May '96 memorable for wrong reasons

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior writer Ed Hinton has spent more than 35 years covering motorsports across the globe for entities including Sports Illustrated, The National Sports Daily, Tribune Newspapers and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The four-part series, The Damage Done, is his memoir of what he saw and reported leading up to the American open-wheel civil war and the consequences it wrought. His final story, Coda, is about the steps the Indy Racing League is now taking to hopefully steer the sport into a brighter future. This is Part II, Getting It Wrong.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Coda

Before I'd left for that inaugural Indy Racing League race at Disney World, militant CART team owner Carl Haas had asked rhetorically, "Why should a track promoter take control over a whole series?"

That had been CART's attitude toward Tony George all along, that he was just another track promoter.

In Florida, George replied that, "As president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I am obligated to a leadership role in this sport and its directions."

With this sense of noblesse oblige, George took his stand. The Disney Indy 200 played to a sellout crowd of about 51,000 that Saturday, Jan. 27, 1996.

On the surface, the race went off as a surprising success. But on the track, there remained questions as Tony Stewart lost a late duel to another 24-year-old American rookie, the far less known Buzz Calkins, for the win.

Those were the only two drivers who finished on the lead lap.

Only 20 cars had been entered, with almost no visible sponsorship. None of that boded well for Tony George's edict from the year before that 25 starting spots in the Indy 500 would be reserved for teams with IRL points.

The CART teams would stay away from the next IRL race, at Phoenix in March, further forfeiting any IRL points that would count toward Indy 500 starting spots.

It didn't matter, they maintained, because they weren't coming to Indy anyway. And they wouldn't just sit idle, either. They would retaliate mightily, running their own alternative race, the U.S. 500, at Michigan International Speedway on the same day as Indy.

They would bill their event as featuring "the stars and cars of Indy," while Indy itself hosted mostly also-rans, malcontents, backmarkers and one poster boy.

A few weeks later, on Friday before Daytona 500 Sunday, my message light was blinking when I returned to my hotel room. It was from one of the higher-up editors at Sports Illustrated. Please call. Urgent.

The editors had met in New York that day and discussed our upcoming Daytona coverage, and they had a question for me.

With the Indianapolis 500 sure to be fragmented in May, and all of NASCAR's stars in place for its showcase race, wasn't there a case to be made that the Daytona 500 was emerging as America's premier motorsports event?

Sadly -- sad because the Indy 500 had been such a national and international institution for so long -- I concurred. There was no denying it.

In the following week's issue, for the first time ever, we would treat the Daytona 500 as America's biggest automobile race.

On race day morning, Richard Petty opined to me that not only was the Daytona 500 a bigger race now, but that NASCAR actually would be welcomed by the public if it took over the Indianapolis 500.

Richard Petty ... they could change it [the Indy 500] into a NASCAR race and I don't believe the American public would blink an eye. They wouldn't be upset at all. In fact, they'd probably be more enthusiastic now, because it would go back to being an all-American sports spectacular.

-- Richard Petty

"If we didn't have a conflicting date [the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte], they could change it [the Indy 500] into a NASCAR race," Petty said, "and I don't believe the American public would blink an eye. They wouldn't be upset at all.

"In fact, they'd probably be more enthusiastic now, because it would go back to being an all-American sports spectacular."

Indeed, fan discontent with the dominance of Indy by imported drivers was by now a groundswell.

Tony George was now rushing, against the odds, to remedy that.

As April of '96 passed, so did any chance of reconciliation. The CART boycott of Indy was on.

One side said Indy couldn't do without its prime league of cars and drivers. The other said the CART series couldn't do without cornerstone Indy.

Ultimately, tragically, both sides would prove ruinously right.

I phoned some of the CART barons to ask if they really, truly thought the world's greatest race could be brought down.

One, Chip Ganassi, put it this way.

"I'm sitting in my office in Pittsburgh, OK? And I'm looking out the windows, to where the world's largest steel manufacturer used to be. It isn't there anymore. The point is, one management change here, one strategy change there, and the greatest of a lot of things in the world aren't the greatest anymore."

For open-wheel racing's battle of Gettysburg, in May of '96, the IRL teams were a motley, ragtag army, underfunded, undermanned, under-equipped, except for billionaire John Menard's personally financed team featuring the sudden star Tony Stewart and the veteran American Scott Brayton.

