Indy 500 does need CART


INDIANAPOLIS — A synopsis of the success of the Indy Racing League is best characterized by its eight-year biography at the Brickyard where the Indy 500 clarifies everything big and small, fast and slow, authentic and artificial.

It's an intriguing overview that highlights the obvious: the initial intent of the IRL has been run over, flattened, scraped up and dumped at a waste site on the outskirts of synthetic.

When Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George decided to split open-wheel racing in 1995, forming the IRL to compete with CART, he had the absolute blessing of NASCAR, which realized the divide-and-conqueror theory was more that conjecture. It was an absolute phenomenon.

The IRL was to be the Americanization of open-wheel racing, with little or no outsourcing in regard to foreign engines, parts, services, drivers and rich pastries.

This was going to be an inexpensive series that would promote American sprint-car drivers and drive off the big spenders, such as race car czar Roger Penske, who had won 10 Indy 500s.

Meanwhile, CART, taking with it the big names in the sport, projected the IRL as a haven where losers went to win.

Toledo businessman Ron Hemelgarn, a long time Indy-car owner with moderate success, but a strong IRL advocate, captured the 1996 Indy 500 with driver Buddy Lazier, the first 500 under the IRL banner.

The IRL would stand the test of time.

That lasted about one year, maybe two.

Hemelgarn is here this year with Lazier, both groveling for sponsorship and a ride and with Lazier finally finding his way into today's 33-car field with another team that Hemelgarn has helped support.

Meanwhile, Hemelgarn has said in private he's extremely disappointed and frustrated with George, with terminology such as “being sold down the river.”

Arie Luyendyk won from the pole here in 1997. Eddie Cheever captured the 1998 Indy 500 under the sponsorship of Rachel's Potato Chips.

Cheever, who spent most of his racing career in Formula One, was the last American-born driver to win the Indy 500.

In 1999, when Ken Brack, the Swede driving for A.J. Foyt, won here, Foyt was asked how it felt to capture his first Indy 500 as a car owner after winning four times as a driver.

“I'm so wonderful,” said Foyt, at a loss for verbs.

That was also about the year when former IRL chief steward, Leo Mehl, getting caught up in the bitterness of the CART-IRL feud, said that if the CART drivers returned to Indy they would get their backsides booted, using much stronger language that called for a restrictor plate.

It was Juan Pablo Montoya who drifted in from CART and dominated the 2000 Indy 500, leading 167 of the total of 200 laps.

And then started the real pilgrimage, led by Penske. His drivers, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, finished one-two as CART drivers occupied the top five finishing positions in 2001.

Yes, that Roger Penske, who was wildly cheered on Bump Day here in 1995 when neither of his drivers, Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr., made the Indy 500 field. Today, Penske will be going for an unprecedented fourth consecutive triumph here and 14th overall.

Castroneves won again in 2002; de Ferran was victorious last year before retiring.

Penske is campaigning horsepower by Honda, which powers the first seven cars in today's field and eight of the first nine.

There's a very familiar trend here for those with pre-1996 recollections. We remember that the Indy 500, under the auspices of the IRL, is nothing more, and probably something less, than what it used to be when Tony George said it had to be something else.

Television ratings have dropped from 9.4 a few years ago to a record low 4.6 last year.

Scott Sharp is the lone remaining original IRL competitor in today's field. Foyt has the last original IRL team. There are 15 foreign-born drivers in today's field.

It's an altered state of affairs from what George intended.

Did George win in the bitter battle that divided open-wheel racing? Absolutely, but only because he owns Indy, which is about the last bastion of great open-wheel, Indy-car racing in this country.

George correctly predicted just after the split that the CART drivers would return to his home field, even though it took much longer then he thought.

What's interesting is that the IRL contended all along that it didn't need CART, with its extravagance, its foreign influence its more renowned drivers and its rich pastries. But in the end, it did.

Need proof?

Check today's lineup.

Dave Woolford is a retired Blade sports writer.