Originally created 05/30/99

Safety comes first at Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- Arie's on his final ride, Tony's doing the double and the Indy Racing League is at least talking to its bitter rival.

All compelling stories, to be sure. But nothing matters more at the Indianapolis 500 today (noon, ABC-Channel 6) than keeping the action on the track and away from the nearly 400,000 fans.

The event will be the first for the IRL since a wheel and suspension parts flew into the grandstand in Concord, N.C., on May 1, killing three fans and injuring eight others.

"The story of this race needs to be about racing, not tragedy," said Arie Luyendyk, a two-time Indy winner who will retire from the cockpit following the checkered flag.

In an effort to avoid another fatal wreck, the cars will be fitted with cables designed to keep wheels and suspension parts out of the crowd.

"I'm glad the IRL has addressed this situation so quickly, but I'm going to be sure to not be the first one to test it," said Billy Boat, who will start from the outside of the front row.

Tethering wheels could add to the danger for drivers because the tires might rebound into the open cockpit during a crash. But Leo Mehl, executive director of the IRL, believes the new safety system will be better for everyone.

"When you analyze the crashes and see the loose stuff running out on the racetrack, the more we can keep attached to the race car, the better off the driver as well as the fans are going to be," Mehl said.

Like most of the drivers, Luyendyk shrugged off the added danger.

"It's inherent in our business that the driver is always in jeopardy," Luyendyk said. "I don't want to get hit in the head. I've been in crashes where I woke up 30 minutes later. But, you have to do everything you can to protect the fans. They're the No. 1 priority."

Although everyone is talking about the safety of fans, once the green flag waves, the action on the track will probably produce one of the most compelling races in years.

"I really believe there are 15 guys out here who could win the race, including me," said defending champion Eddie Cheever, who will start 16th, one spot better than last year.

If he does win, Cheever will be the first driver to win consecutive Indy 500s since Al Unser Sr. in 1970-71.

Cheever, however, is the only top contender using the Nissan Infiniti engine, which has never won an IRL event. In fact, only Cheever, Roberto Guerrero and rookie Jeret Schroeder are not using the Oldsmobile Aurora powerplant.

Luyendyk, meanwhile, would love to emulate Bobby Unser, who retired in 1981 after winning his third Indy 500.

"I'm enjoying all of this," said the Flying Dutchman, who won the Indy 500 in 1990 and 1997. "I'm not sad, because I'm not going away. I'll be working as a broadcaster or something else that will keep me around."

Luyendyk, at 45 the oldest driver in the lineup, owns nearly every speed record at Indy going into his 15th and final start.

"You know, I felt so small when I walked into this place, it almost scared me seeing the cars going into turn one flat out," said Luyendyk, who won the fastest 500 ever in 1990 with an average speed of 185.981 mph. "To become part of Indianapolis history is pretty neat for me."

Another fan favorite is Tony Stewart, the 1997 IRL champion, who has virtually abandoned the struggling 4-year-old open-wheel circuit for a full-time job in NASCAR's Winston Cup series.

But Stewart grew up in nearby Columbus, Ind., and made sure that part of his deal with owner Joe Gibbs was that the former Washington Redskins coach would allow him to race at Indy each year.

"There are a lot of races that are important to me that I still want to try to win in my lifetime," the 28-year-old Stewart said. "But I would say that if I could only guarantee that I was going to win one of them, this would be the one."

His first obligation these days is to NASCAR, though, and Stewart will take part in a rare double on Sunday. Immediately after the 500, he plans to take a helicopter out of the speedway, jump on a private jet and, hopefully, arrive in Concord, N.C., in time to start the Coca-Cola 600.

John Andretti, who now races solely in NASCAR, is the only other driver who has raced in both events since they've been run on the same day. In 1994, Andretti finished 10th at Indy and crashed out of the NASCAR race.

Other contenders at the 83rd Indy 500 include front-row starters Greg Ray and Boat, former IRL champions Scott Sharp and Kenny Brack, and two-time runner-up Scott Goodyear and Buddy Lazier, the only other former race winner in the Indy lineup.

With at least preliminary negotiations under way between the IRL and rival Championship Auto Racing Teams about a possible reunification of open-wheel racing, this could be the last Indy 500 without the big-name teams and drivers in CART.

But IRL president Tony George says don't put the CART cars back on the track yet.

"As long as we have different philosophies, we're never going to strike any kind of accord," he said. "I can't say I'm encouraged by anything we talked about."

With TV ratings and prestige slipping since the first IRL Indy in 1996, a merger would make the 500 the premier auto race once again.

"I think it would be wonderful," said Ray, whose career path was leading to CART before the IRL was formed. "The IRL is a business and CART is a business, and businesses occasionally sling mud at each other. I think drivers respect one another.

"I think the two series can coexist perfectly if they work together."


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