But the IRL held the strategic high ground, the storied Speedway itself, albeit a rather stark, barren, desolate sight to behold without the glitz, the opulence, the high technology and the lavish entertainment of CART.

The CART teams were massing up in Michigan, preparing for their alternative U.S. 500, practically giving away seats to fill the grandstands to look good on television, and taking pot shots via the media at what they deemed the makeshift goings-on at Indianapolis.

They billed themselves as "the stars and cars of Indy" in promoting the U.S. 500.

Down at Indy, A.J. Foyt responded that "It's Indianapolis that makes the stars, not the drivers who make Indianapolis."

Robin Miller, the nationally renowned -- or notorious, depending on your point of view -- veteran motorsports columnist for the Indianapolis Star, had been scathing in his commentaries on the split.

It was Miller who articulated the gravest truth for both sides.

"All the stars and cars," he said to me in conversation, "are now in NASCAR."

On the morning of May 17, Tony Stewart prepared to leave his Indianapolis apartment and drive to the track. This would be another tough day, he knew -- the media had mobbed him all month as the quintessential example of what Tony George was trying to accomplish with the IRL.

Racing on his own since age 19 when his parents ran out of money for him, Stewart had worked day jobs -- in a machine shop, or driving a tow truck -- and raced at night in sprint cars.

Often he would drive the tow truck down Georgetown Road, behind the frontstretch grandstands at the Speedway, and wonder what it must be like to go 200 mph there.

Now he knew -- and he also knew what it was like when you got out of the car: minicams and microphones everywhere, the same shouted questions over and over about the split, about his sudden stardom, about whether he could handle it all …

Well, at least his veteran teammate, Brayton, had taken a lot of the heat off Stewart the previous weekend.

After Brayton won the pole, the genial Michigander, at 37 the most experienced driver in the entire makeshift field, assumed the role of senior statesman, naturally and well, for the IRL.

"I am an Indy car driver," Brayton emphasized. "That means I race at Indy." His loyalist words resounded up to Michigan, his home state, yet the staging area for the CART rebellion.

Stewart had qualified second, in the middle of the front row for the race, but Indy tradition channeled the brunt of media attention to the pole sitter going into the race.

Now, about to walk out of his apartment, Stewart reached to turn off his TV set -- and stopped.

He saw, on the screen, one of the Menard cars crashing horrifically. In a split second, the car snapped around backward in Turn 2, and pancaked the wall on its left side.

Stewart thought at first it was a replay from an earlier incident in that Friday morning's practice. Then he realized it was live -- or at least an immediate replay from a crash that had just happened.

He hurried off to the track. There he found his team's garages all but deserted, learned that Brayton had been taken to Methodist Hospital and was told to go to the Menard shop in Indianapolis.

The dour Dutchman Arie Luyendyk had also chosen to stick with Indy, where he had won the 500 of 1990 with owner Doug Shierson's CART team.

When Luyendyk heard Scott Brayton was dead, "I didn't think, 'He died doing what he wanted to do,'" he told Miller and me. "I didn't think, 'He would want us to go on,' and I didn't think, 'He's in a better place.'

"I thought, 'God damn it!'"

The sudden death of Brayton cast a pall all the way up to Michigan, where the CART tongues went silent, stunned, heartsick. They were just as grief-stricken as their IRL foes.

There was something of a truce on May 22, as members of the warring parties met in Coldwater, Mich., for Brayton's funeral.

For all the CART criticism of the ragtag Indy effort, nobody questioned Menard's well-prepared cars, which were every bit as safe as that year's CART cars, or Brayton's ability. Something had just broken on the car, the car had snapped around and Brayton's helmet had hit the concrete wall.

What they did question was that the IRL put less restriction on turbocharger "boost," heightening horsepower, and that Indy had recently been repaved -- both guaranteeing higher speeds for a field of drivers not nearly as experienced as those in CART.

Up in Michigan, Mario Andretti called the Indy situation "a kind of Russian roulette."

If Stewart had felt bewildered and overwhelmed with all the attention before, the storm surge increased exponentially. The poster boy was now also the pole sitter, and, inextricably, the face and voice of his dead teammate.

TV crews encircled the Menard racing shop, and Stewart had to be spirited in and out, in an inconspicuous vehicle, through a service entrance. Through this ordeal, Stewart became more and more bewildered, disappointed, exasperated and confused about the media.

Those scars have never gone away entirely. To this day, when media colleagues ask why Stewart can be so impatient and indignant with us, I tell them about that week in '96 at Indy.

