Focus remains - mostly - on the track

The Cincinnati Enquirer

INDIANAPOLIS - Tony George did not gloat. He did not have to. He has reinvented the Indianapolis 500, suffered the repercussions, and endured to see his vision vindicated.

Another man might have been petty - other men were - but the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did not see much point in fueling the feud between oval racing's warring factions. He allowed Sunday's irony to speak for itself.

The Greatest Spectacle in Racing survived its rookie-dominated rebirth with few hitches and no hearses. Buddy Lazier beat Davy Jones to the finish line by .695 seconds in a race that included two lead changes on the last 12 laps. The widespread apprehension that preceded the big race proved misplaced. It belonged more properly in Michigan, where the world's most renowned drivers staged a splinter race (the U.S. 500) that could have passed for demolition derby.

As they say on the oval circuit, what goes around comes around. Tony George did not say that Sunday, but the sentiment fairly echoed around The Brickyard. Maybe Bud Light was on more lips, but not many.

''I think the good Lord has a way of leveling things out,'' said car owner Ron Hemelgarn. ''When you do things for greed and spite, it comes back to haunt you. I believe that. Usually, when you have that get-even attitude, you get even with yourself.''

Hemelgarn's joy in winning his first Indy 500 was barely greater than his pleasure in watching racing's supposed ''real stars'' stub the toes on their famous lead feet. The start of the U.S. 500 was repeated after a chain-reaction wreck forced much of the field into back-up cars. For Indy loyalists, these were moments of surpassing sweetness.

''For the world's greatest professional drivers, they sure made a lot of mistakes,'' crowed four-time Indy winner A.J. Foyt. ''Their rookies over there have outshined every one of them. I'm sick and tired of them running their mouth about how great they are. Almost every race they've had this year, there's been an accident on the first lap - and it wasn't the rookies. It didn't surprise me at all . . . They've made themselves look like fools as far as I'm concerned.''

Some of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) veterans who skipped Indianapolis this spring have alternately sneered at and expressed fear for the inexperienced drivers in George's Indy Racing League. With 17 rookies in Sunday's field, some of this was understandable. Rumor had it that the bottle of milk traditionally presented to the race winner would come equipped with a nipple.

Yet the kids immediately distinguished themselves, negotiating the treacherous first-lap turbulence without incident, and providing contenders throughout the afternoon. Pole-sitter Tony Stewart would lead 44 laps in his first Indy 500. Richie Hearn, another rookie, finished third.

''I think everyone who started the race was aware of the skepticism about their abilities,'' George said, ''and it was talked about all month in the drivers meetings . . . Everyone was very conscious of that, and they were trying to make a good start. I think they did a good job.

''It was a slow start, but all season long - all three races - they have proven that they are smart and capable race drivers. To some extent, I think that the pressure is on the CART series drivers, because everyone is talking about their abilities. When they make a misstep, to me it's almost unexpected, and unfortunately, this year, they have made a few that one wouldn't normally expect.''

This was as close as George came Sunday to partaking in the continuing pettiness between the rival circuits. A wise move, that one. The high-risk nature of auto racing should act as a buffer against undue belligerence. The death of driver Scott Brayton is only the most recent reminder that triumph is a temporary condition.

In a saner sport, Sunday's developments might force the rival circuits to seek middle ground. But Ron Hemelgarn doubts the two sides will reach a reconciliation. He predicts some drivers and teams will run a mix of IRL and CART races, but that the two camps will never reach a compromise. Hard feelings have been allowed to fester.

''I'm sure each one of those (U.S. 500) drivers wished they could be here, and I believe if they were here, we could have beaten them,'' Hemelgarn said. ''Anyone who would say this wasn't a good race and not a very competitive race would be an ass.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published May 27, 1996.