In 1997 the recently-formed Indy Racing League was making its first foray into sanctioning an Indianapolis 500 with formula cars powered by a new low-tech spec: naturally-aspirated, production-based, 4-liter V8s. Nobody expected much, as the season-opening races had been judged a disaster by Indy Car pundits and purists, many of whom sided with the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams (or CART), an organization of racers who boycotted the Indy 500, ultimately to its own peril and obsolescence.
History shows now that—by virtue of its symbiotic relationship with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its crown jewel, the 500—the IRL won and CART lost (and actually went bankrupt twice, before deep-sixing for good). But in 1997, that eventuality wasn’t so clear. Indeed, at the IRL’s 1997 Phoenix race (contested weeks before IMS opening its gates for Indy 500 time trials), so many engines blew up nobody was sure the race would go the 200-mile distance. Due to the flurry of caution laps based on all the carnage, the race’s average speed was about the same leisurely pace one takes on I-10 and doesn’t worry about getting pulled over by Johnny Law.
In the press room at that year’s Long Beach Grand Prix (sanctioned by CART), over the din and whine of expensive turbocharged engines spooling up and down the race track, I heard a horde of motorsports journalists queued up in the buffet line, running the IRL Phoenix race up the proverbial flag pole while spooning lasagna into their mugs, all the while blathering that Phoenix was the worst race they had ever seen, and how the Indy 500 was doomed to oblivion. Read the rest of this entry »