Casual racing fans who tune in Sunday's Indianapolis 500 may think they're seeing double. There will be two Indy-style races that day, and some of the biggest names in the sport will compete in the US 500, a brand-new event at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn.
Open-wheel auto racing may be the loser as two feuding groups play "chicken."
The upstart Indy Racing League (IRL), the brainchild of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, is on one side of this civil war; the 17-year-old IndyCar series on the other.
The dispute boils down to a philosophical debate, although politics is part of it too.
Basically, the IRL faction has picnic tastes in a sport with Grey Poupon tendencies. George and the IRL folks want races run on oval tracks, which speak to the tradition of dirt, "bull ring" racing throughout the United States. They also want to make Indy-type racing more affordable for American drivers, who find it hard to get a ride with established, multimillion-dollar teams.
The IndyCar camp, a coalition of teams that carry the banner of Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART), is running 10 of this year's 16 events on road courses in cities like Miami, Detroit, and Long Beach, Calif. It enjoys the loyalty of most of the big-name drivers, people like Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, and Bobby Rahal - the last three former Indy champions. They have boycotted the Indianapolis 500 this year rather than bow to pressure to become IRL regulars.
CART has the big names, but IRL has the best-known venue: Twenty-five of the 33 spots on the Indy 500's starting grid were reserved for the points leaders on the IRL's inaugural five-race season, of which the Indianapolis 500 is the centerpiece. Not content to stand idly by, the CART group moved quickly to create its own event that will challenge America's premier auto-racing spectacle.
Indy retains the tradition, the US 500 the better-known drivers. The qualifying speeds at both races are practically off the chart, so in part the winner will be whichever event produces the safest, best-run competition.
Though safety is always a concern at any auto race, its importance was further underlined recently when Indianapolis pole-sitter Scott Brayton, a popular veteran driver, was killed during a practice run in a backup car at the Speedway. Danny Ongais, another Indy veteran, will drive the car that Brayton qualified at 233.718 miles per hour.
Taking over the pole position is Tony Stewart, the fastest rookie in Indy history (233.1 m.p.h.) and one of a number of new faces in the race. Some have expressed reservations about the inexperience in the Indy field (17 are rookies). The IRL outlook, however, is that a lot of good, up-and-coming drivers will have an opportunity to prove themselves.