Commentary

Divide widens while fatalities mount

Updated: June 3, 2010, 6:58 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

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. This is Part III, Digging In.

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

Gonzalo RodriguezJonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesThe death of young CART driver Gonzalo Rodriguez at Monterey, Calif., in September 1999 came during a horrible stretch of accidents on the track and in the stands for both CART and the rival IRL.

By March of 1997, the upcoming Indianapolis 500 seemed so makeshift, so gutted of the enormous public interest of yore, that some editors at Sports Illustrated were asking whether we should even staff the race.

To my knowledge, that was the first time coverage of the Indy 500 had been questioned since the magazine's launch in 1954. For decades, Indy officials' only question to SI had been whether the race was going to make the cover or not.

Editors came up with a hybrid plan for a major story. It would combine the skyrocketing popularity of NASCAR with the plummeting interest in, and the self-destruction of, Indy car racing.

I shuttled between Indy and Charlotte for weeks. Both events were besieged by rain, but Charlotte fared much better. The rain-shortened 600 was called a complete race in the wee hours of Monday, Memorial Day, leaving Jeff Gordon the winner.

It was that night that Gordon, by this point an enormous star in NASCAR, told me the story of the "Show us the money and we'll show you the seat" rejection by CART years earlier. Gordon could have been an enormous force, especially alongside Tony Stewart, for the IRL. But by this point Gordon had no interest in turning back to open-wheel, especially with its schism and questionable future.

Indy was washed out entirely on Sunday, and Monday's brief start caused more harm than good. Three cars crashed on the parade lap, more embarrassing even than the CART start at Michigan the previous year. Then rain halted the race after only 15 laps.

Finally, on Tuesday, Arie Luyendyk won the race in a confused situation over whether the caution was out or not, yelling on his radio, "What the f--- are they doing?" to his crew, meaning United States Auto Club officials.

[+] EnlargeArie Luyendyk
Getty ImagesArie Luyendyk won the 1997 Indianapolis 500, an event plagued by rain and a timing and scoring glitch that led to the ouster of USAC as the race's sanctioning body.

This incident, along with a scoring gaffe 11 days later at Texas Motor Speedway that resulted in an embarrassing victory circle scuffle between Luyendyk and A.J. Foyt, would end USAC's 42-year reign as the sanctioning body for the Indy 500. Technically the IRL had been an arm of USAC, but now IRL CEO Tony George and executive director Leo Mehl put the league directly in charge of conducting the 500, and USAC was left to regulate only its long-running minor league series, such as sprint cars and midgets.

SI had gone to press already, Monday evening, and Indy officials were upset that I'd filed the story before their race was even completed. I never could get them to understand that the point of the story was not at all the Charlotte and Indy races themselves, but the situation in which they were run.

But it was the headline on the story that infuriated them: "What Ever Happened to Indy?"

Considering the magazine's national influence on not only the public but on the opinions of thousands of local and national sports journalists, Robin Miller of the Indianapolis Star warned me that I'd catch the blame for dealing a devastating blow to Indy's prestige.

Each side, the IRL and CART, claimed by now that I was biased in favor of the other. To me, and to my editors, that was confirmation of my neutrality. The only thing I was firmly against was the damage to an American institution, the Indianapolis 500.

At one point in the war, I wrote a Scorecard item headlined, "A Pox on Both Their Pits."

At another point, some IRL partisans cornered me in a hospitality tent at Indy for a heated debate.

"Surely you'll admit," an angry George supporter said, "that this race belongs to him."

"I'll admit no such thing," I said. "Tony owns the track. But the Indianapolis 500 belongs to the American people. They're the ones who made it."


The CART barons in 1998 took another step that would come back to haunt them. They took their organization public, selling $100 million worth of stock.

Roger Penske, arguably the best businessman among them -- and unquestionably the best racing businessman among them -- had his doubts. Wall Street loved cost-cutting, and its analysts would respond only to significant profits.

Racing, Penske knew, was the last business that could withstand tight, set budgets and cost-cutting. To win, racers had to spend, rolling the dice on technology, as needed.

But the CART barons as a whole had traditionally raced for profit. They banded together in strategic situations. But usually, each voted according to his own business interests.

Leigh Steinberg, the powerful NFL agent, mastered the art of negotiating with owners. He once reckoned the typical American sports franchise owner had already made a fortune in some other business by going against conventional wisdom, and sometimes even rational advice. So he was likely to apply that maverick, damn-the-torpedoes attitude to sports. That template translated well to the CART team owners.

And so the CART barons, against the historic tides of motor racing business, went for the quick $100 million in extra funding.

Beyond the public offering, CART's public image took a terrible hit in July of '98. During a race at Michigan, three spectators were killed and six more injured by flying debris from a wreck. To make PR matters worse, they restarted and completed the race after the tragedy.

