Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, May 22, 1998

Twin Peaks of Auto-Racing Season

On Sunday, It's the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The two most famous motor races in the world take place back to back on Sunday on two different continents. Although the cars look almost the same, the two races are a study in contrasts.

The first runs through the twisty streets of a picturesque tourist resort on an escarpment overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Less than two hours after that race finishes, the second will be run on an oval-shaped track in a Midwestern U.S. city on flat land, with a clump of downtown skyscrapers surrounded by suburban sprawl as a backdrop.

The Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 are the two peaks of the single-seat, open-wheel racing season. But while the sport has never been more popular, a third race Saturday, the Champ Car meeting formerly IndyCar the Motorola 300, in Madison, Illinois, is a reminder that the sport has problems.

The Indianapolis 500 runs under the auspices of the Indy Racing League, which was started in 1996 by Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. George, 38, is the grandson of Tony Hulman who bought the Speedway in 1945 for $750,000 and turned it into a multimillion dollar family empire.

''Just the fact that this is the 82d running of the Indianapolis 500, and its great history and tradition, allows it to enjoy the success it does,'' George said. ''Monaco, with its history and tradition and the great names that have raced and won there in the past, has a lot of the same qualities.''

But in 1994, when George announced his intention to create his new series whose crown-jewel race would be the Indy 500, the people at Championship Auto Racing Teams, or CART, IndyCar's sanctioning body, thought he was playing with history. The Indianapolis 500 had been the premier IndyCar race for over 20 years, so CART, which is still the world's top oval racing formula, decided to pull out and create its own 500-mile (800-kilometer) race in Michigan.

''The sport's domination by the Indy 500 slowed its development,'' said Andrew Craig, the chief executive of CART. ''You had this one big race that dominated the whole year, and it wasn't very clear to the fans as consumers what was important. Was it important to win the championship? To win the Indy 500? The Indianapolis 500 almost consumed the sport of open-wheel racing.''

In 1996, CART staged the Michigan 500 at the same time as the Indianapolis 500. The older race won the battle for attention with a more exciting and dramatic race. CART has since scheduled its Michigan race later in the season. The Motorola 300 on Saturday is just another of its series of 19 races.

In 1995, the last time the Indy 500 and the Grand Prix of Monaco ran on the same day, the winner of Indy was Jacques Villeneuve, the future Formula One champion. Villeneuve grew up in Monaco and is there again this week as a member of the Williams team. He said before the 1995 Indy race that he would rather be in Indianapolis than Monaco.

After that race he said, ''To win it is as big as winning the championship. If you have a choice of one race to win, make sure it's the 500.''

In his two races at Monaco, in 1996 and 1997, he has fared poorly. Part of the problem is the nature of the track. Villeneuve is a specialist on the kind of wide fast corners featured at Indy. Monaco favors drivers who are like slalom skiers and can negotiate the tight corners through the twisty city circuit.

Formula One has its own problems, and Monaco may magnify them. Five different drivers won the first five CART races this year. In Formula One, McLaren cars have won four out of the first five, lapping just about everyone. Monaco, for all it's historical glory the race started in 1929 risks being another walkover if a McLaren gets the pole position, since the track is the best example of what's wrong with Formula One: it is hard to overtake.

Max Mosley, president of the International Automobile Federation, Formula One's governing body, said this was not a flaw. ''People like this stalking, waiting, and then he goes for it,'' he said. ''Rather than constant overtaking. It's a little bit like the difference between soccer and basketball. You don't get goalless draws in basketball. And in most soccer matches, there's one or two goals in the whole one and a half hours. A goal is a big event. In basketball, you get more than a hundred, and it's not a big event.''

At Monaco, fans usually have to wait a long time for a goal. But history shows the race is usually won by only the greatest drivers. Graham Hill dominated in the 1960s with five victories. From 1984 to 1993, only two drivers won Ayrton Senna six times, and Alain Prost four. Since then, Michael Schumacher's winning streak there has been interrupted only by Olivier Panis's victory in 1996 in the rain.

Whatever their problems may be, each series is inescapably international in nature. The Formula One season includes races on five continents. CART this year held its first race in Japan, and also stages races in Brazil, Australia, and Canada. IRL races only in the U.S., but most of the cars are made by the Italian company, Dallara. Most CART cars are British built.

George said he created the IRL partly to give more chance to American drivers. Only a third of CART drivers are American, while two-thirds are American in IRL.

''There was never an opportunity for young American drivers who had come up through the ranks,'' he said. ''It became very important for the driver to bring money. And a lot of the European and South American drivers would be able to bring money. I just wanted to create more of an opportunity, but not to the exclusion of any other drivers or of any other country.''


IN THE 1950s, Formula One drivers who drove at Indy gained world championship points. George is negotiating with Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's commercial promoter, to hold a U.S. Grand Prix at the Indy 500 track. This would mean using only part of the oval, and building the rest of the track in the infield.

The CART race Saturday will reach over 60 million viewers in 180 countries. Its races draw about 1 billion viewers annually. Formula One claims a total of 5 billion for its season. The IRL series is not a big draw, but the Indianapolis 500 will attract 110 million viewers.

The Indianapolis 500 is also a huge draw at the track, attracting close to 400,000 spectators.

Rhys Jones, a fan who lives in Indianapolis, said that local residents ''see it as their civic duty to fill the stands.''

Ticket sales have been down since CART's withdrawal, but that means that instead of having to pay scalpers two to three times their value, fans can get tickets when they want them.

''Which, to me, is progress,'' Jones said.

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