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The Callahan Report: The Brickyard 400 saved open wheel racing

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel

August 3, 2001

INDIANAPOLIS, IN: (August 3, 2001): This city is suffering through a scorching heat wave. Things just got hotter. The fans and drivers of NASCAR Winston Cup racing have arrived to turn up the heat even more at the world's most famous racing facility. It is the eighth time the top American racing series has visited Indianapolis.

From 1911 to 1994, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway sat idle for most of the year. The only event held here during those was the prestigious Indianapolis 500. That all changed in the 1990's. Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saw the progress of NASCAR. It was time to invite the "big boys" to Indy. They had earned the right to run at the "Mecca of Motorsports". He also had another motive for bringing NASCAR to Indianapolis.

Still, some race fans and residents complain that Tony George ruined open wheel racing. Nothing could be further from the truth. He may have just saved it.

Fans continue to be bitter over the fact that Tony George started his own open wheel racing series. George didn't like where open wheel racing was headed, prompting him to begin the Indy Racing League (IRL). His series rivaled the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series that had raced at the Indianapolis 500 since its formation in 1979.

George had many reasons for starting the league. He wanted to keep the cost of racing down. He also wanted to provide a path for up and coming midget and sprint car drivers to Indianapolis. He succeeded at both. Drivers with a background in midgets and sprints were what made Indy in the 40's, 50, and 60's. Over the years however, big bucks and the ability to draw sponsorship dollars replaced talent.

Everyone benefited when Tony George made his bold move. He needed funding to begin the new series. He worked a deal with NASCAR to bring its large fan base to Indianapolis. A large portion of the proceeds went towards funding his dream to start the IRL. He had the money he needed to pull off the feat of challenging the CART series. Even with empty seats at many of the races, George was able to pay "million dollar" purses to the teams dedicated to the IRL from the leftover revenues of the Brickyard 400.

The CART teams exhibited arrogance and boycotted the Indy 500 and all other IRL races for many years. All that changed in 2000. CART Champion team owner Chip Ganassi decided to run his two drivers at Indianapolis. He saw that the fan base at Indy was still the biggest crowd in motorsports. He and his sponsor were missing out on valuable exposure. Ganassi capitalized on the venture. One of his drivers, Juan Montoya, won the Indy 500 as a rookie in 2000. Ganassi and Montoya used the valued title "Indianapolis 500 Champion" at every opportunity.

Other CART teams followed in 2001. Roger Penske, a name synonymous with Indianapolis since the 70's, returned with his powerful team in 2001. Penske aced the IRL competition when he pocketed another Indianapolis 500 victory with driver Helio Castro Neves earlier this year.

Since the IRL began in 1996, the seats have continued to fill up on race day. Their all-oval series provides some of the best excitement open wheel racing has seen in many years. The CART fan base continues to drop. Television cameras at CART events have to be positioned strategically so that the empty seats don't show on prime time Sunday afternoon telecasts.

CART hurt itself again this year on two different occasions. They cancelled a race at Texas. This was not a bad decision by itself but it was avoidable. Poor planning and a lack of testing and evaluation by CART caused the cars to run too fast at the high speed oval. Drivers were getting dizzy from the G-loads imposed on their bodies. The cancellation could have been avoided with some foresight and organization. The cancellation left many fans in the Texas area outraged. Many vowed to never follow the CART series again.

CART also let the Michigan 500 drop from its schedule next year. They did little to promote the event in 2001. While the race was very exciting, it was one of those "if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound?" scenarios. While the race in Michigan was competitive and exciting, there was no one there to see it. It was an embarrassing display of lack of promotion by CART. Again, fans were disappointed. The IRL benefited.

The popularity of NASCAR, a bold move by Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George, and a lack of organization by CART have made the IRL a success. The benefit for race fans is that the excitement of NASCAR is now a part of Indianapolis history. It is rightfully so.

George also made great improvements to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the past two years so that the U.S Grand Prix could be held here.

The city of Indianapolis should be grateful. He has made sure that the Brickyard 400 and the U.S. Grand Prix fills hotel rooms, packs restaurants, and has a multi-million-dollar impact on the regional economy. Indianapolis has not lost by Tony George's actions. They have gained significantly. Like the grumpy old man telling the kids to "get off of my lawn", I guess some people just like to complain.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot photos and racing art, please visit The Racing Image Galleries and The Visions of Speed Art Gallery