History takes a back seat to CastronevesWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Headlines in the Indianapolis Sunday Star were almost gruesome in nature.
One that definitely was an attention-grabber declared: “Throng Sees Necks And Marks Broken.” Another stated: “Three Lives Pay Price For Closing Auto Races.”
It obviously wasn’t a recent edition of the newspaper that chronicled every wheel of fortune and those of misfortune at the infamous Indianapolis Motor Speedway, fondly christened the, “Brickyard.”
No, the dateline read: “Indianapolis, Sun., August 22, 1909.
Lost among the most recent headlines that enshrined Helio Castroneves among the Brickyard’s most prominent and popular heroes following his third Indy 500 victory on May 24, was the Brickyard celebrating a centennial.
An excerpt from that 100-year-old newspaper given to me years ago and quickly enshrined under glass acknowledged: “More than 30,000 people saw the races at the Speedway yesterday in which necks and records were broken at a dizzying pace. Greater skill and endurance of brave men have never been exhibited on a race track in this or any other land, this side of Mars.
“The prices were paid for such hazardous sport and the rewards reaped. The track is now baptized with the blood of the heroes who fearlessly faced the speed conflict — the world is given cause to open its eyes wider at what steel creations can accomplish when brave men urge them to the limit of their power and manufacturers have learned costly lessons, but precious ones, extracting from the grueling performance of their pilots.”
Three people were killed, a riding mechanic and two spectators, with many other participants and spectators seriously injured during a three-race Indy inauguration. The 300-mile feature race stopped before its conclusion because of all the mayhem.
This isn’t to chronicle devastation but to review history. Indy 500 drivers May 24 could only speak of the traditions that are the Indy 500 in explaining the Speedway’s history and why the Indy 500 proved once again to be “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.”
There were times in recent history when that illustrious characterization was in jeopardy, thanks in large part to NASCAR’s breakneck speed in growth, which has threatened to pass the popularity of Indy-car racing in its own citadel at the corner of Georgetown and 16th.
Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, split Indy-car racing in half in 1995, forming the Indy Racing League to compete with the existing CART series. George held the Brickyard hostage, demanding the keys to major open-wheel racing in the United States.
George’s vision was to take Indy-car racing back to its roots with races on only U.S. soil, only on oval tracks and only with American-born racers who would primarily filter from the ranks of sprint car and midget racing. It was also to send away the few wealthy teams, such as Penske Racing, that controlled the sport that George felt was his to rule through his ace in the hole … The Indy 500.
When Castroneves won his first Indy 500 in 2001 and climbed the fence in front of the main grandstands to wave to the fans, a wire-service photo showed some fans waving back with the middle digit of their respective hands, a sign they weren’t willing to accept another foreigner winning their race.
Since 1996, 11 of the 14 Indy 500s have been won by foreign-born drivers, Castroneves on May 24 becoming the fourth in a row. Two-thirds of May 24’s starting 33-car field was made up of foreign-born drivers. Penske Racing, one of the three wealthy teams that continue to dominate Indy-car racing, won for a record 15th time. Seven venues on the 17-race IndyCar schedule are not contested on traditional oval tracks and three will be hosted outside the United States, including one in Japan.
All of the top teams left Indy in a huff and a few puffs in ‘95. The “U.S. 500” was organized in 1996 at Michigan International Speedway on Memorial Day weekend in defiance of the Indy 500. It was to become a tradition. It was a tragedy, lasting one year.
CART teams, led by Ganassi Racing, started to filter back to Indy in 2,000 at the advice of major sponsors who needed the exposure at all costs with open-wheel racing quickly coming apart at the welds and fan interest and TV ratings running dangerously low.
CART tried to rebound as Champ Car in 2003, but revenue dwindled, bailouts and stimulus money were still things of the future, and it was finally absorbed by the Indy Racing League last year.
The moral of the story is that George won, compromising all of his principles without much pain.
Castroneves’ extremely popular victory before an energized packed house reaffirmed that the Indy 500 remains, “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” its entertainment value overriding any bumps in the road, principled or otherwise as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has done for 100 years.