Attendance, too, is off at the Brickyard. May 10 saw the lightest Indy pole-day crowd in 51 years, only about 35,000. Even some IRL drivers said privately that qualifying was boring this year because virtually all IRL teams were assured starting spots. On Sunday and Monday scalpers, who as recently as 1995 demanded three times face value for tickets, were glad to get less than half the official price. They .didn't take the bath they did last year, however; they had bought blocks of tickets at steep discounts from corporate junketeers who had decided to stay away from the race.
CART teams shunned Indy mainly for technical reasons. Before the IRL season began, George had mandated drastically different car and engine specifications from those employed by CART. The goal was to slash the cost of racing in the IRL series and "to keep the Indianapolis 500 accessible—not out of the reach of anybody who had it as a goal," says George, who felt that the price of racing an Indy car had been getting out of hand (chart, page 30).
The IRL specs outlaw the expensive, turbocharged engines CART uses and require that cars be reconfigured to make them simpler and cheaper. George claims those changes put more emphasis on the talent of the drivers and less on that of the engineers. "They want to take Indy car racing back to the 1960s, back to the days of backyard mechanics," complains Carl Haas, who with his partner, actor Paul Newman, fields CART cars for Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi. Some CART drivers expressed concerns about the safety of the new IRL cars. They noted that one consequence of reconfiguring the design was to reduce ground effects, the aerodynamic properties that help prevent cars from becoming airborne.
At Indy qualifying and in two previous events, the engines in the new IRL cars proved unreliable. Not only were the Oldsmobile-and Nissan-built power plants in short supply, but they were also blowing too often for comfort. That led to fears that only a handful of cars would finish this year's 500. When the engines on three cars quit before 37 miles had been run on Monday, those fears seemed well-founded.
George's chief lieutenant, IRL director Leo Mehl, categorized the glitches as startup pains. "We've been running these cars and engines for four months, and we're having problems you would expect from such new equipment," Mehl says.
NASCAR's biggest problem lately has been handling the traffic in and out of its races. Stock car racing aficionados are growing not only in number (the 31 Winston Cup races last year drew 5.6 million spectators, up from 5.5 million in '95) but also in diversity—geographic and ethnic. "NASCAR is booming in leaps and bounds," says Julius Erving, basketball Hall of Famer Dr. J, who-announced last week that he and former NFL running back Joe Washington will field a Winston Cup team next year. Adds Washington, "After you attend one of these events, there's no way for you not to be a fan. If there's a NASCAR event on TV, there's no way I can walk past it. It's as if Lawrence Taylor jumped in front of me and tackled me. I stop dead."
Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler agrees that the sport has tremendous visceral appeal. "A lot of people are very, very mistaken in thinking that the more complicated you make a car, the more Americans are going to love it," he says. "They don't care what's under that sheet metal. All they want inside is a hero. Here we've got an all-steel car. Is it primitive? Good lord, yes! But it's cheap, and it puts on a great show."
As a rule, marquee NASCAR drivers earn less, starting at about $750,000, than their CART counterparts (but more than IRL drivers). But NASCAR drivers usually more than make up the difference in prize money, endorsements and licensing fees for souvenirs and apparel. Dale Earnhardt's agent, Don Hawk, estimates Jeff Gordon's salary at about $2 million. But Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford, says the wunderkind's overall annual income is between $10 million and $15 million.
It's worth noting that when Gordon was a boy, his family relocated from their native Vallejo, Calif., to the Indianapolis area in the hope of getting young Jeff, then a dirt-track-racing phenom, a ride in an Indy car. Jeff made inquiries to several teams in the Indy Lights series, a minor league version of the big open-wheel events, but was rebuffed. "They basically said, 'Show us the money and we'll show you the seat,' " Gordon said in the wee hours on Monday at Charlotte. But Gordon does not regret ending up in NASCAR rather than open-wheel racing. "I'm much happier here than I would ever have been there," said Gordon. "People give you an opportunity in NASCAR."
The trend of top young drivers' moving from open-wheel to stock car racing is another indicator of dramatic change. Tony Stewart is widely called the IRLs poster boy because, at 26, he is the best result so far of George's efforts to bring young American drivers off the down-home dirt tracks and up to Indy. (Stewart, starting from the second spot, led all 15 laps of Monday's truncated race.) But beginning next year, Stewart will also drive a busy schedule in NASCAR's version of Triple A baseball, the Busch Grand National Series. "I think it's pretty evident that NASCAR racing is where the popularity is," says Stewart.