Only nine months later, the IRL would suffer an almost-mirror disaster.


If there was a single year that sealed the decline of Indy car racing, it was 1999. It began with hope -- yes, again -- of reconciliation. But it ended as the most tragic year of the war.

Regularly now, CART was sending emissaries to George. Regularly, he wouldn't budge.

[+] EnlargeLeo Mehl
Matt Campbell/AFP/Getty ImagesLeo Mehl had been known as one of the best men in motorsports to settle disputes, but he proved unable to do so as the executive director of the IRL between the factions of the open-wheel split.

CART had hamstrung itself for negotiating with George by going public. Now, merging the two organizations would mean dealing not just with the barons, but all the CART stockholders, to gain the complete control George wanted.

George, like his grandfather Tony Hulman -- and indeed like NASCAR's France dynasty -- didn't want partners.

Mehl, running the IRL operations day to day, had not become the reconciler many had hoped. He'd become such a hard-liner on behalf of Tony George that CART partisans began calling him "the man formerly known as Leo Mehl."

At Indy that May, Mehl was atypically animated as he told Robin Miller and me that if the CART teams came back to Indy and tried to compete in IRL-legal cars, "they'd get their doors blown off! Their DOORS blown off!"

Indy cars of course didn't have doors, but that was a universal racing term, and Mehl had been a universal racing man before he'd become an IRL man.


But that spring, there was a strong undercurrent that the most powerful mediator possible was emerging: NASCAR czar Bill France Jr.

France didn't deny it; he just said it would be "premature" for him to comment.

He had kept his public posture of neutrality, even though he recently had laughed on the phone to me as he confirmed that the Indy car war "sure hasn't hurt us any, has it?"

Fans who were weary of the Indy car schism were now helping to fill the grandstands at NASCAR races and increase NASCAR television ratings.

But now, the France-controlled track conglomerate International Speedway Corporation was in the process of taking over the group of tracks controlled by CART's Roger Penske: Michigan Speedway, the new California Speedway (in the Los Angeles market the France family had long coveted), North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham and Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania. All but Rockingham regularly hosted CART races.

It was in the best interests of both the France family and rival track owner Bruton Smith at Speedway Motorsports Inc. to make one tidy series of Indy car racing, if they were going to use it for additional racing revenue weekends at their primarily NASCAR tracks.

Meanwhile, engineers from CART's wealth of engine suppliers, Ford, Honda and Mercedes-Benz, were devising an offer to the IRL of a common engine formula that could lead toward technological compromise. If only they could get the IRL's sole engine supplier of the time, General Motors, to agree …

"There's no question that we can pull the Indy 500 and American open-wheel racing back together," Penske said, "but one man has to make that decision, and Tony is the guy."

But on May 1, 1999, George suffered a devastating distraction.


At Charlotte, in that year's last IRL race before the Indy 500, three spectators were killed and eight more injured -- again, as in the CART disaster at Michigan the year before, by flying tires and debris from a crash.

[+] EnlargeCrash
AP Photo/Larry LapkeAdrian Fernandez hit the wall at Michigan International Speedway in 1998, causing an untethered tire and suspension parts to fly into the crowd. Three fans were killed in the stands. A similar scene would unfold less than a year later in an IRL race.

Now both leagues had serious image problems with regard to fan safety, and they scrambled to harness the shrapnel inherent in crashes. Built with driver safety foremost in mind, Indy cars tended to disintegrate -- except for the central "tub," where the driver sat -- on impact, to dissipate energy.

Formula One, just that year, had mandated the tethering of wheels to chassis for just such incidents. And in May, before either CART or the IRL could revise their safety regulations, NASCAR -- where fan safety had always come first -- announced preemptive measures, tethering wheels and hoods to cars in case they broke off in wrecks.

Mehl, George and the IRL deliberated with caution, concerned that tethering might "make things worse," as Mehl worried, by unintended consequences -- such as wheels coming back into cockpits, or being sent with even greater force into grandstands by some slingshot effect.

Meanwhile, I wrote a column suggesting further safety measures on behalf of spectators, including higher protective "catch" fences with broader overhangs.

Never had a column of mine led to such an uproar.


"Hinton!" Chip Ganassi shouted at me from his hospitality tent as I walked by, at the St. Louis track where CART was running, on the day before the '99 Indy 500. "You know that race [Indy] is in trouble when the biggest story to come out of there this month is you."

He grinned.

As I walked up the pit road, I got applause from drivers, owners, crewmen … Mario Andretti waved me over to where he and Paul Newman were standing.

Newman stuck out his hand and said, "Welcome to the ranks of the unwanted."

Unwanted at Indy, he meant.

Of Tony George, Newman said, "It's damn near criminal, what he's done."

He didn't mean to me. He meant to the American people, by devastating the Indianapolis 500.

