INDIANAPOLIS — Uncertainty hangs in the air here like the Goodyear blimp on Race Day: Can the Indianapolis 500 - the self-proclaimed "greatest spectacle in racing" - survive?
Among its challenges: a bitter battle for control of high-speed, open-wheeled auto-racing; record rainfall that has kept pre-race crowds at home; the death of a popular, top driver; and the scheduling of a rival race on the same day that features the sport's biggest names and some of its biggest sponsors.
Indiana Motor Speedway officials, in particular President Tony George, express confidence that the 500 not only will survive but eventually will become stronger. City officials and business leaders are cautiously optimistic and supporting an event that attracts 400,000 spectators and pumps millions of dollars into the local economy. But some fans and media - local and national - are skeptical.
Frustrated by what he termed a lack of influence in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Indy-car series, Mr. George created his own, the Indy Racing League (IRL).
Acrimony quickly grew between the two factions. When CART scheduled races opposite IRL races, Mr. George unholstered his big gun: He guaranteed 25 of the 33 spots on Indy's starting grid to owners and drivers participating in his IRL series. CART responded by announcing it would stage its own race - the US 500 - the same day as Indy at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
Once-nervous city officials have rallied behind George. Innkeepers report that after initial cancellations, most major hotels have recouped their race-weekend reservations. ABC-TV recently announced it had extended its rights to telecast the race through 1999. New sponsors have come on board. And a market for tickets that had gone flat (scalping is legal in Indiana) is rebounding.
"Other than the weather and all the rain, I haven't gotten much of a sense that people think it's anything other than [the normal] month of May in Indianapolis," says John Myrland, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "People I've spoken to have been attracted of the rookie drivers and find them approachable, exciting, and deserving of the opportunity."
Earl Nightingale, general manger of the Indianapolis Hyatt Regency, says his hotel and others downtown will be all but sold out of three-day race-weekend packages, even after losing large group bookings early in the month. He did, however, lose a lucrative party when the CEO of Borg-Warner cancelled, saying he was upset by the IRL-CART dispute and wanted to "send a message" to the racing community.
Mr. Nightingale added that while downtown hotels had filled up again, suburban hotels and motels had not. "I've heard that some are 50 percent empty," he said early this week. 'So overall, I'd estimate that the whole market is 20 to 25 percent off."
Business is booming, though, at Jim Luebbert's store. He owns Speedway Monogramming, just across the street from the Speedway's main entrance. He sells racing-related gear and souvenirs.
"Business has been great," Mr. Luebbert says. "But keep in mind that when it rains, I love it because ... people come inside to get out of the rain, and then they shop and spend money."
Luebbert says there have been fewer temporary "tent" merchants in the Speedway area this year, but he still expects to "make a killing" from race fans this weekend.
He also supports the IRL: "Tony [George] is going to win this thing, no matter what it takes," Luebbert says.
Some unease remains about the running of the race itself. Indianapolis Star columnist Robin Miller, one of Indy-car racing's most knowledgeable journalists and an outspoken critic of George, says he is concerned about the quality and safety of Sunday's race.
"A major factor will be pit stops and the experience of the [new] drivers in traffic," he says. "If it's a hot, sunny day" - conditions that are tough on cars, tires, and drivers - "this thing will be exposed and its amateur status will be secured."
Mr. Miller says the top drivers and teams want to be at Indy, not Michigan, but that George's guarantee of starting spots to IRL regulars painted the CART camp into a corner.
He also concedes George will probably win out, "if he doesn't run out of money, because he's stated he doesn't care how long it takes or how much it costs.... But he'll never be able to identify the Indianapolis 500 as a race among the fastest 33 cars and the best drivers," Miller says.