The Indy car racing civil war is not over, but its battle of Gettysburg has been fought—and Indianapolis held its ground.
Going into Sunday's clash between traditional and upstart races, the 80th Indianapolis 500 and the first U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George had conceded, "It's a crucial day for us." The world would be watching to see whether Indy, the greatest motor race of them all, could withstand a boycott by Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART), which had most of the sport's top drivers on its side. "But," George had said, "I doubt that a clear winner will be declared at the end of the day."
For certain, at the end of the day there was a clear loser in the feud between George and CART team owners over long-term control of the sport. The rebels took a pratfall when 12 cars piled up approaching the starting line. This was enormously embarrassing to CART, which had predicted cataclysm at Indy. Seventeen rookie drivers, the most to start in an Indy 500 since 1930, were in the 33-car starting grid at the famed Brickyard, but that motley field did all right. There were only two accidents of a serious nature—the most spectacular on the final lap, when only nine cars were still running—and no life-threatening injuries.
A no-name, Buddy Lazier, won Indy, and his performance was gutsier than that of Jimmy Vasser—hardly a household name himself—who won at Michigan, where CART had advertised "the stars and cars of Indianapolis" would be running. If the opinion of Indy loyalist A.J. Foyt is correct ("It's Indianapolis that makes the stars, not the drivers who make Indianapolis") then Lazier has a better shot at stardom than Vasser.
Because he was still recovering from 16 fractures and 25 chips in his lower backbone and tailbone, suffered in a crash at Phoenix in March, Lazier drove the 200 laps at Indianapolis in awful pain. "A month ago I could barely walk on crutches," he said on Sunday, after winning his first Indy car race. Lazier had to be lifted gingerly from his car in Victory Lane, but the tough erstwhile skier from Vail, Colo., tried hard not to flinch.
Later on Sunday, in the U.S. 500, Vasser drove with egg on his face, for it was he who pulled the boneheaded move that initiated the opening melee. Because the crash happened before the start, the filthy-rich CART teams gave themselves a multimillion-dollar Mulligan. All 12 of the drivers involved in the mess got the option of casting aside their wrecked half-million-dollar vehicles and using their backup cars for a restart.
Though the U.S. 500 win was Vasser's fourth victory this season, aficionados of Indy car racing suspect that he is a passenger on a guided missile, a Reynard car powered by a Honda engine that is uncatchable—unless the driver screws up. Well....
As the pole sitter, all Vasser had to do was step on the accelerator and keep his car in line. Instead, he did the worst thing imaginable for a pole sitter: He drifted to the right and got tangled up with No. 2 qualifier Adrian Fernandez coming out of Turn 4, spinning both cars to the right. Vasser then took out the third front-row starter, Bryan Herta, and both cars spun violently into the wall. "it was pretty stupid," said Mauricio Gugelmin, who wound up finishing second in the race. "Jimmy Vasser got a little out of shape." Nine more cars collided as they tried to avoid the wreckage. Vasser and eight other drivers switched to their backup cars, while three others made repairs. Fernandez then scratched completely after his team couldn't get its backup running.
As for the handful of bona fide star drivers at Michigan, such as Michael Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr., they were not factors—no more than they would have been factors at Indy had all been rosy in the sport. They don't have Honda power, which has made a joke of CART "competition."
Somewhat to his credit, Vasser did not override his guidance systems once the race finally got started. He chased his rabbit teammate. Alessandro Zanardi, for half of the 500 miles and then took the lead for good on the 241st of 250 laps after Andre Ribeiro ran out of gas coming out of Turn 4. This was typical of a day in which mechanical and tactical failures, rather than passing skills, were largely responsible for changes at or near the top. Only 11 out of the original 27 cars were running when the race concluded.