INDY-STYLE auto racing is speeding toward a fork in the road as two competing organizations grab for the wheel.
Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the group that's been in the Indy-car driver's seat since 1979, now has competition from the newly formed Indy Racing League (IRL), which intends to steer the sport in a different direction.
Tony George, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the new league's founding father, wants a series that returns open-wheel racing to its oval-track roots and makes the independent-minded Indianapolis 500 its cornerstone event. Diversity, meanwhile, is the watchword on the CART or IndyCar circuit, which runs more races on city streets and permanent road courses than on ovals.
George has said his desire to protect the Indianapolis 500's long-term future motivated him to form the Indy Racing League.
Can the sport live with a division?
"I think it's questionable. It worries me," says Jim Hall, a racing-team owner and one of the founders of CART.
Brock Yates, editor-at-large of Car & Driver magazine, says: "In the long term, it's going to be very difficult for CART to compete with the [new league]." In his estimation, the IRL holds all the "high cards," including control of the Indy 500.
Since 1994, when the league was announced, the rivals have waged a war of words, not wheels. But IRL spokesman Bob Walters says "we're done arguing with these guys."
Indeed, the rubber is about to the meet the road as the rivalry begins with the IRL's inaugural event, Saturday's Indy 200 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where a one-mile tri-oval has been built. (The opener of IndyCar's 15-race season is March 3 in Homestead, Fla.)
The Indy 200 creates an auspicious start for the newborn circuit: ABC will televise the event, a capacity crowd of 50,000 spectators is expected, and one of the biggest names in entertainment - Walt Disney - will give the race instant credibility.
"When you bring a partner like this into play," says race-car driver Lyn St. James, "it almost gives you the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval."
St. James and other established drivers will attempt to qualify for the 24-car field on Friday, but many Indy-car regulars will stay away. This is the fly in the Indy Racing League's ointment: Many drivers loyal to CART are boycotting the new circuit.
"In my opinion, they've tried to coerce car-team owners like myself to run in the IRL," says Jim Hall. What bothers Hall is the way the IRL is using the Indianapolis 500 for leverage.
The Indy Racing League has created a strong incentive for consistent participation on its modest, five-race circuit, which makes stops in Phoenix (March 24), Loudon, N.H. (Aug. 18), and Las Vegas (Sept. 15), besides Indianapolis. The chief carrot is the Indy 500: A new IRL qualifying formula virtually assures that IRL racers will occupy 25 of 33 spots in the Indy 500 starting field on May 26.
CART loyalists are free to enter races on the IRL circuit, but when it comes to the most important race of the year, many will effectively be shut out.
George considers this a logical response to CART's 15-race schedule this year, which he suspects was deliberately drafted to conflict with three important IRL dates - including the Indy 500 on May 26.
The CART folks recently announced plans to hold a new race, the US 500, on the same day as the Indy 500. It, too, will be in the Midwest, at the Michigan International Speedway, in Brooklyn, Mich., a two-mile oval owned by CART team owner and board member Roger Penske. Last week, race organizers revealed that ESPN will cover the US 500 live, beginning two hours after the start of the 80th Indianapolis 500 on ABC.
CART president Andrew Craig has said the US 500 will enlist the "biggest stars of our sport" and relegate the Indy 500 into "a second-class attraction."
But in a battle between name-brand drivers and a name-brand event, Yates expects the latter will prevail. "There are not really many major names in either camp, frankly," he says. "Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti are really the only marquee names [CART] possesses, and neither one of them has been capable of electrifying the American sports audience like Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt or the earlier Unsers, Bobby and Al, or Rick Mears."
Yates even doubts that the rival race will happen. He suspects CART teams will come under tremendous pressure from sponsors to be in Indianapolis, which attracts the largest single-day crowd in all of sports (350,000 to 400,000 spectators). "They're going to have to make some sort of accord to do business," he concludes.
CART faces a lawsuit as well. On Jan. 3, A.J. Foyt, now a car owner, brought a federal suit against CART, accusing it of improperly taking away his CART franchise and trying to monopolize Indy-car racing.
Control of Indy-style racing has changed hands several times since the first Indy 500 in 1911. The American Automobile Association oversaw the sport until 1955 with the creation of the United States Auto Club. USAC remained the sport's sanctioning body until 1979, when a group of Indy-car owners wanting a bigger say formed the breakaway CART series. Now the IRL is trying to wrest away some of CART's power.