But Ganassi was right about this incident, in the fourth spring of the Indy car war. It was a sad state of affairs when the ongoing story out of Indy, for much of May, had been the attempted ban of one sportswriter from covering the race.


On the evening of the spectator deaths at Charlotte, I was in Fontana, Calif., covering a NASCAR race. When news of the tragedy came, my editors put together a plan.

The magazine's news bureau was retaining two local reporters in Charlotte, and SI staff reporters were working the phones from New York. I was to stay put -- no time to fly cross-country. I would receive files of information from the reporters in New York and Charlotte, and would do additional reporting myself.

Then I would write a column about the spectator deaths in both CART and the IRL in the past nine months, and explore ways to prevent such tragedies.

Writing from a hotel room in Ontario, Calif., I had absolutely no say in either the photo selection or the headline on that column. That was all done by editors in New York.

Yet it was the headline, "Fatal Attractions," and the photograph, of a security guard standing over a body covered by a bloody sheet in the grandstands, that upset George, I was told later.

The week after that column came out, the editor of Sports Illustrated received a letter stating I would be denied press credentials for the Indy 500. Editors could send any other staffer, just not me -- strange, in that George's primary complaints, about the photo and the headline, were with the magazine as a whole, more than with the text I'd written.

I could buy a ticket, George announced to the public, but I would forever be denied media credentials, and access to media facilities, for the Indianapolis 500, the Brickyard 400 and all other events in the future at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

(A NASCAR publicist phoned immediately to promise privately that I could get into the Brickyard 400, accompanied by NASCAR officials, if push came to shove the following August.)

[+] EnlargeLowes Motor Speedway
AP Photo/Rusty BurroughsThe collision between the cars of Stan Wattles and John Paul Jr. set off a chain of events that killed three spectators and injured eight more at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 1999.

The story of the ban went out worldwide on the wire services. Immediately, the Chicago Tribune ordered its motorsports writer to turn in his credentials and leave Indy. The Los Angeles Times held its reporter back, stopping him just before he boarded a flight at LAX. Quickly, many of the nation's major daily newspapers followed suit, informing Indy publicists they would not staff the race if the Sports Illustrated motorsports writer were not issued credentials.

Tribune sports editor John Cherwa, who'd led the newspaper protest, announced that it was not a matter of supporting Sports Illustrated, or me, per se. It was, he pointed out, a censorship issue -- a serious precedent of media organizations being told who they could and couldn't send to cover an event.

There was bitter backlash among IRL loyalist fans. Internet threads sprang up like wildfire, spreading rumors as outlandish as that I had personally taken the pictures of the sheet-covered bodies at Charlotte. In fact, the photos were taken and transmitted by The Associated Press.

One SI writer, driving through the Italian countryside on his honeymoon, was listening to the news on the radio. He didn't understand much Italian, and made out only "Indianapolis 500," "Sports Illustrated" and "Ed Hinton" -- and thought I might have been killed in some freak pit accident there.

Purdue University's public radio station phoned me at home for a lengthy interview, which I thought would be broadcast only in Indiana -- until one evening an SI writer in New York phoned me in Atlanta and said, "Quick! Turn on NPR! You're on 'All Things Considered' [a national in-depth news program]."

This would all have been hilarious if it weren't so terribly sad. For decades, news out of Indianapolis in May had gone worldwide about drivers and memorable races and the enormous happening that was the 500.

Now, Chip Ganassi was right: This was the most interesting story the media could find about Indy this time?

That told you just how disemboweled of prestige, and of stars, the grand old race was.

Finally, faced with the prospect of a thinning media center on race day, George relented and reinstated me. The great irony was that the race was now so weakened I hadn't originally planned to cover it. I'd planned to go to Charlotte for the 600 or Monaco for the F1 race. But back in March, as an afterthought, just in case, I'd asked editors to put in a request for Indy credentials -- and that's what gave George something to deny, and therefore detonate the whole hoopla.

Now, with the reinstatement, the editors in New York told me I had to go to Indy, if only to acknowledge the newspapers' anti-censorship movement.

There was no track activity the day I returned, so the media center was almost deserted.

One old friend, a veteran West Coast writer, looked up from his keyboard at me and said "You sonofabitch."

I smiled. With this guy, there was always a punch line.

"We were all getting ready to leave this place and never come back," he growled. "We were done covering this dog. Now you get reinstated, and we have to go on covering it. You … son … of … a … bitch!"

[+] EnlargeIndy Safety Fence
Guy Rhodes/US PresswireIn the years following the deaths of spectators at two races, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other tracks raised catch fences and widened the fence overhangs while the IRL and other leagues worked on the problem of flying debris from cars.

A little later I was walking out toward Gasoline Alley when a high-ranking IRL official came flying up on a motor scooter and screeched to a halt.