On Saturday morning, a handful of media people were invited to the Menard shop. I managed to corner Stewart one-on-one, to ask him the very questions he didn't want to hear, but the ones my job demanded that I ask -- about the enormity of his situation, the shock of the death of his teammate and his own fears.

For the first of many times, I saw how his brown eyes could blaze with anger and disgust.

"I'm a race driver," he said. "I don't have time to dwell on things like that."

He turned and walked away.

On Saturday night, the Indianapolis Star sent a reporting team down to the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road, by the Speedway, where historically Indy 500 eves had been mob scenes, wild as any Mardi Gras. Now the crowd was sparse.

Scalpers were in a panic, and the price of tickets with a face value of $125, which in recent years had brought as much as $1,000 apiece, plunged to $40.

One savvy scalper, a veteran of wheeling and dealing at The Masters, the World Series, the NCAA Final Four and Indy in the glory days, shouted to a Star reporter through the drizzle: "This race is over, and it ain't never comin' back!"

He was partly prophetic. The race wasn't over, finished, per se. But it would never come back to where it had been, at the pinnacle of the motor racing world.

"It's a crucial day for us," Tony George said on race-day morning, Gettysburg day, in Indiana, with the opposing legions camped in Michigan. "But I doubt that a clear winner will be declared at the end of the day."

George had admonished his drivers to spread out and be cautious for the start of the race. The last thing the IRL needed, under the harsh scrutiny of the CART critics, was to fulfill their predictions of a disaster at the Indy start.

They indeed spread out to take the green flag, and rookie Stewart streaked far out front, turning laps at a race-record 232 mph-plus, then breaking his own records lap after lap … until a little device for controlling turbocharger pressure, called a "pop-off valve," literally popped off permanently. It broke.

Chased by a media mob back to his garage, beleaguered with questions about what had happened, Stewart kept repeating, "ask USAC … ask USAC … ask USAC …"

The United State Auto Club was still the sanctioning body, with the IRL considered a new branch. USAC officials had handed out, at random, the pop-off valves that were all supposed to be equal. There was no answer as to why Stewart's valve broke.

As the most crucial day of the war wore on, Indy became more and more deflated. The pall of Brayton's death was still palpable, and now the great young hope for public-relations vindication, Stewart, was out of the race …

But within minutes the tide of battle turned. In the media center, some monitors were tuned to the start of the U.S. 500. Suddenly the media center exploded in shouts of disbelief, and I looked up to see a massive pileup on the start … at Michigan.

The car of CART's pole sitter, Jimmy Vasser, somehow wiggled and collided with that of the other front-row starter, Adrian Fernandez, and a 12-car melee ensued.

CART red-flagged its race while the drivers involved, including Vasser, went to their backup cars. That was some Mulligan they'd given themselves -- crash, and then throw out that start and do it over. Vasser, in his backup car, won the race.

But as Indy droned on, nameless, colorless, sad, there remained, as George had predicted, no clear winner. Both sides were losing, with a global audience.

There was a dramatic ending, but only if you were a close follower of Indy car racing. To general populations, the name of the winner of the 80th Indianapolis 500, did not resonate: Buddy Lazier.

Lazier drove with 25 fractures in his backbone, an injury suffered in a crash in the second-ever IRL race, at Phoenix that March. The most touching sight of the Indy 500 had come under a late caution, after Lazier had taken the lead with eight laps to go under green. Cruising up front under yellow, he agonizingly stretched his arms outside the cockpit and shifted his weight in the seat, trying to ease the excruciating pain.

Dramatic as the scene was, Foyt's formula for Indy stardom would fail Lazier, whose fame would be fleeting.

But CART, more than Indy, finished the day embarrassed.

"What they predicted would happen to us," said Lazier's car owner, Ron Hemelgarn, "happened to them."

Tony George left the grounds signing autographs for flocks of loyalist fans who thanked and congratulated him for what he was doing.

The next morning, I saw him on the steps of the Speedway Motel on the grounds.

"Well," I said, "you held your ground."

"I was wondering when we were going to convince you," he said.

But as he'd predicted, there was no winner, and I was convinced only that more devastation for both sides lay ahead.

The race technically had been a sellout, on the sheer momentum of Indy's history, and the widespread hope that the sides would reconcile in time for the race.

"The scalping market crashed," I said.

"I don't care about the scalpers," George said.

