As taps echoed throughout Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday, it was unclear for whom the bugle called. Was it mere pre-race ritual—after all, the Indianapolis 500 had been synonymous with Memorial Day weekend since 1911—or did the funereal notes sound for the race itself? For after being bruised and battered by a silly internecine war among the lords of American open-wheel racing, poor old Indy's reputation as the grandest automobile race in the world lay, if not dying, then certainly on life support.
The start of the 81st running of the 500 was twice postponed by rain, first on Sunday before drivers could even ignite their engines, and then on Monday, when they fired them up but saw the action halted after a mere 15 laps. This second postponement seemed more an act of mercy than of meteorology. All three cars in the fifth row of the grid were knocked out of the race when they crashed on the final warmup lap, and three other cars were forced out by blown engines before the red flag came out. As SI went to press on Monday night, the race was scheduled to be restarted on Tuesday—without those six cars.
Even before the rains fell, the Indianapolis 500 ranked third in quality among the three major oval-track races run during the weekend. Slightly ahead of it was last Saturday's Motorola 300 near St. Louis, the latest stop for the big names and technologically exotic cars of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), adrift in a second year of self-imposed exile from Indianapolis.
If you wanted to see the best auto racing America currently has to offer, with a wealth of charismatic drivers and high-quality machinery, the place to be was Charlotte Motor Speedway for Sunday evening's Coca-Cola 600. Although the rain-shortened race was called after 499.5 miles, it included 27 lead changes among 12 drivers. And as if decreed by the gods of promotion, it was won by NASCAR matinee idol Jeff Gordon—his fifth Winston Cup victory in 11 starts this season—in the dramatic fashion that has propelled NASCAR's surge in popularity.
Eighty-five miles into the race Gordon, the pole sitter, dropped to 32nd after his usually flawless crew bungled a pit stop by knocking the jack out from under his Chevrolet Monte Carlo while the tires were still off. He stood third when the race was halted after 292 miles for a 2½-hour rain delay—"halftime," Gordon called it—and when the competition resumed, he barreled his way to second place, right behind leader Rusty Wallace. The two played cat and mouse until Monday morning at 12:45, when NASCAR officials announced that the race would continue for only 20 more laps, or 30 miles. Gordon took the lead with 17 laps to go, as Wallace stalked him around Charlotte's high banks. But the 25-year-old star, his car throwing off a trail of sparks from a damaged fender, was able to hold Wallace off and take the checkered flag by less than half a second, to the delight of a capacity crowd of 150,000.
By finishing second, Wallace narrowly missed giving his boss, motor-sports magnate Roger Penske, victories in both of the weekend's non-Indy races. On Saturday, Paul Tracy had darted past rookie Patrick Carpentier with two laps to go to win the Motorola 300 in a Penske-owned car. It was Tracy's third consecutive win, and it set him high above his rivals in the CART point standings.
As thrilling as Sunday's race was, the Coca-Cola 600 isn't even the showcase event on NASCAR's burgeoning Winston Cup tour. That distinction belongs to February's Daytona 500 and—illustrative of the sea change in U.S. motor sports—the Brickyard 400, which has been held at Indianapolis each August since 1994 and arguably is already more popular with local racing fans than the 500. As one veteran T-shirt vendor said at a sodden Indy, "At the 500 they come to party. At NASCAR they come to watch the race."
The reason the Indy 500's reputation has been so tarnished? The Indy Racing League. The IRL, now in its second season, is the invention of Speedway president Tony George, who has tried to use the 500 as a lever—his controversial 25-8 qualifying rule guarantees 25 of Indy's usual 33 starting positions to IRL drivers, leaving only eight for other racers—to pry established teams loose from CART and over to his league. It hasn't worked, and the IRL is still populated mainly by no-name drivers on low-budget squads. The schism continues to drag down both forms of Indy car racing just as NASCAR continues its rapid rise.
Television ratings tell the story. So far this season CBS is averaging a 7.6 rating for its NASCAR telecasts, while ABC is averaging 1.8 for IRL races and 1.7 for CART events. The open-wheel race that drew the highest rating this year, before the 500, was CART's ABC-televised April 27 race at Nazareth, Pa., which had a 2.0 (and that was probably because the NASCAR race at Talladega, Ala., was rained out that day). NASCAR did more than four times better with its top-rated race, the Daytona 500, earning an 8.6 on CBS. Indy, easily ABC's top-rated open-wheel race each year, plunged from an 8.4 rating in 1995 to a 6.6 last year, when CART drivers first boycotted the race. That tied the lowest rating for the event in the past 25 years.
"Our cable TV ratings now are as good as those of any sport other than NFL football," boasts Steve Schiffman, a NASCAR vice president who runs the sanctioning body's recently opened New York marketing office. "In fact, we exceed the NBA regular-season ratings, though their playoffs outdo us. We are really the Number 2-rated regular-season sport, behind the NFL."