Sunday, May 30, 1999

George should admit IRL was a mistake




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[indy 500 logo]
Continuing coverage
from Associated Press
        Remember the New Coke? Just like the Old Coke, except for the taste. Maybe the dumbest idea in the history of marketing. That is, at least, until the Indy Racing League.

        The humbling lesson the soda pop people learned back in 1985 has evidently been lost on Tony George. It can be capsulized as follows: Don't mess too much with a winning formula, or you may risk losing your fizz.

        The Indianapolis 500 has lost its edge, progressively dulled by George's warped view of the racing world. The President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, looking to leverage his famous track, has succeeded mainly in marginalizing the erstwhile Greatest Spectacle In Racing. George's motoring megalomania conjures Napoleon's march on Moscow and Kevin Costner's making of Waterworld. It is an exercise in suicidal self-indulgence.

        You might not see that today if you tune in ABC's telecast of the 83rd Indianapolis 500, or if you dare to take on the traffic along Georgetown Rd. Indy remains the biggest single-day sporting event in America, a crush of beery, sunburned humanity that could have served as Defense Exhibit A in the Scopes Trial.

Tarnished race
        Yet the event is clearly diminished among those who formerly prized Indy for the quality of its racing and not its pagan rituals. George's vision of a socialist racing circuit in which every team enjoys comparable engines and chassis has caused nearly all of the elite open-wheel outfits (and, more importantly, their sponsors) to abandon Indy for the comparative autonomy of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART).

        The IRL is competitive, so far as that goes, but it has robbed Indy of its big-name drivers and its best technology. Instead of pushing the envelope of innovation, the Indy 500 has become an overblown spec car competition.

        “It's perfect for a support series,” Mario Andretti says, “not the main event.”

Change of priorities
        Those drivers who remain are largely anonymous and are left to compete for a tainted trophy. Indiana native Tony Stewart, previously the Poster Boy for George's IRL concept, says he would leave The Brickyard in mid-race if he needed the time to travel to tonight's NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 in North Carolina.

        Not long ago, such an ordering of priorities would have been preposterous. The Indianapolis 500 was the No. 1 race in the world, and NASCAR was essentially a regional phenomenom, closer to its moonshiner roots than to Madison Ave. As recently as 10 years ago, the idea of forsaking Indy for some NASCAR race would have been akin to blowing off The Oscars in favor of the People's Choice Awards.

        “I think the IRL is doing very well in its growth,” George said this week. “I think we've proven we don't need (CART) to have a successful event.”

        That would depend on how loosely one defines success. Though attendance figures are never announced, the crowds at last weekend's Indy time trials were probably no more than half the size of those held in the early '90s. The race's television ratings have declined 30 percent since the 1996 IRL/CART split. When George attempted to revoke the credentials of Sports Illustrated's Ed Hinton earlier this month, a threatened newspaper boycott revealed how insignificant Indy is now viewed by many media outlets.

        Typically, George had overplayed his hand. Atypically, he backed down before inflicting further damage.

        George's Speedway operation continues to be enormously profitable, and some of those profits are being plowed into a Formula-1 course now under construction. NASCAR's Brickyard 400 is already an institution. Brickyard Crossing, a championship golf course located in part inside the track, is the site of a Senior PGA Tour stop. Much of George's vision has indeed been visionary.

        Ultimately, the measure of Tony George's success will be determined by how well and how soon he compromises with CART. It's hard to keep selling mystique when your customers keep thinking, “mistake.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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