.

Not even the controversial ending could take the luster off what
was easily the best race at the Brickyard in seven years--ever
since open-wheel racing split into two feuding bodies in 1996.
As a result of that schism between CART and the upstart IRL, the
'96 Indy 500 was contested largely by a group of unknowns (15
rookies in a field of 33), and in the following years the event
was in danger of losing its hallowed place in American sport.
This year, with more and more CART teams being encouraged by
their sponsors to run at Indy, the field was filled with almost
all of the sport's top teams. This race was the fastest in Indy
history, with an average qualifying speed of 228.648 mph.

Before Tracy pulled alongside him, Castroneves was more worried
about whether he would have enough gas to make it to the finish
line. Most of the field had refueled with 23 laps to go, but
Castroneves's crew had filled his tank with 42 laps remaining,
and owner Roger Penske was willing to gamble that his Brazilian
driver could make it the rest of the way. Heading into Turn 3 of
the penultimate lap with Tracy closing in, the 27-year-old
Castroneves noticed a flashing yellow light on his steering
wheel, which--in his frenzied state--made him think he was out
of gas.

"I was so tense," said Castroneves after the race. "I thought I
was running out of fuel. Then the guys on the radio were
yelling, 'Yellow! Yellow!' [meaning the race was under caution],
and I was shocked." Castroneves eased off the gas pedal as Tracy
passed him. Race officials disallowed the pass, and after three
final miles under caution Castroneves became the first
back-to-back winner of the 500 since 1971 and the first driver
to win the race in his first two starts at Indy.

The result also underscored the extent to which the balance of
power in open-wheel racing has shifted. Last year CART drivers,
led by Castroneves, swept the top five spots in the race, a
showing that was a slap in the face of Indianapolis Motor
Speedway president Tony George, who broke from CART to form the
IRL. At the time of the split the only things George had going
for him were his promise of less expensive racing and his famous
track. While the cost issue is significant (CART has followed
George's lead in the frugality department, mainly in using a
simpler and cheaper engine), it is the powerful lure of the
track itself that has fundamentally turned the tide.

Despite sagging interest in the 500, a huge backlash from the
racing community and observers accusing him of ruining America's
biggest race, George refused to buckle. Instead of enticing CART
teams to the race, he waited for them to come to him. Eventually
they did, when their sponsors insisted upon it. The series got a
huge boost last December after one of George's most vocal
critics, Penske, who was a founding member of CART, jumped to
the IRL full time, largely at the behest of his sponsor,
Marlboro. "I think Tony's vision is one of the things [that has
made the IRL successful]," says Penske. "I have to take my hat
off to him. He's stayed the course."

George pulled off another coup three days before this year's
race, when engine manufacturer Honda, which has provided the
power for the last six overall CART champions, announced it
would start supplying engines to IRL teams next year. Last fall
Honda announced it will pull out of CART effective 2003, saying
it had no interest in building the nonturbocharged engines CART
is switching to. But Honda has since reconsidered and will make
that engine for IRL teams.

The reversal wasn't an easy pill to swallow for CART's board of
directors, which does not have a firm commitment from an
established engine builder for next year. CART's situation could
become even more dire if Honda clients such as Green, who owns
the cars of Tracy, Michael Andretti and current CART leader
Dario Franchitti, follow the engine manufacturer to the IRL.
George did his best not to gloat, but when pressed on the
question of whether bringing Honda on board signaled the final
nail in CART's coffin, he said, "I bring my hammer to work every
day."

If George keeps staging races as full of action as Sunday's, in
which IRL drivers took five of the top six positions, it won't be
long before he can leave the hammer in his toolbox.

COLOR PHOTO: FRANK POLICH/AP Running on fumes With barely enough gas and just enough luck to finish ahead of Tracy, Castroneves raised his fist in triumph.COLOR PHOTO: GEOFF MILLER/REUTERS Not so fastWhile Penske and Castroneves (bottom) celebrated, runner-up Tracy (left) was protesting the yellow-flag ruling.COLOR PHOTO: SETH ROTHMAN/AP [See caption above]