Commentary

Indianapolis 500: 2000 and beyond

Updated: May 26, 2011, 3:26 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- For 82 years, the Indianapolis 500 was the only race staged at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

That all changed with the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and that 400-mile stock car race for then-Winston Cup cars was instantly a successful event for NASCAR and IMS.

But speedway president Tony George wasn't done diversifying. George had formed the Indy Racing League in 1996 to help preserve the tradition of oval racing in America. In 2000, he did something that undoubtedly pleased American road racing fans.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Dave Maxwell/AFP/Getty ImagesHelio Castroneves won the first of his three Indianapolis 500 titles in 2001 for Roger Penske.

At a cost estimated upward of $30 million, a 2.6-mile road course was constructed in the infield of the IMS oval, and George scored a coup by landing a contract to stage the first Formula One United States Grand Prix since a poorly attended pair of street races in downtown Phoenix in 1990 and '91.

The IMS road course debuted to mixed reviews from the drivers, but a crowd estimated at 120,000 turned out to see the unusual sight of cars racing clockwise around the IMS road course. Indianapolis bar, restaurant and hotel owners were thrilled: While the F1 attendance was about half of what the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 attracted, the well-heeled F1 fans -- many who traveled to Indianapolis from abroad -- were big spenders by NASCAR and Indy car standards.

While much is made about the four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500, Michael Schumacher quietly became the first five-time winner at IMS. The seven-time F1 World champion dominated his seven starts in the U.S. Grand Prix at Indy and would have won six times had he not awkwardly gifted victory in the 2002 race to his Ferrari teammate Rubens Barrichello.

But that wasn't the low point of Formula 1's eight-year run at Indianapolis. A number of Michelin tire failures in practice for the 2005 USGP caused the tire maker to withdraw the 14 cars it equipped -- after the formation lap. That left just six cars contesting the 73-lap race, which was won -- not surprisingly -- by Schumacher.

Michelin reimbursed all of the 2005 USGP ticket holders and purchased 20,000 tickets for the 2006 race. But attendance declined markedly, and the contract with F1 expired following the 2007 season; without a title sponsor for the race, the speedway couldn't justify continuing to pay F1's exorbitant sanction fees.

With suitable modifications to the IMS road course -- including changing the direction to counterclockwise, the same as for the Indy car and NASCAR oval -- the F1 race was replaced by an event for Moto GP motorcycles. IMS officials have pledged their desire to renew their contract with Moto GP, despite a decline in attendance from 91,000 to 63,000 between 2008 and 2010, and to add a third American Moto GP event beginning in 2012.

Ironically, the Brickyard 400 also was adversely affected by a tire issue, as Goodyear's product suffered repeated failures in the run-up to the 2008 race. With tires unable to last longer than about 15 laps, nine competition yellows were shown during the race for mandatory pit stops and tire changes. Jimmie Johnson and his crew emerged victorious in an embarrassing affair for Goodyear, NASCAR and IMS.

[+] EnlargeDanica Patrick
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesDanica Patrick surpassed expectations with her fourth-place finish in the 2005 Indianapolis 500.

Indiana native Jeff Gordon is the most successful driver in the Brickyard 400 with four wins, most recently in 2004. Jimmie Johnson is a three-time winner of the event, while Hoosier product Tony Stewart has won twice on what he calls his favorite track.

In the first few years, the Brickyard 400 was an upper-echelon event for NASCAR, but the grandstands began to thin out when fans seemed to realize that the big stock cars didn't often put on a very entertaining show on the low-banked, four-corner IMS layout. The tire fiasco of 2008 was devastating to Brickyard attendance; after many years as NASCAR's best-attended event, the sanctioning body's attendance estimate for Indianapolis dropped from 270,000 in 2007 to 140,000 in 2010. Clearly, NASCAR and the speedway have work to do to rejuvenate what in the late 1990s had become a tougher ticket than the Indianapolis 500.

All this could lead one to conclude that the 500 was the third-best race in the IMS pecking order in the early half of the decade, but that would soon change. By 2005, the Indy Racing League was finally on the upswing and -- with a big helping hand from CART's mismanagement -- had seized the the lead in the open-wheel racing war.

A key turning point came at the 2000 Indianapolis 500. Chip Ganassi became the first of the CART team owners who crossed the line and fielded entries in the IRL-sanctioned Indianapolis 500. Although the level of professionalism in the IRL had increased dramatically since 1996, Target Ganassi Racing was on another level, and 24-year-old Indianapolis rookie Juan Pablo Montoya scored a relatively unchallenged victory.

The fundamental superiority of the CART teams was further illustrated a year later when Penske Racing returned to Indy for the first time since its drivers memorably failed to qualify for the 1995 race. Like Montoya, Helio Castroneves was classified as a rookie at Indianapolis because he had never raced there. But he led his Penske teammate Gil de Ferran in a first-through-sixth whitewash by the CART teams.

Had CART's leadership been as effective as its teams and drivers at Indianapolis, the open-wheel war might have ended in the early years of the 21st century. Instead, CART failed to agree on an engine formula for the future to the satisfaction of its engine manufacturers, and in September 2001 Toyota announced its intention to begin building engines in 2003 to the IRL's normally aspirated formula. Honda soon announced its withdrawal from CART, and in May 2002 confirmed it too would supply IRL engines in 2003.

