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Indy Car Feud Reveals A Lack Of Top Drivers

Tue., May 21, 1996, midnight

Outside the garage where Scott Brayton used to work, a flag still fluttered at half-staff.

At the base of the flagpole lay a half-dozen withered roses. On either side, behind half-closed doors, mechanics danced to the peculiar rhythms of their trade, flitting from car to half-built car.

It wouldn’t be fair to call the mood along Gasoline Alley on this bright. blazing afternoon mournful. It was too busy for that.

With only a few hours of qualifying left for the Indy 500, everyone had work to occupy their time. But like the hastily erected memorial to Brayton - a likable, 37-year-old veteran killed in a practice crash two days earlier - it was hard to view the goings-on Sunday and think in terms of business as usual.

For a sport that makes its money by making billboards out of men and machines, there are few big-name sponsors on the ground and even fewer recognizable drivers. That’s because a feud pitting Indianapolis Speedway boss Tony George against the owners of the best Indy cars and their drivers has prompted most to flee to a serviceable little course in Michigan. There, for most of the past month, they have set up shop and a competing race, the U.S. 500.

The owner-operators from the Championship Auto Racing Team circuit are not fooling themselves, or anybody else. They understand tradition. Strong as the field for their race will be, they know it’s not Indy. But neither, in this sad, crazy year of the split 500s, is Indy.

“Usually, by the time you get here, you’ve run with most of the guys and you know what they’re likely to do,” A.J. Foyt said.

He paused and uncharacteristically considered what he was going to say next. As a driver, the Indy 500 made Foyt a household name. Now, as a car-team owner, he is trying to give something back, lending his prestige to George and the Speedway.

“With all the first-timers, the race could go two ways. It could be wide open, with more holes than ever to run a car through, or,” he added, “guys could spend all day running up each other’s backs.”

A certain amount of the latter was just about guaranteed when the CART teams split with their drivers in tow. Angered by an ultimatum that 25 of the Indy 500’s 33 starting spots go to teams from a rival circuit George founded, they are vowing not to return.

The sudden expansion has exposed a lack of quality driving. No one could have foreseen that Brayton, who ran 14 times at Indy, would run into such unyielding trouble. But the other bumpy moments haven’t come as much surprise.

Johnny Parsons, 51, who hadn’t raced at Indy since crashing in practice in 1987, picked up last week where he left off by losing control momentarily and crashing into Turn 3. Five days later, Scott Harrington became the first of four rookies to crash, two of whom picked the final few hours of qualifying to fall out of the race.

The encouraging news is that only Dan Drinan sustained an injury serious enough to be laid up for some time. And going out with him was an outdated Lola that should have been spare parts a year ago.

Now the not-so-encouraging news: Seventeen rookies - the second-highest total ever - will be in the field. Less than half that many will fill out the grid in Michigan. Which is one reason why Foyt, when asked to pick the ideal driver for Sunday’s Indy race, steered clear of his hard-charging self.

“I’d pick Al Unser,” he answered.

And then, perhaps remembering that Al Unser Jr. was in Michigan, Foyt added, “Senior. Al Unser Sr.

“Al was steady as they come and a hole had to have plenty of room before he’d go through. In fact, I tried to get him. What a kick that would have been.”

The real kick is that Al Sr., a four-time winner at Indy, is already 56. And Foyt wasn’t the only owner trying to talk him out of retirement.

One further measure of how far Indy has sunk for drivers: Team Menard manager Larry Curry announced that Danny Ongais would take Brayton’s place. Ongais turns 54 Thursday and like Parsons, hasn’t run here since a practice crash nine years ago.

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