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by Larry Roberts

October 09, 1998

They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows and you might draw the same conclusion about big-time auto racing. Nothing points this up more than the rumor that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be the site of the 2000 United States Grand Prix for Formula One cars.

If you're not an auto racing enthusiast, you may draw the conclusion that this will be the traditional Indy 500 Memorial Day race. Not so. Formula One races are only run on road or street circuits with left and right turns and the Indy 500 is an oval track race.

You might also believe that the U.S Grand Prix is an ongoing part of the annual F-1 circuit that includes events in all the major countries of the world. This is not always so either. While there are traditionally F-1 events in England, Italy, Germany and many others, dates are occasionally given to promoters in other countries and then may be taken away and assigned to another track in another part of the world a year or so later.

Today's international Formula One races count towards a world driving championship and at one time, the Indy 500 was officially the U.S Grand Prix. Podium finishers there were awarded points towards this championship in spite of the fact that the cars that ran there didn't conform to the international "formula." But even this had not always been the case. Prior to World War II, Indy cars and European Grand Prix cars were interchangeable and in 1939 and 1940, Wilbur Shaw won the Indy 500 driving an admittedly outmoded 8CL 3000 Maserati Grand Prix car.

In the post-World War II hey-day of road racing in this country, the U.S Grand Prix was an ongoing event and ran on the street course in Detroit for many years but it disappeared from the international schedule in 1992 after a dismal event in Phoenix, Arizona. This situation coincided with the assent of CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) as the premiere open wheel racing organization in this country.

The politics, promotional and economic gyrations of the internal working of the FOCA (Formula One Constructor's Association) and the FIA (Federation International de l'Automobile), the driving forces behind Formula One racing, are too complex to detail here. Needless to say, they involve enormous amounts of money in the form of sponsorship money and income from world-wide television rights.

Prestige has a lot to do with the F-1 races too, and currently San Francisco, Las Vegas, Dallas and Don Panoz's Road Atlanta track in Atlanta are vying for the U.S. Grand Prix for 2000.

But the track that's at the top of the list is at Indianapolis and it's not a surprise. A few years ago, Tony George, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, maneuvered CART out of the Indy 500 and replaced it with his own IRL (Indy Racing League), a series for oval track cars that for all intents and purposes all use stock-block Oldsmobile engines. The IRL was touted as being an organization designed to bring back relatively less well-heeled teams and up-and-coming young American drivers to the Indy 500.

Unfortunately for traditional Memorial Day Indy 500 fans, the result of this situation is that the most prestigious race now held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the NASCAR event in August.

If Tony George is successful in bringing Formula One racing to his 88-year old track on an annual basis, he'll have to build a road circuit into the infield of the 2.5 mile oval. It's thought that it won't take long before the United States Grand Prix eclipses the IRL's Indy 500 as the most highly touted open-wheel event at that track if not in this country.

But most objective critics of the plan agree that the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis could do very well spectator-wise but only if Tony George would schedule it as a warmup race for the NASCAR Winston Cup Brickyard 400 in August, 2000.