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OPENING SALVO

Before Tony George broke the Indy Racing League off from CART, before Al Unser Jr. called the new circuit minor league, before fans moved in droves to follow NASCAR, fractures were part of the fabric of open-wheel racing.

In fact, controversy has been an essential element of auto racing since "the second car arrived on the starting line," Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson said.

At Indianapolis, where triumph and tragedy have moved hand in hand with controversy and turmoil, the roots of the current split between the Indy Racing series and CART run deep.

The issue always comes back to control. Car owners and sanctioning bodies battle over who has the final word on body style, engine specifications and ultimately the direction of the sport.

Much of the battle can be traced to the late 1960s, a time of unrest for racing that had nothing to do with civil rights or Vietnam.

Sparking debate with a revolutionary engine concept, car owner Andy Granatelli shook up the Indianapolis scene more than anyone until George.

Granatelli was head of STP Corp., a brand he built into a global icon through his tenacity and marketing. His fame in racing came through his success at the Indianapolis 500, marked by the use of turbine engines in 1967 and '68.

He used an engine intended for helicopters, added a "side-by-side chassis" with the engine on the left side and the driver on the right for better handling on Indy's left-hand turns and incorporated a four-wheel drive system that enabled driver Parnelli Jones to apply power more deeply into the turns than conventional two-wheel drive cars of the day.

The combination produced a car that knocked the Indy establishment on its heels at a time when it was reeling from the influx of rear-engined cars and European teams and drivers.

"These were times of great innovations in technology," said Bobby Unser, a three-time Indy winner. "Granatelli did the same thing as Roger Penske did in 1994 by finding a gray area in the rules and developing the technology to exploit the rule."

Granatelli's car captured the imagination of fans and media alike with its Day-Glo orange body and novel look. It quickly acquired nicknames such as "Silent Sam" and "The Whooshmobile."

But the racing establishment at Indy was frightened at the vision of millions of dollars of piston engines becoming obsolete overnight. That fear was a precursor to the arguments of today, with the car owners in one corner looking for an edge and exploiting technology when possible and governing bodies in the other corner trying to keep costs down and the racing close.

A.J. Foyt, in the midst of his run to four Indy 500 titles, called the turbine car a "damned ol' airplane."

Friendships Granatelli made from the time he came to Indy in 1946 were strained. The situation got much worse before the turbine era was over.

Qualifying in 1967 did not go well for the Granatelli team, but Jones, the driver, was accused of sandbagging to the sixth starting position so as not to reveal the car's true potential. Judging from the first lap, those charges seemed to have merit.

Jones passed four of the five cars in front of him going into the first turn. He passed them on the outside using areas of the track unusable to two-wheel drive cars. Coming out of Turn 2, he slipped below Mario Andretti and took the lead.

Davidson, the track historian, recalled the end of that first lap: "Parnelli looked over to his pit as he flew down the main straight and flashed the okay sign to the Granatelli crew."

But on Lap 18, rains came and the race restarted the next day with Jones again dominating.

After leading 171 of 197 laps, Jones coasted to a stop in his pit, three laps short of the finish. A ball bearing in the gear case had failed. Foyt, who had been lurking in second place waiting for the turbine to fail, drove to his third victory in the 500.

The U.S. Auto Club, at the time the governing body of the 500, voted the next month to cut the engine's air inlet, reducing power similar to what NASCAR now does on superspeedways with restrictor plates. The ruling seemed to violate what had been a standard three-year period between the announcement of new specifications for engines and their implementation, and Granatelli sued.

"It was politics and ignorance," he said recently. "It was ignorant not to allow the turbines to develop. It was as if they didn't want progress. Detroit would have been forced to deal with the technology."

Events leading up to the April 1968 trial cast doubt on the legal proceedings.

At the start of the 1968 season, the Granatelli team joined forces with the Lotus team of Formula One fame. Granatelli shared plans from his 1967 car, and the collaborative effort produced a long, low, wedge-shaped car that incorporated all of the features from the 1967 car that had not been banned. Granatelli found a turbine engine that would meet the air inlet specification with only minor modifications. He planned to enter four of the cars.

In February, the team announced its driver lineup for the 1968 event, including Jones and Formula One world champions Jim Clark and Graham Hill.

On April 7, Clark was driving a conventional car when he was killed in a Formula Two race at Hockenheim, Germany. The Granatelli-Lotus team, and the rest of the racing world, was deeply shocked and saddened. Within a few days the team tried to rebound and signed Jackie Stewart to drive at Indy. Then, Jones dropped out in May because he wasn't happy with his car's practice performance.

"I am simply not satisfied with the potential of this car with the little 15.999-inch engine," he said. "I race to win, and I don't think I can win with this car except on a fluke. And I don't depend on flukes. It's as simple as that. The turbine car actually lacked the horsepower even with last year's 21.999-inch engine. But it had fantastic performance because of the side-by-side construction and other engineering advances."

It was exactly what the team had been saying for a year: The complete package enabled the turbine car to achieve the level of performance it had, not just the engine.

Apparently, USAC was starting to listen because it proceeded to ban four-wheel drive from competition after the 1969 season.

By May 1968, Granatelli lost the court case. The judge ruled USAC had the right to run its race in any manner it saw fit.

When practice opened at Indianapolis, the turbines immediately began running laps above the track record. But on May 7, Mike Spence, who had replaced Jones, was killed in a crash in Turn 1.

Soon, Stewart was out, too. He fractured his wrist in a Formula Two race in Spain.

When qualifications began, Granatelli's replacement drivers zipped to the front with record laps. The Day-Glo orange cars were the talk of the racing community, even meriting mention on the late-night talk shows of Joey Bishop and Johnny Carson.

But Bobby Unser was driving a car powered by a turbo-charged Offenhauser engine and qualified third before the enthusiastic race-day sized crowd.

On race day, Unser and Granatelli driver Joe Leonard led most of the laps but the turbines' performance advantage was nothing like the 1967 car. Unser found himself able to pass and pull away from Leonard.

"I was behind him, and I felt I could get around him," Unser said. "It surprised me how easy it was."

But the turbines' downfall came from a deal Granatelli made with Amoco, which provided the company's new unleaded gasoline to the cars.

Instead of providing better acceleration out of the turns, the gasoline failed to lubricate the fuel pumps as well as the standard kerosene did, causing failures. Leonard was leading on Lap 192 of 200 when he coasted to a stop in the first turn, similar to Jones' failure of the year before.

After that race, the turbine era came to a close at Indianapolis. USAC implemented further reductions in the size allowable for turbine engines. No team was willing to take the gamble after that.

Ironically, Granatelli's team won the 1969 race with a conventionally powered piston car and driver Mario Andretti. The turbines were relegated to the museums.

Granatelli, now 77, retired from running cars at Indianapolis in 1973. He was saluted Friday as one of the Legends of the Speedway along with Andretti, Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi, Duke Nalon and Leonard.

"Those years were the last in a golden era in motor racing," Bobby Unser said. "There aren't as many heroes today. Technology has gone so far that we have two spec series now. The IRL doesn't have much credibility yet and the lack of driver recognition hurts the fan base. The IRL will not be able to kill CART and neither will CART kill the IRL. All open-wheel series are losing."

Up next:FLASHPOINTS

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