The Callahan Report: Indy 500 Returning to America

23 May 1998

By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
INDIANAPOLIS, IN: The 82nd running of the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled to begin at 11:00 a.m. CST on Sunday. Just a few minutes before the command "Gentlemen, Start Your Engines," is the traditional singing of the National Anthem. The song will be a bit louder than in recent years. Most of the drivers racing in the Indianapolis 500 will be singing along because they actually know the words to the song.

The Indianapolis 500 is returning to America. At the end of the 1995 racing season, the Indy Racing League (IRL) was formed by Indianapolis Motor Speedway President, Tony George. The grandson of the man who revived the Speedway after World War Two, George formed the league to provide an economic way for aspiring young drivers to reach their goal of racing at Indianapolis. The IRL formula is working. This year's Indy 500 lineup is sprinkled with many of the world's finest short track/grass roots racers. Most of them are from the United States. These drivers would have never been able to get the big bucks needed to go racing before the IRL was formed.

The rules of the new league are quite different from the rules of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the series which raced at Indy prior to the forming of the IRL. There are cost controls in the IRL. Chassis and engine manufacturers have a "price cap" on the amount of money they can charge a team for their equipment. If a manufacturer is not willing to abide by those rules, they are not allowed to be a supplier for the series. In CART, there are no price caps.

There is no doubt. The annual budget of the CART teams far exceeds those in the IRL. CART teams have more "International" sponsors. The IRL has many more American and even local sponsors. Both series provide excellent entertainment for racing fans.

American names returning to the Indy lineup is merely a by-products of the IRL rules. The Indianapolis 500 has always had an International flavor. It will continue to draw talent from around the world based on its prestigious history. The real difference under the rules of the IRL is that the door has been re-opened for the small teams with big dreams. It just so happens that many of those small teams are from the United States.

There are six foreign drivers in the Indy lineup. In the CART race at Gateway International Raceway on Saturday, 17 of the 28 drivers were from outside the United States. This is a reflection of the International funds available in the CART series. Foreign money brings foreign drivers. CART certainly has some of the best in the world.

Greg Ray
Greg Ray
The perfect example of what the IRL has done for Indy-style racing is sitting in the middle of the front row at this year's Indy 500. Greg Ray, a talented and ambitious racer from Plano Texas, was the second fastest qualifier for the race. Ray arrived at the Speedway this month with no money...no sponsors. Ray will be starting the race in between Billy Boat and Kenny Brack. Those drivers are sponsored by multi-million dollar corporations. Ray got the attention and funding he deserved after he qualified. His talent was recognized and rewarded. He would have never been able to be competitive under the rules of CART.

The hopes and dreams of race drivers around the world who desire to race at Indy are becoming attainable once again. Tony George's theory proved itself early. Last year at the Phoenix International Raceway a little known driver named Jim Guthrie won the Phoenix 200 IRL race. All his team members were part timers. They wore jeans instead of uniforms with billboards. Guthrie has not matched his success at Phoenix, but he knows under the rules of the IRL, the dream can become a reality.

When the checkered flag falls on the 82nd Indy 500, the winning driver may American...he may be foreign. He may be well funded....he may be low budget. No one knows yet. One thing is for sure. The winning driver will have proven he is one of the best. He will have beaten some of the best in the world on a level playing field.

Editors Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more) can be viewed in the Visions of Speed Art Gallery and the Racing Image Galleries.

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