Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, September 23, 2000

Formula One Woos Indy

But Racing Capital Has Plenty of Other Dates

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
INDIANAPOLIS - On a hot afternoon earlier this week, a stubby scaled-down imitation of a 1937 Ford Sedan burned rubber around a quarter-mile oval track, as a local race driver demonstrated driving techniques in a ''Legends'' racing car.

The scene at a small speedway an hour's drive from downtown Indianapolis was just one of many similar ones in this region with its vast number of racing series. They have names such as sprints, midgets, bandeleros, and of course, karts, dragsters, IndyCars and stock cars.

Formula One, which returns to America after a nine-year absence with the U.S. Grand Prix on Sunday, may now be added to the list. But while Formula One needs the potentially lucrative American market, local fans and racers, track owners and sponsors, grass-roots race car builders and promoters all wonder if America really needs Formula One.

''This is the racing capital of the world,'' said Larry Fritz, the racer who gave the lessons in the so-called Legends hobby-car series mentioned above, and whose father worked as a mechanic for IndyCar teams at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Sunday's race takes place. ''There are more race tracks right here in a hundred-mile radius than there is nearly clear across the country. We'll see how it goes. I think the first year is 'wait and see.'''

The Speedway, especially after a recent dollars 50 million face-lift, is the world's greatest oval track. But there is just one problem: Formula One does not race on ovals. So Tony George, the director of the speedway and a member of the family that has owned the track for over 50 years, built a road course on the infield, which uses only part of the oval, and he rebuilt the pit area to suit Formula One's stringent specifications.

''I don't even recognize the place anymore,'' said Fritz, echoing a frequent lament: that change at the Speedway kills traditions dating back to the track's creation in 1909. But he then conceded that ''the facility has got to be state-of-the-art as far as a standard for the whole world, and the changes have generally been for the better.''

Formula One, for its part, is working overtime to please the American fans. Five drivers including Michael Schumacher took time off from their schedules to visit the patients of a local children's hospital, while Eddie Irvine drove his Formula One car down Broadway in New York City and appeared on David Letterman's popular talk show.

But in Gasoline Alley, a block away from the Speedway, it is life as usual for the local race car builders and teams. Bill East, one of the country's greatest sprint car chassis builders, said he is only going to Sunday's race because his son Bobby, 15, has become a fan of Formula One. ''It is two different worlds,'' he said of Formula One and his form of racing, which is performed on both paved and dirt-surfaced oval tracks in single-seat, open-wheel cars with protective roll cages.

A block down the street from East's shop lies the temporary workshop of Mo Nunn Racing, a Champ Cars team, where Brad Filbey, the team manager, said he envies Formula One's commercial success and vision, but he does not care for the racing.

The general opinion is, if Formula One does succeed in Indianapolis it may then call itself a true world championship.

Jacques Villeneuve said this week that it was in winning the Indianapolis 500 that he managed to make it to Formula One. ''Frank Williams really started looking closely at me,'' he said, after he won the race in 1995. Villeneuve, a Canadian raised in Europe, is the closest thing to a local driver the crowd will have. And that, many say, is one of the main missing ingredients.

''If we had an American driver in Formula One it would generate more interest,'' said Gary Lee, a local broadcaster and owner of Whiteland Raceway Park, near Indianapolis, a favorite go-karting club. ''We know that people will come to the race this year because it's something new. But will they fill the place next year, and the year after that?''

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