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John Gilbert: CART doesn't claim superiority, but what else did Indy prove

If you listened to all the CART guys racing at the Indianapolis 500 last Sunday, you would believe that the results were just coincidental, and meant nothing in the ongoing cold war between CART and the Indy Racing League. They missed not being t...

If you listened to all the CART guys racing at the Indianapolis 500 last Sunday, you would believe that the results were just coincidental, and meant nothing in the ongoing cold war between CART and the Indy Racing League. They missed not being there for the last five years, and they are thankful to be back.
But, after a wild and very entertaining race, what else are we left with but to compare the results?
Helio Castroneves, a 26-year-old Indy rookie who races for Roger Penske in CART and had never before won a race on any oval track in the world, won the race and $1.27 million. Gil de Ferran was second, a more veteran racer, and another Brazilian who races for Penske in CART. Third was Michael Andretti, longtime CART loyalist who was brought back to Indy by car owner Barry Green, another CART mainstay. Fourth was Jimmy Vasser, driving for CART boss Chip Ganassi. Fifth was Bruno Junqueira, a rookie at Indy and a rookie in CART, where he also drives for Ganassi. Sixth was Tony Stewart, former IRL driver who left to go racing in NASCAR Winston Cup, and who was hired to return for one race at Indy, to drive for Ganassi.
Count 'em, 1-2-3-4-5-6. The top IRL finisher was Eliseo Salazar, in seventh, one lap behind. Airton Dare, Billy Boat, Felipe Giaffone and Robby McGehee all trailed, also finishing one lap behind.
Penske was gracious in victory, as were all the CART guys at Indy, although he had won 10 previous Indy 500s, and as one of the most prominent leaders of CART, Penske might have been one of the primary reasons that Indy boss Tony George decided to split off and start a rebel organization in the IRL. In his triumphant return from the five-year exile, Penske saw his drivers finish 1-2.
To briefly recount, George in 1996 outlawed the new CART cars as being too exotic, too costly, and ruled that only year-old cars would be eligible for the 1996 Indy 500. Then he realized that CART would hang together and run its own series, and the CART teams would not just dissolve and come into the fold to race at Indy and in the IRL, and he also realized that some CART teams might come in with their year-old discards for just one race and still whip his guys at Indy, so he also added a rule saying that 25 of the 33 starting spots would be reserved for drivers in his series.
So CART went its separate ways, and the split has been nasty and detrimental to both sides. It has also caused a split in the media covering the event. A lot of newspapers don't cover auto racing much, but they cover the Indy 500, so that's their focal point. Those Indy loyalists have treated CART like the outlaws in this whole thing, and have consistently said that in 1996, CART "boycotted" the Indy 500, overlooking the facts that indicate they were frozen out of the race as more of a lockout by the IRL than a boycott by CART.
In the five years since the split, the IRL has introduced and enforced its own rules on cars and engines, trying to keep costs down. Surprise! Costs have risen sharply, although the IRL with its Dallara and G-Force cars, and with Aurora stock-based V8s rebuilt by race shops, and Infiniti V8s supplied as factory-only alternatives, still are much less costly than the exotic CART cars and engines, which are more sophisticated and involve engines from Toyota, Honda and Ford.
The best thing about the split is that the IRL did offer opportunities for young, less-experienced -- and if not less-skilled, then less-polished -- drivers, who could be competitive right away because of cost restrictions, and the more basic cars and less-refined engines. However, CART was winging away for races that were all major events, but lacked the clout of Indy. Because the cars, the engines and the drivers were all more sophisticated, the constant competition among CART teams produced major league skill development.
The Indy 500 of the last two years does not simply prove CART's superiority, and if you ask any of the CART people, they will say that everybody was competitive, but the IRL guys just seemed to have all the bad luck. They were referring to pole-sitter Scott Sharp rudely concluding a perfect month of fastest qualifier and boy-wonder by jumping into the lead at the drop of the green flag, but crashing at Turn 1 on Lap 1. They cleaned that up, dropped the green, and Sarah Fisher spun out and crashed, taking Scott Goodyear out with her. When they picked up those pieces, the green waved again and Sam Hornish spun out hard, causing Al Unser Jr. to veer into the wall in a reaction to avoid Hornish's car.
So after 21 laps, only two had been run under green, and five IRL stars who might have made runs at a top finish all were eliminated. Maybe it was all coincidental, but none of the seven CART guys spun or crashed. Only Nicolas Minassian, the seventh CART driver, and fourth Ganassi/Target team member, whose transmission seized after 74 of the 200 laps, failed to finish. The other six finished 1-2-3-4-5-6, following up on Juan Montoya's victory for Ganassi/Target last year at Indy.
Before the race, IRL drivers and officials said they were glad to see the CART guys come back, and they stressed that they were IRL racers for the race because they were racing in IRL cars and under IRL rules. As long as they were buying cars for Indy, Penske had the foresight to enter Castroneves and de Ferran in the race at Phoenix early in the season. But basically, the seven CART entries were for Indy only.
If you were to compare the two series, that also raises the interesting question: Which IRL team could buy a CART-rules race car and engine and come into the series for just one race and hope to win it?
A cynic might say that CART ran the Indy 500, while the IRL guys ran the "Indy 497," because none of the 26 IRL racers completed all 200 laps, with the top five finishing 199, so all were at least 2.5 miles behind. But nobody from CART is saying that. They were too classy, too gracious, and, perhaps, too busy counting their winnings from sweeping at Indy. Again.
John Gilbert is a sports writer for the Up North
Newspaper Network. He can be reached by e-mail at john.gilbert@mx3.com .

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