But George and the IRL failed to put an end to CART, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2004 as the Champ Car World Series. George and the IRL tried to acquire selected assets from CART, including the rights to the Long Beach and Toronto races. But Judge Frank J. Otte ruled in favor of an offer put together by team owners Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerry Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi because they intended to continue running a full series of races.

[+] EnlargeSam Hornish Jr.
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesSam Hornish Jr.'s victory in the 2006 Indianapolis 500 was the last by an American driver.

Champ Car resumed its unacknowledged competition with the Indy Racing League through the end of the 2007 season, with both series struggling to field 18-car grids. By then, the IRL had lost Toyota and Chevrolet as engine manufacturers, and like Champ Car was a "spec" series featuring Dallara chassis and Honda engines.

George developed a friendship with Kalkhoven, an Australian native who made his fortune in Silicon Valley. Finally, after years of overtures from all sides of the sport, an agreement was reached in February 2008 to merge the remains of Champ Car into what would be known as the IRL IndyCar Series. Sadly, the open-wheel unification came at the economy's lowest point, meaning that the sport did not have the financial conditions needed for rapid growth.

But the end of the split had an immediate effect on the Indianapolis 500, where attendance for the three key days of the schedule -- pole day, carb day and race day -- all enjoyed noticeable attendance increases. The arrival of clothing brand Izod as the title sponsor of the IndyCar Series in 2010 also had a measurable positive effect, and IMS officials report that ticket sales for the 2011 centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 are up over recent years.

On the track, the 2000s were not an especially classic decade for the Indianapolis 500.

The 2002 race yet again brought controversy. Castroneves led late; he was saving fuel and Paul Tracy was rapidly catching up. Castroneves and Team Penske were in their first year of full-time competition in the IRL; Tracy, driving for Team Green, was CART's top dog. Tracy was in the process of passing Castroneves for the lead on the 198th lap when the yellow light came on for an accident elsewhere on the track.

Series officials ruled that Castroneves was still ahead when the caution flew. Tracy's car owner, Barry Green, protested -- only to be told two months later that he didn't have grounds to protest. Castroneves kept the win. His teammate de Ferran won in 2003, followed a year later in a rain-shortened 500 by Buddy Rice, driving a car fielded by 1986 winner Bobby Rahal.

In 2005, the most heralded female driver to date arrived at Indianapolis, and Danica Patrick didn't disappoint. Danica qualified fourth, and while she drove a mistake-prone race, the high-profile rookie used fuel strategy to lead late before finishing fourth, in the process delivering Indy car racing its first Sports Illustrated cover since 1985. Patrick not only has become the IndyCar Series' most popular driver, but is an American pop-culture icon.

[+] EnlargeRandy Bernard
Getty ImagesFormer PBR CEO Randy Bernard has taken the INDYCAR bull by its horns, so to speak.

The second half of the decade featured a Dallara-Honda spec formula. Driving for Roger Penske, Sam Hornish Jr.'s 2006 victory was the most recent win for an American driver. Dario Franchitti splashed across the line to claim the rain-shortened 2007 race; the Scotsman repeated three years later. His Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon triumphed in 2008, while Castroneves claimed his third (and Penske's record 15th) Indy crown in 2009.

Other Indy car stars of the 21st century include third-generation racer Marco Andretti, who made history with his impressive debut at Indianapolis in 2006. Then just 19 years old, Marco led the race into the final lap, only to be passed in the sprint to the checkered flag by Hornish in the second-closest finish in 500 history (.0635 of a second). Andretti has led in four of his five Indy starts and notched third-place finishes in 2008 and 2010.

Englishman Dan Wheldon is one of the most successful drivers of the decade, with five top-seven finishes in eight starts. Wheldon won the 500 in 2005 with the most laps led (148), and he was second in 2009 and 2010 and third in 2004. Tony Kanaan holds the distinction of leading the first seven starts of his Indianapolis career -- an IMS record -- and has finished in the top eight four times.

Three-time IndyCar Series champion Franchitti is the sport's most accomplished current star, with 27 race wins, including two at Indy.

In a reversal from the start of the decade, the Indianapolis 500 is now by far the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's strongest event. Many observers believe that's the way it should be, some even maintaining that the Speedway never should have opened its gates to forms of motorsports other than the cars that became synonymous with the famous old track.

But Tony George is no longer running the show. On June 30, 2009, he was removed from his dual roles as president and CEO of the speedway and of Hulman & Co., the multifaceted business started in 1850 by Tony's great-great-grandfather, Herman Hulman. At the same time, George elected to stand down as the leader of the Indy Racing League. He was reinstated to the Hulman & Co. board in early 2011 but has no active governing role in terms of the speedway or the IRL.

Jeff Belskus took over as the CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In March 2010, Randy Bernard was named CEO of the IRL, which was eventually renamed INDYCAR in an effort to banish memories of the controversial terms IRL or Indy Racing League -- or by extension, Tony George.

George's sisters -- in particular, Josie George, who was instrumental in the hiring of Bernard -- have taken a much more active role in the management of the Hulman family business in recent years. While rumors always persist that the track will be sold, Mari George, daughter of Tony Hulman and the chairman of Hulman & Co. and IMS, always has maintained that the speedway will be handed down through generations of the Hulman family.

No matter who is in charge, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway always will stand as one of motorsports' greatest venues. With a century of history in the books, the legend continues this Sunday.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.

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