He told me he'd advised against the ban, and then he told me the essence of the reason for it.

"Tony knew what was under those sheets," he said. "That's what had him so upset."

He revved the scooter and rode away.

The next day, the IRL announced measures to tether wheels and suspension pieces to the chassis of the cars. And, in ensuing months and years, tracks would continually heighten safety fences and broaden the overhangs.

All told, the IRL did everything I had suggested, and more, in the column that got me banned.

It all went back to that old NASCAR philosophy that killing and injuring your paying customers just isn't good business.


What promised to be the biggest, broadest-based summit meeting of the war was scheduled for that September, in the Detroit offices of Herb Fishel, General Motors' racing director. GM, primary engine supplier for the IRL, had agreed to discuss the proposal of the CART suppliers, Ford, Honda and Mercedes-Benz, for a common engine formula that could begin technological reconciliation of the two leagues.

So here were chieftains from all these manufacturers, and the chief mediator present was Bill France Jr., chairman of NASCAR.

Only one mogul failed to show: Tony George.

The one man who could make the decision for reconciliation, as Roger Penske had said, didn't even come to listen.

When I heard George had skipped the meeting, I phoned France at home in Daytona Beach to ask how he felt about being stood up.

France was so nonchalant you could almost hear him shrugging on the phone. He didn't sound very disappointed.

"He had other commitments," France said, excusing George matter-of-factly.

That was a board meeting at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. How in the world, I wondered, could any meeting at Indy be more important than the Detroit meeting that could have affected Indy for years, even decades, to come?

But there were rumblings that meetings at Indy were becoming more and more vital, in that Tony George's three sisters, all heiresses to the Hulman & Co. fortune, were growing more and more uneasy about the hemorrhaging of family wealth into Tony's IRL adventure.


For the first 20 years of its existence, CART had suffered only two driver fatalities at events it sanctioned. The '99 season alone would bring two more.

In September, rookie Gonzalo Rodriguez, driving for Roger Penske, was killed at Monterey, Calif., when his car slammed head-on into a wall and vaulted over it.

The death devastated his senior teammate, American household name Al Unser Jr. "That kid … that really got me … such a good kid, such a good teammate," Unser said to me, voice cracking, eyes welling, in Miami Beach later on.

Coincidentally or not, Unser's career ebbed from there, and never flowed to the heights again. His run as the American banner-carrier for CART was over.

CART had prided itself on safety technology for its drivers. But something had gone terribly wrong this time. Usually, forward head-whip was lessened when CART drivers' heads hit the steering wheels, well-protected by their full-face helmets. This time, the nature of the impact had sent Rodriguez's head whipping out over the steering wheel.

Dr. Steve Olvey, CART's attending physician at the scene, told me Rodriguez died of basilar skull fracture, a syndrome that would later plague NASCAR, in which cracking bone in the back of the skull cut vital arteries and damaged the brain stem in one terrible motion, due to violent whipping of the head.

Rodriguez had been barely known. But the popular, mischievous, effervescent young Canadian Greg Moore was a skyrocketing star in CART. His style and personality amounted to a pillar of CART's hopes for the future.

But on Halloween weekend at California Speedway, a bizarre series of events unfolded. First, Moore, riding a motor scooter through the paddock, collided with a car that backed unexpectedly out of a parking space. Moore suffered a broken wrist and was unable to qualify.

[+] EnlargeGreg Moore
Scott Nelson/AFP/Getty ImagesThe death of Greg Moore at California Speedway on Halloween 1999 was a devastating blow to his team and to CART. Moore's death was the second in only two months for the series, coming on the heels of Gonzalo Rodriguez being killed at Monterey.

Doctors cleared him to start CART's season finale that Sunday, but he had to start at the back of the field. Back there, his car underwent horrific buffeting from turbulence, then broke loose, skated across the infield grass and rolled wildly out of control, ripping up the turf.

Moore was killed.

You could hear the terrible strain and sorrow in Olvey's voice as he made the official announcement. In less than two months, CART's all-time fatality toll had doubled.

Enough of the pretty infield grass that let the car skate wildly, a heartsick and outraged Mario Andretti said. The infield areas inside the corners must be paved, to slow down the slides.

"You want a pretty green color for television?" Andretti growled to me. "Then paint the goddamned asphalt green!"

 

With reconciliation still out of reach, the France-controlled ISC -- taking control of the Penske tracks -- would simply toss CART out of Michigan and California and instead run IRL races -- none of which drew more than smatterings of spectators to the grandstands.

Now everybody was losing, even the track-owning arm of the France/NASCAR empire.

That effectively finished off CART racing on high-speed ovals in the U.S. One more CART attempt at a big track, at Texas in 2001, would be canceled, leading to a lawsuit that would drive another nail into CART's rapidly sealing coffin.

Part IV of The Damage Done: Hell Of A Vision

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

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