In motor racing's inner circle, there was no holier term than "the Month of May," the protracted annual ritual of testing, practicing and qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. It was sacred not only to Indy car racers but also to their counterparts in NASCAR and Formula One. Richard Petty made regular pilgrimages to the Brickyard, and Junior Johnson visited, too, though neither ever drove or entered cars in the 500. Jean-Marie Balestre, president of FISA, the worldwide governing body of motor sports, stood in Indy's pits in 1991 and conceded, "This is the greatest race in the world."
Beginning next year, however, there will be no Month of May as we've known it. The time allotted to Indy 500 preparations will be cut nearly in half—from 17 days of on-track preparation in recent years to nine—by edict of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George. In cutting the schedule, George has admitted, however indirectly, that the 500 is no longer capable of holding fan interest over the course of the month. And the reason it can't is that the event has been gutted by the two-year conflict between George's Indy Racing League (IRL) and CART, the end of which is nowhere in sight.
But the cutback also comes in recognition of economic realities. For decades, drivers and team owners have grumbled that the long encampment in Indianapolis was too expensive. Whacking the schedule should help reduce costs, which was one of George's stated aims when he created the IRL.
Still it seems odd that the move has come from George, the same man who wrote a 2,000-word editorial in the Oct. 22, 1995, Indianapolis Star, reasserting the sanctity of the Month of May. In an open letter to the city, he claimed that CART teams, who before the split had urged him to reduce the May schedule, "would prefer to emasculate the Month of May.... I would be ashamed if we let that happen here. It would be an incalculable loss for both the world of racing and the local community." Now, just when tradition is about all the 500 has left to sell, George downsizes the event.
Tradition may not be the only casualty of the shorter schedule. With most of the top drivers aligned with CART, the 500 field is now filled with inexperienced and marginally qualified drivers—13 of the 35 who started the '97 race were rookies—who need all the practice running through the Brickyard's tricky corners and down the fast straightaways they can get.
Nevertheless, George says he wants to "restore the intensity" of the buildup to the 500. By cutting in half the Month of May, in all its anachronistic magnificence, you may look only half as bad, but you won't restore intensity. You just turn it into another race week in the Midwest.