Behind the turmoil is the U.S. 500, a new race planned by Championship Auto Racing Teams for Michigan International Speedway's twisting track on Memorial Day, the traditional time slot of the Indianapolis 500.
A TV deal for coverage of the U.S. 500 is finally in the works, say CART sources, after several fruitless weeks of negotiations with outlets including CBS and Turner Broadcasting System raised the oil pressure of sponsors and racing teams committed to the new race.
There are no changes in ABC's plans to cover the Indy 500 live; the race is usually one of the highest-rated sporting events for the network.
But many of racing's most powerful names-including Roger Penske and Philip Morris Cos.' Marlboro and Miller Brewing Co.-have committed to the U.S. 500. And that could further divide sponsors, not to mention viewers.
Already announced as defectors from the Indianapolis 500 competition are high-profile drivers including Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Bobby Rahal.
Marlboro and Miller have also opted out of the Indy 500 and Kmart Corp., Texaco and Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser are among sponsors eyeing the U.S. 500 instead of the Indy 500.
The U.S. 500 was conceived last month after Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George decreed that 25 of 33 race starting positions at the Indy 500 would go to regulars in his newly formed oval track-based Indy Racing League.
"We recognize the last thing in the world the sponsors need is this" kind of commotion, said CART President Andrew Craig. "But we don't believe Tony George should run the sport."
CART'S "ABSOLUTE CONTROL"?
The Indy Racing League's view, as voiced by Executive Director Jack Long: "CART has absolute control of the sport. We think CART's grip is making racing inaccessible and too expensive for participants, and we want to spread control out over all constituencies."
BACKING BOTH RACES
Some marketers want to be in both races. Firestone hopes to be a sponsor at both events, and Valvoline, committed to the Indy 500, is also said to be planning an appearance as a sponsor at the U.S. 500.
"It will cost us more, but it's in our best interest to support races where the important cars will be at both races," said Al Speyer, motorsports manager for Firestone/Bridgestone.
Meanwhile, the Indy Racing League has locked up Chevrolet, True Value, Delco Electronics Corp. and STP Corp., among others, racing sources say.
U.S. 500 sponsor Marlboro is also the exclusive tobacco sponsor of the CART racing series.
Mike Sack, director of marketing services for PPG and an IndyCar racing series sponsor since 1980, is angry at both sides and hinted PPG may reassess its commitment to Indy.
RIDING WITH RAHAL
Miller will stick with Mr. Rahal and his race team as they shift to the U.S. 500, said Marc Abel, sports marketing manager at the nation's No. 2 brewer.
The Indy Racing League is making Miller's future racing decisions difficult by offering a package of several IRL races that Miller would have to take in order keep its sponsorship of the Indy 500, an option that "didn't find much support among [Miller] regional marketing people," Mr. Abel said, adding, "We will not split our [racing sponsorship] dollars in the future."
Sponsors remain doubtful, but hopeful, that CART and IRL can reach an agreement.
CART's Mr. Craig is on record as saying that the speedway should abandon the IRL but more importantly open the Indy 500 to all competitors.
"If that happens," he said, "we would reconsider our position and abandon the [U.S. 500] race."