INDIANAPOLIS - Tony George has tinkered too much with the Indianapolis 500. He has achieved parity at the expense of popularity, tightening the race while loosening its grip on the automotive public.
Indy has never been more competitive or less compelling than beneath the umbrella of George's Indy Racing League. It remains the largest one-day event in American sport, but erosion is evident. The Greatest Spectacle In Racing has recently been stuck in reverse.
Speeds were down dramatically during Saturday's qualifying at The Brickyard. Arie Luyendyk won the pole at 218.263 miles per hour, more than 18 mph slower than he qualified last year. Yet outside the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, cars were moving at a record pace.
Half an hour before the first run at the pole, drivers accustomed to gridlock on Georgetown Rd. were turning left without lifting off the accelerator. There were enough empty seats along the Speedway's front straightaway to accommodate entire cities.
Race day, May 25, is still a sellout, but local scalpers have slashed their prices to roughly half the rate of two years ago. Corporate sponsors, forced to choose between George's league and the more glamorous CART circuit, have reportedly spent $387 million on Roger Penske & Friends compared to $30 million for IRL teams. If Tony George is on the right track, it is to ruin.
George had the right idea when he decided to limit costs on chassis and engines before last year's race. His announced intent was to reduce the disparity of resources among teams and to emphasize driving instead of engineering - worthy goals, those - but his implementation was clumsy.
In reserving 25 of Indy's 33 starting positions for IRL regulars, George alienated many of his most powerful allies. The CART teams, which included most of the richer operations and renowned drivers, went into direct competition with Indy. Their common cause - open-wheel racing - has been compromised.
Television ratings are down, and attendance has atrophied. The Indianapolis Star estimated Saturday's crowd at 35,000, the smallest pole day turnout at Indy since Tony Hulman bought the neglected track in 1945. The message in this ought to be unmistakeable.
"This is the greatest race in the world," driver Jim Guthrie said Saturday. "Why not have the greatest drivers in the world?" To do so, George needs to reach some kind of compromise with CART, to bring Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti back to The Brickyard. He should recognize this is both the right and the smart thing to do. He should place his profit motive ahead of his pride.
He will have that chance Friday, when the IRL reveals its rules for next year's 500. If George reduces the number of starting spots reserved for IRL drivers and - or expands the starting grid beyond 33 cars, he would likely win back his biggest gate attractions and eliminate a rival race. (The CART drivers will compete May 24 near St. Louis, a day before the 500.)
"There's nothing keeping them away today," George said at a pole week press conference. "I know I've had several conversations with Al (Unser) Jr., particularly, and he's expressed a lot of his personal feelings to me. And I know there are others out there who feel like they want to be back at Indianapolis.
"I think in the future we will have Indy-only teams, and many of those teams may be what are considered CART teams today. But we welcome anybody who wants to come run here."
This was an encouraging statement in light of some recent rhetoric. Appearing on a local television show last week, A.J. Foyt characterized the CART camp as "a bunch of dogs." (A.J. is always entertaining, but he is not the man for a diplomatic mission.)
Most IRL loyalists are more conciliatory. Even though some of them have prospered because of the split, they can see that their main event has suffered. What they can't see, so easily, is a solution. "I don't expect it to happen anytime soon," Jim Guthrie said. "I don't know what the politics are to this thing. All I can do is hope that they work out something."