Tarnished jewel of a Triple Crown

David Tremayne laments the woeful state that has befallen the Indianapolis 500

They are unofficially known as the Triple Crown, the three oldest-established and most famous races of them all. The Indianapolis 500, birth date 1911; the Le Mans 24 Hours, 1923; the Monaco Grand Prix, started in 1929. Only one man, Graham Hill, has worn the crown, winning Indy in 1966, Le Mans in 1972, and Monaco five times between 1963 and 1969.

But as one still basks in last weekend's electrifying result and another enjoys a surge in health after suffering what many believed to be terminal illness, the third is on the brink of disaster.

Last week in Monaco, Olivier Panis drove the race of his life for Ligier to take unexpected but deserved glory for France. His storming performance in moving from 14th on the grid to benefit from the error of Michael Schumacher, and the misfortune of Damon Hill and Jean Alesi, will go down in the annals of this unique race, and justly so. This was no tortoise and hare story but the tale of an underdog who rose to the big occasion and drove his heart out. If he and his wife, Anne, looked somewhat underwhelmed afterwards it was perhaps understandable. Such momentous achievements can take time to sink in.

The French will be out in force again next month for Le Mans, where sportscar racing is going through a great renaissance, but in Indiana businessmen would kill for the kind of crowds that the first two events attract. One restaurateur has already calculated his loss of income for the month of May at $1.5m (pounds 1m). Something is rotten in the big two and a half mile oval they call the Brickyard.

Indianapolis is enshrined in tradition. Its roots go back to 1909, when its surface was made of bricks and it epitomised everything Uncle Sam held dear. It was the epitome of American wholesomeness. Such values remained unchanged for almost 90 years, but now it is in trouble. In 1979 the IndyCar teams broke away acrimoniously from the United States Auto Club to set up their own series, under the auspices of Championship Auto Racing Teams. A compromise was hammered out under which they would still race at Indianapolis, which remained the USAC jewel in the CART crown.

Last year, Tony George, who owns the Indianapolis track, announced far- reaching changes for the Indy 500 which were aimed at chasing out much of the European, South American and Eurasian influence that, he felt, had threatened to steal Indianapolis from the Americans. By initiating his own Indy Racing League series, he engineered a massive split with CART. Their response, through the far- sighted entrepreneur and team owner Roger Penske was simply, though reluctantly, to turn their back on Indianapolis and stage their own 500-mile event, the Michigan US 500 for the Vanderbilt Cup, on the same day. In a piece of inspired oneupmanship, they will allow in holders of tickets for the devalued Indy 500.

The death of Scott Brayton, who held pole position for this year's race, in a testing accident nine days ago cast even more of a pall over the already beleaguered race. This was one of those tragedies that beset a sport where the average lap speed is more than 230mph and all that separates a driver from infinity is a massive concrete outer wall.

But there is irony to the Brayton accident since it appeared less serious than the incident suffered later by the rookie Dan Drinan who, in better seasons, would not have got near a shot at qualifying. Drinan survived; Brayton was running-in a fifth Lola for the Menard team, for a driver who had not been able to get up to speed. There are many in Indianapolis this year.

Monaco and Le Mans have had problems over the years, but never have they sunk as low as Indianapolis this year. Back in 1973 accidents and tragedies brought this great institution under fire. Now observers watched warily and prayed that history would not repeat itself as George's cast of under- studies prepared for battle this weekend.

As Monaco and Le Mans glitter in the Triple Crown, Indianapolis, with its war so few really want, is in danger of falling loose from its damaged setting.

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