Has anyone noticed?

Mario Andretti on the dirt in Sacramento

This story is from our 2002 archives and discusses the loss of short track dirt racing and fanbase from oval track IndyCar racing after Tony George split the sport, which led to its destruction.

Indianapolis, Indiana is the home of the Indy 500, the United States Auto Club and is a hot bed of open wheel short track racing week in and week out from April through September. It is also the home of all of many die hard IRL fans. So what has happened to all of the "premier" short track events?

Three years ago, the West 16th Street Speedway shut its gates at Victory Field for lack of interest and business. This was supposed to be the 21st century's answer to old fashioned Saturday night midget racing on the dirt and under the lights. That was the vision of Anton Hulman George and it was going to lure all those Indy/Hoosier short track fanatics to the track to get their weekly fix of dust and fumes and "real racin". In the hot bed of oval track country and, no one bothered to show up.

Then, the annual "Thunder in the Dome" a USAC Midget race that was held annually in January in the "RCA" (Hoosier) Dome was cancelled this year. Strange that the Super Cross Motorcycles manage to fill the place. After over 25 years, the diehard oval track fans that had been in hibernation during the long and bitter Indy winters stopped coming.

Andretti lifting a wheel at the Hoosier Hundred

But the real "coup de grace" came with the release of the 2002 USAC "Silver Crown" schedule. It's not that there are only 9 races, down from 13 held last year. But there are no races at the historic Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis. Forget about the "Hoosier 100", there isn't even a "Hulman 100" or a Hulman -Hoosier 100" that was held on the Friday night before the 500.

This is unfathomable for someone like me, who, as a kid, went to the fairgrounds religiously, every second Saturday in September from 1953 through 1960. No Hoosier 100, this is heresy, blasphemy, this is the end of an "institution." For me the Hoosier 100 was the last rite of summer. Jimmy Bryan, Bob Sweikert, Jud Larson, Eddie Sachs, A.J. Foyt, Bobby and Al Unser and Mario Andretti raced there! It was one of the biggest races of the year, and the richest dirt track race of its time.

It was the Indy 500 in May, and then I had to wait 16 weeks to see my heroes' race again! It was torture, but on that second Saturday in September, I could see the best, one last time until they went west to conclude the National Championship. In the 1950's and 60's it was the 2nd biggest race in the USAC National Championship. No more Hoosier Hundred?

Blame it on September 11th? Naw! Blame it on the "Brazilians"…too many of them racing up here in America! Hey, remember Buddy Jobe? Jobe who ran Phoenix International Raceway said there were too many Brazilians in CART or Indy Car racing. No, it's not something we can blame on those "Darned" (but talented) Brazilians. Let's face it, open wheel oval track racing, except for the World of Outlaw's; even at the grass roots level is in trouble.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Short track/open wheel drivers are following Jeff Gordon's phenomenal success to NASCAR. This, despite Anton Hulman George's manifesto of bringing the Indy 500 back home again to the short trackers. It's not happening. When Jeff Gordon went south to NASCAR, the hue and cry was "they (arrogant, myopic and greedy CART Owners) let Gordon get away. Never gave him a chance. Well, Tony Stewart got a chance. The full force and effect of three USAC titles in one year, John Menard, Anton Hulman George, the IMS/USAC propaganda machine still couldn't keep Stewart from fleeing. In the meantime, both Ryan Newman and now Kasey Kahne have gone to NASCAR. Now Anton Hulman George and his minions can't even blame CART.

Nevertheless, it was Gordon going to NASCAR that was one of the factors in Anton Hulman George tailor making an all oval based Indy Car series with a roster loaded with All-American short track aces from every corner of the country. These Saturday night stars would bring their legion of Saturday night fans and they would pack the stands with fans who were "tired" of all of the "ride buying foreigners."

CART and all the Brazilians be damned! Billy Boat will pack the stands with his fellow Phoenix residents. "Double O Joe" Gosek will bring everyone down to Loudon, New Hampshire. Jimmy Kite will bring out his fellow Georgians to Atlanta and Charlotte, while Steve Kinser and Jack Hewitt, will bring droves in from Bloomington, Indiana and Troy, Ohio to Indy and the poor scalpers on Georgetown Road could get more than $5 for tickets to the "Greatest Spectacle In Racing". And anyone who didn't believe that had (1) no vision, and (2) was a CART lover.

That was the way it was supposed to work. However, the fans weren't up for the "bait and switch" routine. Attendance at Phoenix plummeted from 50,000 to 15,000, Loudon from 45,000 to 8,000. As far as the Indy 500 becoming "Short Track Heaven", well, along with IRL Poster Boy Tony Stewart, went fellow short trackers Steve Kinser, Jack Hewitt, Johnny Parsons, Dan Drinan, Paul Durant, Randy Tolsma, Joe Gosek, Tyce Carlsen, Andy Michner, Dave Blaney, Dave Steele, Jimmy Kite, J. J. Yeley, Brian Tyler, Jason Leffler, Stevie Reeves, Doug Didero , Ronnie Johncox and Donnie Beechler to race elsewhere. In other words there is no free lunch. Racing is expensive.

If IRL became a failure for short trackers, it was certainly a boon for non short track talent, and a virtual land of opportunity for revolving door drivers like Brad Murphey, Racin' Gardner, Stan Wattles, Scott Harrington, Marco Greco, Rick de Lorto, Rob Wilson, Fermin Velez, John Hollansworth, Allen May, Juan Carlos Carbonell and the immortal Dr. Jack Miller. Believe me; it's hard to lose that kind of talent!

Sorry short trackers, but this year's IRL lineup may very well include the likes of Eliseo Salazar, Felipe Giaffone, Airton Dare, Didier Andre, Shigeaki Hattori, Hideki Noda, Laurent Redon and Sarah Fisher (bona fide short tracker).

Wait a minute…Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran are coming to the IRL in 2002? Two MORE Brazilians? Please don't tell Buddy Jobe.

I find the current state of affairs in open wheel oval track racing rather ironic, but has anyone noticed?

The author can be contacted at feedback@autoracing1.com

Leave a Reply