Others in the alliance won't speak on the record out of fear that even the best-intended remarks might offend the volatile George and inadvertently undermine negotiations. Even France was walking on eggshells last weekend and would say only, "It would be premature for me to comment on this matter."
For those who understand Francespeak, premature says volumes about what's going on. In the past France has maintained that open-wheel racing was none of his business, though he had given tacit support to the IRL because of its low-budget, grassroots philosophy that was akin to NASCAR's. Now, industry sources say, France is "on the same page" with high-powered, corporate-oriented CART, especially after ISC recently purchased four tracks on which CART races are run annually. With 34 races already crammed into NASCAR's Winston Cup schedule—14 of which are run at France's facilities—he's looking for additional events to increase his tracks' earning power. Open-wheel racing could fill that bill at all of his venues except Daytona and Talladega, where the sleek Indy cars would be too fast to race safely.
But what France doesn't want is rival open-wheel organizations splintering the fan base. He and Penske visited George two weeks ago during Indy 500 practice. There was also a series of meetings between George and CART CEO Andrew Craig.
"I don't think anything substantive was addressed," says George. "As long as we have different philosophies, we're never going to strike any kind of accord. Nothing came out of those conversations that would lead me to believe that we're any closer to sharing a philosophy."
"I'm not sure that's really what Tony is thinking," said Penske, who described the meetings as "genuine" and "positive."
Others interpreted George's apparent intractability as posturing, an effort to keep his house-of-cards IRL together. The league has, at best, an estimated $50 million in annual sponsorship, compared to CART's more than $400 million.
Nevertheless, the alliance is paying homage to George, who inherited his power base—the Brickyard, racing's most hallowed ground—from his grandfather, Tony Hulman. CART appears ready to make huge concessions, including accepting the formation of one sanctioning body ruled by a France-like czar and joining with its auto industry backers and George to design a new, mutually agreeable, version of the Indy car. Says Penske, "We'd be prepared to put something on the table that would be rational, easy to do—and everybody would win."
Dale Jr.'s Debut
Finishing a Sweet 16th
Moments before the drivers in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 were introduced at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, Dale Earnhardt looked over at his 24-year-old son, Dale Jr., who was making his Winston Cup debut. The father could tell that, after months of hype leading up to what promoters were calling E day, the kid needed something to break the prerace tension. So the old man, a seven-time Winston Cup champ, walked over, elbowed Dale Jr. in the ribs and asked him if he wanted an autograph.
From then on, the younger Earnhardt was loose, though he proceeded with caution once the race began. The defending Busch Grand National champion who had qualified eighth (seven spots in front of his dad) for the 600, Dale Jr. fell to 15th after just two laps and was never a factor. (He even had trouble locating his pit stall during the first yellow flag.) He suffered pangs of self-doubt and a few lapses in concentration but, once he settled in, raced his Chevy Monte Carlo well enough to move up four spots between laps 220 and 300. He finished 16th, three laps behind winner Jeff Burton, and gave himself a C for his debut. "At first I was just trying to get out of everybody's way and not make a fool of myself," Dale Jr. said. "Anytime you get a big promotion, you want to show people you deserved it."