Work in Sports
Shot in the arm
Ganassi, Unser providing old excitement at Indy
Posted: Sunday May 28, 2000 03:07 AM
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The buzz is back at Indy.
Is it enough to restore prestige to what was once the most famous race in the world? Maybe not.
But after four years of no-name drivers, dwindling interest and sinking TV ratings, the seemingly dying old girl of auto racing has new life.
That's because the lineup for the 84th running of the Indianapolis 500 Sunday will include two-time champion Al Unser Jr., who is back after a five-year absence; two drivers for Chip Ganassi's team, the champions of the rival CART series; and 19-year-old Sarah Fisher, the youngest driver in the field and only the third woman to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Indy's loss of luster can be traced to 1996, when speedway president Tony George created the Indy Racing League as a lower-cost, all-oval alternative to the established Championship Auto Racing Teams.
Since then, CART's big-name teams and drivers, and most of its big-dollar sponsors, have stayed away from what immediately became the centerpiece event of the new league.
An event that had filled hotels and restaurants, and created an annual month-long buzz in Indianapolis suddenly was viewed by many as just another race.
“Yeah, it's just like every other race that has 400,000 people in the stands, 90 years of history and pays $9.5 million,” said Brian Barnhart, director of racing operations for the IRL.
But even Barnhart agreed that the return of popular two-time champion Unser, the appearance of Ganassi drivers Juan Montoya, the CART champion, and Jimmy Vasser, is a big plus.
“Everybody is happy that Al is back because the Unser family is a huge part of the history of the speedway, and the Ganassi team is the best open-wheel team of the past decade and they're here racing with our IRL guys on a level playing field,” Barnhart said.
Eddie Cheever, a former Formula One and CART competitor who became an owner-driver in the IRL, also welcomes the Ganassi team.
“Now the best that the other series has to offer is competing in our race, and that's a lot of fun,” the 1998 Indy winner said. “I have a lot of respect for them coming over here. Indy is a very hard race to win, much less dominate. They have dominated everything they've done. We'll see if that applies here.”
Unser, who won here in 1992 and 1994, failed to qualify for the 1995 race and has spent the past four years in CART, away from his family's beloved Indy.
“It left a hole in my heart to not be here,” Unser said. “Now I feel like I'm breathing again.”
Unser will start 18th Sunday. He is coming off a victory last month in Las Vegas -- his first IRL win and first of any kind in five years.
On his first day back at Indy, Unser got a standing ovation every time he appeared on pit road. The response hasn't died down much since.
The arrival of Ganassi's team, winners of a record four straight CART titles, is at least as significant as Unser's return.
The IRL and CART require entirely different chassis and engines, and although an initiative to unify the series fell apart last summer, CART decided to open the door for its teams to return to the speedway.
The weekend of Indy time trials and the race were left open on the CART schedule, although a snowed-out race in Nazareth, Pa., was rescheduled for Saturday long after Ganassi and fellow CART owner Derrick Walker had committed to Indy.
Ganassi's arrival made the most impact, since he brought Montoya and 1996 series champion Vasser, while Walker is running the entire IRL schedule with Fisher.
“We've been working very hard,” Ganassi said. “I've been asking a lot of these guys and, this isn't an easy place a lot of times. But I'm finding it enjoyable. I'm glad we're here.”
Ganassi, who was co-owner of the winning team in 1989 when Emerson Fittipaldi took the checkered flag, would be even happier if Montoya or Vasser could overcome the logistical disadvantage of racing 225 miles Saturday in Nazareth, then win here on Sunday.
“Every driver that isn't here that's on the CART circuit would like to be here,” Vasser said. “This is the biggest motor race, it's a fantastic facility, it's got great history and it's the Indianapolis 500, so I have yearned to be here all along.”
Fisher, who has run in only two previous IRL events, probably won't contend Sunday. But her confident, charismatic presence, combined with a strong qualifying effort - four laps averaging 220.237 mph - has made her an instant Indy favorite with fans and drivers.
“She has one hell of a competitive spirit,” Cheever said. “She's a real racer and she’s going to be good.”
For Fisher, who follows Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James onto the 21/2-mile speedway oval, arriving at Indy is simply the next step in her development.
“I don't even think about that issue,” she said when asked about being a woman in what has been a man's sport. “I'm a race car driver.”
She's also the third youngest starter in Indy history - behind Josele Garza and Troy Ruttman. St. James, who will be in the race for the seventh time, is the oldest driver, 53.
With Kenny Brack, last year's winner while driving for A.J. Foyt's team, racing in CART, the top contenders from the IRL roster include Unser; defending IRL champion and pole-winner Greg Ray and his teammate Robby Gordon; Cheever; two-time Indy runner-up Scott Goodyear; and Foyt's three entries of Eliseo Salazar, Jeff Ward and Billy Boat.
“You can't say who the favorite is,” Ray said. “You have too many good teams and good drivers.”
John Menard, owner of the car entered for Ray and Gordon, has been coming here since 1979 with strong cars and good drivers and has yet to win the big race.
He came close last year when Gordon led with six turns remaining only to run out of fuel and finish fourth.
Menard remains optimistic about his team's chances and is pumped up over the direction the race has taken this month.
“The momentum is building again to make this a really exciting event Sunday,” Menard said.