The fortunes of the Indy Racing League have brightened
considerably since the end of last season. In January the IRL
signed a five-year sponsorship deal worth more than $5 million
with Pep Boys, the auto-parts chain. Then, in last month's
season opener at Disney World Speedway, for the first time there
were more entrants than starting spots for a race other than the
Indy 500. Though it wouldn't be an IRL race without a slew of
crashesthere were nine at the Mickyard, as the Disney track is
knownno one was hurt in that race, thanks largely to tougher
car safety standards implemented this year. What's more, the
league has its first star driver in Tony Stewart, 26, the 1997
IRL champion who continued his winning ways in Orlando.
The only cloud in this otherwise sunny picture is that Stewart
is angling for a full-time ride on the NASCAR circuit next
season. "At the end of the year we're going to run him in three
or four Cup races, and next year he'll be full time with us in
Winston Cup," says car owner Joe Gibbs, for whom Stewart is
running Busch series races this year when they don't conflict
with IRL events.
"He's going to get offered a lot of money to drive in Winston
Cup," says IRL executive director Leo Mehl. "We would miss him,
but I think we have other Tony Stewarts here in our series." If
that's true, it would be even more good news for the IRL.
Issue date: February 23, 1998