Storm Clouds Collect Over Indy Car Racing

AUTO racing, like other sports, has experienced many internecine battles. A new one is brewing that could affect the teams and drivers who raced in Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

Tony George, the president and owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, wants to see Indy car racing return to what it once was, with a strong emphasis on oval tracks and greater opportunities for American drivers who have come up through the midget- and sprint-car ranks.

His focus, says Dick Jordan, the communications director for the Indianapolis-based United States Auto Club, ''is on trying to bring the cost of racing back in line in order to engage American racing ingenuity....''

To move things in this direction George has announced plans for the Indy Racing League, which would be a direct rival to the 16-year-old IndyCar series, run by a New York-based organization called Championship Auto Racing Teams.

CART and the IndyCar series began in 1978 when 18 Indy car owners, rebuffed in their attempt to gain more administrative powers, decided to break away from the US Auto Club. Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indianapolis winner who failed to make this year's field, has said that CART is responsible for the growth of Indy car racing and now ''the USAC people want it back.'' He adds, however, that he will race wherever his Penske racing team wants him to drive.

George's league will start modestly in 1996 with four races, including the Indianapolis 500, a crown jewel that gives the upstart circuit immediate leverage in the sport. Other races would be held at Phoenix International Raceway and at tracks to be built in Las Vegas and at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where the inaugural event is scheduled Jan. 27.

Details of how the new league would work and who would race in it are unclear. Obviously, George wants a return to what he calls the sport's roots -- at least its American ones -- which can be found at thousands of short tracks around the United States.

Brock Yates, a senior editor of Car and Driver magazine, says that these racing ovals date to the days when early auto races were held on fairground horse tracks. European racing, meanwhile, began on the open road and largely remains there.

Yates calls road racing, where twists and turns make passing difficult, ''more intellectually stimulating'' than its oval-track cousin, noted for giving spectators a view of the fender-to-fender action all the way around.

The new Indy Racing League might help to re-Americanize races like the Indianapolis 500, which this year had 14 Americans and 19 foreigners, including one naturalized citizen, in the field. Three of the top five finishers were foreigners in Sunday's race.

While indicating he has nothing against the many overseas entries in Sunday's race, George says Indy car racing is being compromised and that the thoroughly American stock-car circuit may be attracting the cream of America's oval-racing crop. He's even suggested that some people might look upon the Daytona 500 stock-car race, and not the Indy 500, as the premier auto-racing event of the year.

Touching other bases

* Name the recently fired National Basketball Association coach who scored the league's first three-point field goal on Oct. 12, 1979. (Answer at end.)

* Baseball hitting slumps sometimes yield gradually. Other times the dam breaks. Mike Blowers, who plays third base for the Seattle Mariners, enjoyed a dramatic turnaround last week. He entered Thursday's game against the Boston Red Sox batting just .118. Blowers proceeded to go 4-for-5 and drive in eight runs. Besides tying the Mariners' single-game RBI record, he set a club mark with four extra-base hits: two doubles, a triple, and a home run. Blowers says the strike-curtailed spring training was a factor in his slow start.

* Judging from the results of last month's United States vs. Russia swim meet in South Carolina, the Russians benefitted from six weeks of training in the US. They beat the US national team for the first time ever. The two countries were competing in their ninth dual meet since 1966.

* The quest for speed never ends, even in bicycling, where Christian Taillefer now owns the fastest ride assisted only by gravity. Bicycling magazine reports that he reached 111 m.p.h. at the Vars ski resort in France this past winter. Taillefer hurtled down a steeply pitched, snow-covered run on a mountain bike.

* Answer: Chris Ford. The Boston Celtics fired Ford as the team's head coach just two hours before hockey's Boston Bruins gave coach Brian Sutter the heave-ho. The tandem exit was declared a ''Double Elimination'' in one local headline.

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