The drive to control IndyCar racing has shifted into high gear. Run the new Indy Racing League series, IRL founder Tony George says, or you can pretty much forget the Indianapolis 500.
George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (and thus the boss of the Indy 500), announced last year the formation of the IRL, a direct competitor to the IndyCar World Series circuit. This week he said the top 25 IRL drivers, based on points, will automatically start in the Indy 500 (assuming they post a minimum qualifying speed).
That means only eight of the 33 starting berths will be available to everyone else, including a lot of the big-name teams. That, in turn, means the competition for those eight spots will be vicious and a lot of IndyCar teams aren't going to make the biggest race of the year.
And for those top teams that figure they have the inside track to one of those eight spots there is always the memory of Roger Penske, whose drivers Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi failed to make any of the 33 spots in this year's Indy 500.
The IRL has announced a 1996 five-race series, with ABC committed to televising them. Along with the Indy 500 would be four 200-milers starting with a race at a 1.1-mile track being built at Walt Disney World. IndyCar stages a 16-race series
Among the owners who have expressed opposition to the IRL: Carl Haas (whose drivers include Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy), Derrick Walker (Robby Gordon and Christian Fittipaldi), Bobby Rahal (Raul Boesel and Rahal) and Penske.
Among George's supporters: John Menard (Arie Luyendyk and Scott Brayton), A. J. Foyt (Eddie Cheever), Ron Hemelgarn (Davey Hamilton, Stan Fox) and Dick Simon (Carlos Guerrero, Eliseo Salazar). Foyt has said he may run Cheever in the IndyCar World Series and run another car or two in the IRL.
"Obviously it's going to divide us," Walker said Wednesday. "The bigger teams aren't going to suffer. It's going to be the smaller and middle-sized ones (who have less of a chance to make the Indy 500 field without joining the IRL). Tony George is no fool; he knows if he puts this kind of pressure on, half the field is going to crack. He has a track we all want to race at, so he's going to use whatever leverage he can to get us to go to more of his races."
Walker said the battle can only damage the sport. "We all know both sides have muscle. What you have to ask yourself is, by the time we stop flexing our muscles will there be anybody watching? How many sponsors will want to do business with us? How many TV networks will want to give us fat contracts? Look at other sports which have gotten into internal squabbling and have almost ruined themselves."
Andretti wouldn't take sides, telling USA Today, "We're contracted to the owners. We'll go where they tell us to go." But Haas did not take kindly to the announcement.
"It's an attack to put us out of business," Haas said. "It's restraint of trade. I have my lawyers looking into this right now. I'm not sure they haven't left themselves open to (legal) action."
1996 Indy Racing League series
Date Race Site
Jan. 27 Indy 200 Walt Disney World
March 24 Phoenix 200 Phoenix Intl. Raceway
May 26 Indianapolis 500 Indy Motor Speedway
Aug. 18 New England 200 N.H. Intl. Speedway
Sept. 15 Las Vegas 200 L.V. Motor Speedway