At hallowed Brickyard, shifting of gears

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS - From the seventh floor of the new Pagoda Tower at the start-finish line of the redesigned Indianapolis Motor Speedway, track president Tony George has a view to be envied.

Below him, track-side, is the remaining yard of bricks from the original speedway to remind him of the past. Behind him, where the view stretches to downtown, is the original garage area that houses Indy Cars in May for the Indianapolis 500 and Winston Cup stock cars in August for the Brickyard 400. They speak to the present.

And stretching out on his left is a row of new garages and corporate suites designed expressly for the Formula One series that will debut here Sunday with the SAP United States Grand Prix.

Formula One at Indy is the realization of George's 10-year-old dream, a major part of the blueprint that he believes will take his speedway into the 21st century.

"I don't know that we've totally reinvented ourselves," George says, sitting at a rosewood table in the seventh-floor lounge. "We're just expanding on the speedway's heritage.

"From the very beginning, the founders made the commitment to plow revenue back into developing the race track. My grandfather [Tony Hulman Jr.] followed that plan and, ultimately, we've maintained the philosophy."

George doesn't know if everyone shares his vision. Are American racing fans ready? Time will tell, but George is a risk taker and given the popularity of motor sports, he believes the time is now to make the most of his inheritance and return Formula One racing to the United States for the first time since 1991.

And George has gotten lucky. When the Formula One cars take the green flag Sunday, not only will the race be a chance for Americans to see the series up close, but the lead in the F-1 World Drivers' Championship will be at stake. Just two points separate defending F-1 champ Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher.

"The founders had originally planned for a road course and for the speedway to be a showplace," George says. "It didn't happen for 90 years, but we have a road course now and we have a facility that looks better now than it ever has.

"This place is 90 years old. But look around, it's just hard to believe."

It is hard to believe. As Indy 500 winner Eddie Cheever told George one day, his speedway is "a living, breathing entity."

Its evolution is easy to trace.

George remembers when he was 10, and his grandfather began talking about plans to build the first hospitality suite.

"A sky suite," George says, the lines around his eyes deepening as he remembers. "I was a little boy and I had envisioned a Jetsons' house on a pedestal overlooking the track. It was the 1970s. I think we built ours and then Ontario [Calif.] Speedway was built with luxury boxes - or maybe it was the other way around. But whether we were first or not, I don't know of any other speedways at the time with luxury boxes. If we weren't first, we did it first-class when we did build them."

Indy probably could have gone on as it was for decades. After all, the speedway and its original big race, the Indianapolis 500, have weathered near-bankruptcy, World Wars I and II and, most recently, a split in open-wheel racing that has seen most major teams and drivers desert the Indy 500 for the Championship Auto Racing Teams series.

But even CART car owner Chip Ganassi, whose team returned to Indy for the first time last May, has to admit The Speedway creates the biggest glow.

Ganassi-owned cars have won four CART titles, including last year's with Juan Montoya. It was Montoya who drove in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time this past May and won.

"After winning the Indianapolis 500," says Ganassi, "people who had never been interested in auto racing mentioned to me that they knew about Indy and knew Juan was the winner. It was front-page news on sports pages across the country. And, for us, it was obvious something big had happened.

"Indianapolis," says Ganassi, "is the Cooperstown of auto racing."

It is an apt description in terms of the meaning of the sport to the town. And yet, it sounds a loud contrast. In Cooperstown, N.Y., as Detroit Free Press writer John Lowe wrote recently, "The loudest noise all day ... might be the noon whistle."

In Indy, engines roar.

And hearts pound.

Even from a European perspective, says Formula One car owner Eddie Jordan, "I think the Indianapolis 500 is No. 1. And I say that without reservation."

Jordan says: "We can talk about Monaco, Monza or wherever you like, but ... I [have] stood on the front row of Indy for an Indy 500 race. To see those stands full of 450,000 to 500,000 people in one arena is probably the biggest and the greatest sporting thrill that I've ever witnessed.

"I couldn't believe the atmosphere, the openness, the music, the commitment - even the guys down in the snake pit, who probably weren't sure where they were, but they were there ... And, for me, going to Indy is probably one of the biggest lifetime achievements. It is a huge thrill ... to go to what I believe is the world's greatest racetrack."

But even the world's greatest racetrack has to keep pace, and George said that in the long run, it would be more and more difficult to leverage a single event.

"We had to find ways to utilize the fixed asset [the speedway] that sits here," George says. "With the current growth of motor sports, it was the right time to look at other opportunities."

Twenty years ago, the speedway was getting old. The original wooden garages were straining to fit modern-day racing equipment and their weathered exterior was beginning to decay. Entertainment facilities were limited.

Then the evolution began. New garages, new entertainment suites and tents. And then, 10 years ago, George took over.

First came the redesign of the speedway golf course and the establishment of a PGA Senior Tour event. Then he made plans to bring the Winston Cup stock cars to the track and caused traditionalists to flap their arms in frustration, even though former speedway owner Tony Hulman and NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. had talked about doing just that years before. Seven years into the Brickyard 400, the race is another roaring success.

To make his Formula One dream a reality, George has spent tens of millions of dollars redesigning the racing complex.

The Pagoda, which replaces the Control Tower that dated to 1956, is a replica of the original wooden, Japanese-style structure that stood here in 1913. On one side of it are 36 Formula One garages with 12 spacious suites above them. On the other, a four-story media center accommodates legions of reporters from around the world.

And then there is the 2.606-mile road course. It uses most of the front stretch and part of turns 1 and 2, before weaving 1.3 miles through the infield.

"Everything changes and you have to change with it," says four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt, whose love of the speedway is well known. "You have to change with it. The way I look at this place, that's what has always made it great. It's innovative.

"For years, it was the innovations that were in or around the Indy Cars themselves. Then came the stock cars. I was one of the few glad to see stock cars, and now the Formula One cars are here. You're going to see drivers from France and Germany and all over the world.

"It's like the Kentucky Derby. There is only one Indianapolis."

It has been said from the beginning of the speedway's history that the "greatest drivers in the world" come to race at Indy.

"Now," says George, "it's true. The last few years, a lot has been said about who has the greatest drivers. But now, whoever they are, all the best drivers have the opportunity to come race here. At some point, all of them will pass through these gates."

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