But it meant that his sellout had been soft -- face-value tickets were no longer precious. If you could buy a prime seat for $40 on race day, why pay $125 in advance? The erosion had begun for Indy.

And never again would CART attempt to run a race directly opposite Indianapolis.

George took three major steps for the 1997 season that were sure to widen the chasm between his IRL and the CART barons -- and one huge step the motor racing world hoped might help close the schism.

He changed the car and engine package entirely -- part of his strategy for lowering costs -- and he gained strong allies among the owners of NASCAR tracks. The technical changes were sure to push CART farther away. The formulas were now completely incompatible.

The new IRL venues at tracks such as Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and New Hampshire gave it a stronger season tour that assured the war would continue.

But on the other hand, George hired Leo Mehl to run the IRL for him, as executive director.

I knew of no one in the motor racing world, from short tracks to Formula One, who didn't like Mehl, recently retired as Goodyear's director of worldwide racing.

Mehl was, purely and simply, the world's best and most effective auto racing diplomat.

"He's a dear man, bless him," F1 team owner Frank Williams once said to me, largely reflecting the opinions of owners and drivers worldwide, from Dale Earnhardt to A.J. Foyt to Ayrton Senna, of the man who supplied the vital transfer of all that horsepower to pavement.

A chemical engineer by training, Mehl had gone to work for Goodyear as a tire compounder in 1962 and worked his way up the ladder until he was chief manager, spokesman and negotiator for all of the company's racing efforts.

He was equally at home on any pit lane, from Indy to Le Mans, Daytona to Monaco -- or from Eldora Speedway in the Ohio dirt to Volusia County Speedway in the Florida hinterlands.

But this time, Mehl walked into a schism that was getting dangerously close to irreparable.

The IRL would have its own, very different, cars and engines for its second year, replacing what had amounted to leftover CART cars in '96.

Though new, the IRL package would be more primitive. It amounted, Carl Haas complained to me on the phone, to "going back to shade-tree mechanics."

The engines would be of stock configuration, and normally aspirated -- that is, non-turbocharged. The cars would look more like Formula One cars of the time, featuring "ram boxes" -- those high tunnels with the openings above the driver's head -- to feed air to the atmospheric engines.

The cars were clunky and unsafe, and the regressive engine formula would be unreliable, CART owners and drivers said. CART's top two American drivers of the time, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti, wouldn't even test the things.

So the two paths diverged even more on technology. There simply was no middle ground between the car and engine formulas of '97.

The new IRL package was just fine with George's Southern allies. To them, high-tech was uppity. The feeling was deep-seated. Once, I'd even heard Big Bill France, the NASCAR founder, advise one of Tony Hulman's lieutenants, "You all need to change to stock-block engines."

Primitive was good, in the Southern mindset.

George's intentions and his cars were oriented toward oval tracks -- and ovals, the Southern tycoons had aplenty. All wanted more events annually for their facilities.

"These tracks wake up every morning, 365 days a year, and devour money," H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of the Bruton Smith-chaired Speedway Motorsports Inc., told me in '97, in explaining why SMI was forming a broad and close alliance with the IRL.

The idea was to make the tracks work to pay for themselves -- that is, host more events and sell more tickets and TV rights -- as many weekends of the year as possible. Two NASCAR Cup races a year weren't enough for the cash-insatiable track moguls.

But by no means did the track owners want Indy car racing to overshadow their NASCAR events. They wanted the IRL mainly as a nice, novel support series to open each track's gates once or twice more a year.

Smith's intermediate-size tracks were especially suited to IRL cars -- fast, but not too fast. In the France-family controlled International Speedway Corp., the two crown-jewel tracks, Daytona and Talladega, were far too fast for Indy cars.

By 1997 for the '98 season, Tony George's series had a secured a solid circuit that included the NASCAR-oriented tracks at Atlanta, Charlotte, New Hampshire, Las Vegas and Texas, in addition to George's own Indy, and then-independent Phoenix International Raceway and Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado.

CART would continue on its largely road and street racing circuit in the U.S. and Canada, but with two major 2-mile tracks, Michigan and California Speedway, both owned by CART stalwart Roger Penske at the time.

By now the Indy car fan base, already confused as to who was racing in which league, had divided and bitterly polarized. And some were turning to the more harmonious, solidly unified NASCAR, bulging with stars and cars they could count on seeing every Sunday.

Coming next Tuesday: Part III of The Damage Done: Digging In

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.