"The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?" Perhaps. But the Indianapolis 500 is definitely in danger of becoming just another race.
The 500 still should draw 400,000 fans on Sunday, the biggest one-day crowd in sports. The purse, easily the richest in auto racing, probably will be higher than the $8.6 million last year, with the winner taking home no less than Arie Luyendyk's $1.6 million haul.But race tickets that were once as precious as heirlooms are now hawked in newspapers at face value, fewer fans show up for the weeklong festivities before the race and many of the drivers are virtually unknown.
Even so, the name and history remain.
"Indy is still Indy," said Luyendyk, known as the Flying Dutchman. "It's still a big race for the drivers and the fans."
Just not as big.
The problems began two years ago when Championship Auto Racing Teams said goodbye to the 500 in a fight for control of the sport. That left the race to the fledgling Indy Racing League, the brainchild of speedway president Tony George.
The immediate question was raised: If CART, with the biggest names from the open-wheel sport, stayed away, would people still care about the Indy race?
Would the IRL, with few familiar faces and a new, low-cost approach to the expensive world of Indy-car racing, be able to pros-per?
The answers seem to be maybe.
NASCAR's Daytona 500 has had higher TV ratings than the Indy 500 for the past two years, although the 1997 numbers were skewed when Indy was rained out until Tuesday. (It still drew a decent 5.3 rating during the afternoon soap-opera slot).
In the IRL's first year in 1996, the stock car race in February had an 8.6 rating and a 23 share on CBS, while Indy had a 6.6 rating and 21 share on ABC.
In the battle between the IRL and CART for open-wheel supremacy, only the Indy 500 has drawn a big TV audience. All of the other races in both series have drawn ratings below 2.0, splitting what had been about 4.0 when it was all CART.
Corporate support, the lifeblood of racing, is only slowly building in the IRL, with Pep Boys signing on this year as series sponsor and several other companies getting involved. But the big-dollar deals still are mostly in NASCAR's Winston Cup series and, to a lesser extent, CART.
Nonetheless, the 500 is still THE race for Tony Stewart, defending IRL champ.
"How important would it be to me to win Indy?" said Stewart, an Indiana native who lives in Indianapolis. "I would give up every win and every championship I've had in my life to win."
Also trying to win Sunday will be three little-known drivers on the front row - Billy Boat, Greg Ray and Kenny Brack. They will lead the 33-car field under the green flag for the 82nd running of the Indy 500.
That is if weather permits. The forecast called for showers on and off through the weekend, much like last year.
The most familiar name behind the front row will be two-time winner Luyendyk, who had lost his full-time CART ride before the IRL came along.
82nd Annual 500 Mile Race
Sunday, May 24, 1998
In 1911, the first Indianapolis 500 was held, setting a Memorial Day tradition that has grown into the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
Youngest driver. . . . Troy Ruttman, 1952, 22 yrs., 2 mo.
Oldest driver. . . . . Al Unser, 1987, 47 yrs., 11 mo.
Most laps led. . . . . Bill Arnold, 1930, 198 laps
Least laps led . . . . Joe Dawson, 1912, 2 laps
Widest winning margin. Jules Goux over Spencer Wishart, 13 min, 8 sec., 1913
Closest winning margin Al Unser Jr. over Scott Goodyear, 0.043, 1992
Fastest winning speed. 185.981, Arie Luyendyk, 1990
Slowest winning speed. 74.602, Ray Harroun, 1911
Fans will have the opportunity to watch the race on small hand-held TV sets via a low-power signal that can be received in the stands.
Leading career money winners
1. Arie Luyuendyk** $5,027,329
2. Rick Mears***** 4,299,392
3. Al Unser Jr.** 4,262,690
4. Emmerson Fittipaldi** 4,042,767
5. Al Unser**** 3,378,018
6. Bobby Rahal* 2,789,596
7. Mario Andretti* 2,766,931
8. A.J. Foyt Jr.**** 2,637,963
9. Roberto Guerrero 2,338,763
10. Michael Andretti 2,287,921
* = One race win
1911 Ray Harroun
1913 Jules Goux
1914 Rene Thomas
1915 Frank Lockhart
1927 George Souders
1966 Graham Hill
Track size: 2.5 miles
Race length: 200 laps, 500 miles
Front and back straightaways: 5/8 miles
Banking (corners): 9 degrees 12 min.
Source: 1998 Indianapolis 500 Official Media fact Book