Tuesday, May 27, 1997
Drivers' spat only excitement

The Cincinnati Enquirer

INDIANAPOLIS - The Greatest Spectacle In Racing right now would be sunshine.

Two days of downpours have robbed the Indianapolis 500 of its prime place on Memorial Day weekend, and have sent it into the work week to compete with today's soaps. Monday's second try was stopped by showers after 15 laps, leaving the 500-mile race 462 1/2 miles from resolution.

And yet it is possible to report some real progress at The Brickyard. Amid all the confounded rain, it is finally possible to perceive some fire.

Arie Luyendyk and Tony Stewart, front row rivals at Monday's start, were working on a serious spat by afternoon's end. The fledgling Indy Racing League, which has so far suffered in charisma comparisons with the rival CART circuit, may be on to something here. To wit: If you can't sell your competition, sell your conflict.

Stewart was openly annoyed at Luyendyk's gamesmanship during Monday's pace lap, and then plainly delighted in passing him in the first turn. Stewart leads the 500 after 15 laps, and Luyendyk will be on his tailpipe for the race's restart. The scheduled resumption of their hostilities will likely be witnessed by a small audience this afternoon, but it may well be worth setting the VCR.

''He's trying to play hardball with a guy who plays hardball 106 days a year instead of five times a year,'' Stewart said of Luyendyk. ''It's like BSing a BSer.''

Heavy steering, heavy words

Stewart was steamed by Luyendyk's heavy-handed steering as the cars prepared for Monday's start. Motorsports convention calls for drivers to establish lanes on the pace lap, preliminary to taking the green flag. Stewart claimed Luyendyk, starting from the pole, instead tried to improve his position by weaving toward him.

The dispute may not have been crucial to the competition - the green flag was delayed by a crash that would wipe out the whole fifth row - but the hard feelings were still festering when Stewart awoke from his rain delay nap.

''It was definitely a psyche job,'' Stewart said of Luyendyk's maneuvers. ''I hadn't planned on leading early, really, but it kinda made me mad, so I wanted to make him pay.''

''How did you catch him?'' Stewart was asked.

''Pretty easily,'' he said, sardonically, ''and very quickly.''

Luyendyk declined an invitation to meet the press after the race was postponed. He responded instead, through, a publicist. This was unfortunate, for the IRL can use all the hype its drivers can create. This is a racing series that desperately needs more anger and less apathy.

''I don't know what he's reacting to,'' Luyendyk said. ''He (Stewart) feels he's right in what he's saying and obviously I don't agree. I was on the pole here before and I was pinched in Turn 4, almost down to the grass, and I wasn't going to let that happen again. At the same time, I didn't put them (Stewart and Vicenzo Sospiri) in a bad position.''

Controversy would help IRL

When Speedway President Tony George introduced the IRL as a means to cut costs and eliminate the growing elitism within motorsports, he began with the premise that the Indy 500 was the perfect vehicle for change. Indy is a stage so big, IRL backers figured, that whoever could win the race would automatically attain automotive celebrity. If the IRL could not immediately match CART's stable of stars, it would create its own.

The concept made some sense, but early returns have not been reassuring. Racing fans didn't embrace Buddy Lazier upon his Indy victory last year, and attendance levels at The Brickyard suggest a need for other solutions.

Luyendyk and Stewart may be the IRL's best shot. Luyendyk is the only driver in this year's field who has won the 500 against the cream of CART. Stewart is a local prodigy from Rushville, Ind., who might still be stuck racing midgets if it weren't for the opportunities afforded by the IRL.

These are the two most compelling figures on the IRL circuit, and therefore the best candidates for a blood feud. Though Stewart eventually declared the dispute ''a dead issue'' Monday, he did not retract his earlier remarks.

Stay tuned.