Monday, May 29, 2000

IRL embarrassment to Speedway




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        INDIANAPOLIS — It was a good day for gloating. A good day to cackle. A good day to crow.

        Juan Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 on his first try Sunday afternoon, and he won it so easily that it was hardly a race. The moonlighting CART champion mauled his purported rivals from the Indy Racing League and he must have mortified IRL founder Tony George.

        Right or wrong, fair or unfounded, Montoya's victory reinforces the notion that the IRL is a second-tier circuit that diminishes Indianapolis' stature as the Mecca of Motorsports.

        The truth is not nearly that simple, but politics are mainly about perception. A CART driver dominating the Indy 500 has to be as galling to Tony George as the American colonists were to King George III. Empire- builders don't much like being embarrassed.

        Yet there was no above-board way to stop Montoya Sunday afternoon at The Brickyard. He pushed his Target/Chip Ganassi car to limits his competitors could not approach, and would lead 167 of the 200 laps. Seven laps from the finish, Montoya and teammate Jimmy Vasser were running first and second.

        Vasser subsequently slipped to seventh place because of fuel problems, but

        the CART team clearly outclassed its competition.

        IYF, IRL. In Your Face.

        “We're not here with a CART banner or anything like that,” Montoya insisted. “I look at myself like any other driver out there.”

        The fact is that this guy is special. Juan Montoya won seven races on the CART circuit last season, claiming the series championship at the age of 24. His victory Sunday made the Colombian driver the first Indy rookie to take the checkered flag since Graham Hill did it in 1966. Montoya's talent and Ganassi's financial and technical backing have produced a powerhouse on par with Roger Penske's operation during the Rick Mears era.

        Given his ability and his advantages, you would expect Juan Montoya to win on anything with wheels — CART, IRL, Soap Box Derby, you name it.

        “That kid,” said IRL loyalist A.J. Foyt, “is a hell of a race driver.”

        “Montoya wins wherever he goes,” said Jeff Ward, who finished fourth. “Montoya had a victory over everybody today, but we (the IRL) saved face because Buddy (Lazier) did a good job.”

        Lazier, who won the watered-down 500 of 1996, finished second by slightly more than seven seconds, and wondered if he might have won had the IRL drivers conspired to block Montoya as effectively as they blocked him.

        “I kind of hoped the IRL guys would stick together,” Lazier said. “He (Montoya) would be able to get a run on them and be able to pass. I got hung up a couple of times ...The difference was just getting bottled up in traffic.”

        The IRL was founded on the principle of parity: com parable equipment, similar budgets, equal access to technology. The CART camp allows for more spending disparity. Comparisons, inevitably, are unflattering. Sunday's race is sure to skew them further in favor of CART.

        “Everyone is interested in the political side of things,” Ganassi said. “And I'm not. This is still the biggest race in the world, and this is the biggest win in the world.”

        CART owners voted before their season to leave this weekend open to allow its teams to pursue racing's biggest prize. Indy is not what it once was, but it is still Indy.

        “IRL is taking off,” Buddy Lazier said. “It's really grown. The whole philosophy is that you can buy a car, buy a motor and put it together and be competitive. You know you are on a level playing field. Anybody can win.”

        The IRL's idea is that everyone should be equal. Juan Montoya happens to be a little more equal than others.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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