Last Sunday in Atlanta, at the second Indy-car event ever conducted by Championship Auto Racing Teams, Inc., even the winning team couldn't get very excited over victory. Tyler Alexander, manager of Team McLaren, which owns the car driven by Johnny Rutherford that won both 125-mile races of the Gould Twin Dixie, said that it certainly wasn't like winning the Indianapolis 500. As a matter of fact, just 36 hours before, Alexander had learned that his chances of seeing his car rolling onto Victory Lane at the Speedway this year may have been reduced to zero. That was when he opened a Mailgram that read: "Your entry...in the 83rd Annual 500-Mile International Sweepstakes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway scheduled for Sunday May 27, 1979 is refused by the United States Auto Club, the Organizing Committee, because you are not in good standing with USAC."
There was more, such as the news that the $1,000 entry fee per car would be returned, but that opening sentence really said it all. What happened was that after five months of fairly gentle pushing and shoving over who is going to control Indy-car racing, USAC had taken out a tire iron and clobbered its rival, CART, upside the head. Whether the young splinter group has enough resources to pick itself up off the garage floor and continue the fight remains to be seen.
Indeed, the question of whether Indy-car racing, be it conducted under USAC's or CART's auspices, can survive this bareknuckle boardroom brawling is almost as chancy a proposition. In addition to Rutherford, a two-time winner of the 500, drivers such as Al Unser (three Indy victories), his brother Bobby (two), Gordon Johncock (one) and Rick Mears (who qualified in the front row at the Speedway last year as a rookie) now also find themselves without rides for this year's "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" because the owners of their cars received identical rejections last Friday morning.
Probably the only driver who can see any joy in this situation is A. J. Foyt, who was physically far removed from the action last weekend overseeing the training of his string of thoroughbreds in Kentucky. But the 44-year-old four-time Indy 500 winner is probably the biggest drawing card in racing, and as such he is very much a part of the controversy. In November, Foyt defected from USAC to CART, only to have a change of heart. He returned to USAC in February, saying, "I left because the original goals of CART have changed and I don't like some of the politics that's been played. They used me to get CART formed, and now there are only one or two guys doing all the talking. They're on an ego trip and want to conquer the racing world, but I have no desire to do that."
Certainly Foyt's chances of an unprecedented fifth Indy 500 have not been harmed by the new developments. Johncock, a staunch CART backer, said, "They [USAC] are going to do anything to let him win. He saved them...." In fact, the CART drivers' reactions to Foyt's decision are as vehement as the owners' to USAC's. "Let them have their chicken-feed race," said Johnny Rutherford. "Let Foyt win his fifth Indy. Then maybe he'll announce his retirement in Victory Circle. Then we'll be rid of him."
As things stand, no other previous Indy winner will challenge A.J. at Indy, nor will last year's USAC point champion, Tom Sneva. Until last week Sneva had been actively trying to bring the two sides together. Now, with the polarizing effect of the Mailgrams delivered at Atlanta, Sneva appears to have given up that role, although the owner of his car, Jerry O'Connell, has not had his entry rejected. Sneva has indicated he would stay in the CART camp. The same is true for Danny Ongais, who led much of last year's 500. Ongais had remained aloof from the bickering, despite the fact that he had been offered a post on CART's board of directors. But as of last weekend he, too, intimated that he would be sticking with CART whatever might happen between now and May 5, when the Speedway opens for practice.
That figures to be plenty—and plenty costly for both sides. On the same evening the Mailgrams were delivered, CART President Pat Patrick announced at a press conference, at which CART lawyer John Frasco was present, that "We will explore every legal avenue and take whatever steps are necessary to race at Indianapolis."
At stake is more than the glory, or even the nearly quarter of a million dollar purse, that comes with winning the 500. Indy-car racing is a very big business, and how that business is being run is what started this acrimonious dispute. A competitive 1979 model Indy car costs $135,000, and the operating expenses for a season approach $1 million, what with crew salaries, travel costs and the inevitable expense of replacing blown engines at $35,000 per copy.
Last year Jim Hall's Chaparral, driven by Al Unser, won not only the Indy 500 but also USAC's two other 500-mile races, at Ontario, Calif. and Pocono, Pa. "Our team won more money than any other team in the history of motor racing—over half a million dollars—yet we lost money," says Hall. "Heck, all the owners lose money. But look at the Indianapolis Speedway. It's done nothing but prosper for the last 30 years."
It was recently pointed out by Robin Miller, a sportswriter for the Indianapolis Star and sometime USAC midget driver, that while top ticket prices at the Speedway have gone from $35 to $55 in the last five years, the Speedway's contribution to the purse has dropped from $877,500 to $873,250. This from a total take from the month (including practice and four days of qualifying) that Miller estimates to be as high as $20 million.