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Brickyard Mystique in Short Supply at This 500

May 24, 1996

BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) _ For the Hamilton family, Indianapolis was a way of life.

Every year, they would gather at the same spot outside the speedway, with the same people as the year before, to nail a wooden plaque to a tree showing the diverse locations each person traveled from to watch the Indy 500.

``The ceremonial nailing to the tree,″ Geri Hamilton said with a giggle. ``I remember this same booze bottle with a rope attached to it hanging in that tree. I wonder how long that had been up there?″

This year, though, tradition and loyalty and friendships have been tossed out the door.

Hamilton and her husband, Richard, decided to attend the inaugural U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway, where the best drivers will be racing Sunday. Meanwhile, some of their longtime friends are gathered at that familiar spot in Indy, preparing to watch a bunch of no-name drivers in the world’s most famous race.

``I don’t think there’s any comparison between the tracks,″ Richard Hamilton conceded. ``There’s a certain mystique about Indy. I remember listening to my first race in 1955 on the radio in my dad’s car.″

The Hamiltons had been to 23 consecutive Indy 500s and already had their tickets for No. 24. But when a dispute between Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George and the car owners resulted in formation of the U.S. 500, their vacation plans switched from the hustle and bustle of Indianapolis to the rolling, tranquil hills of lower Michigan.

``When we saw that Al Unser, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and the rest of ’em were going to be here, we wrote Tony George a letter and told him we’re going to be where the drivers are,″ Geri Hamilton said.

They wound up a track with a history of high-speed, competitive racing, but hardly a match for Indy in the tradition department.

There’s no Gasoline Alley. No towering, double-decked grandstands bordering both sides of the main straightaway. No totem-like scoreboard at the start-finish line. No all-night party planned the night before the race by fans hoping to land a spot in the infield.

Only three days before the race, life went on usual in this patch of the American heartland known as ``Irish Hills,″ where the two-mile race track seems out of place amidst the lakes and campgrounds, white houses and red barns, antique shops and flea markets.

The Hamiltons frolicked Thursday on a hill overlooking the two-mile oval, their motor home stocked with plenty of food and drink. But it was a solitary celebration with only a few hundred people on the grounds.

Indy-car officials announced that all 90,000 grandstand tickets had been sold, but it appears most of the buyers will be arriving on Sunday, their primary intention to see a race.

Indianapolis, on the other hand, isn’t just a race. It’s a month-long carnival, as much about the infield fans who immerse themselves in the mud of the ``snake pit″ as it is about the drivers who hurl their cars around the speedway at 230 mph.

``It’s the fans that make Indy,″ Geri Hamilton said.

Unfortunately, the fans always seem to lose when the rich guys start fighting. George’s decree that 25 of the 33 spots in his race would be reserved for drivers in his new Indy Racing League led Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) to form its own rival race.

``I feel kind of jilted,″ said Wendy Thompson of Petrolia, Ontario, who is attending her first race. ``I just became a race fan, and this was supposed to be my first Indy.″

The car owners and drivers recited the party line, attacking George and trying to put the best face on an Indy-car series that no longer includes Indy.

``It’s sort of a culture shock not to be there,″ said Jimmy Vasser, the pole-sitter for the U.S. 500. ``But we’re trying to offer something to the hardcore Indy fans, the people who come to see the best racing.″

With no end to the dispute in sight, there’s already discussion about the site of next year’s U.S. 500. Since the state of Michigan has two other Indy-car races, some people believe the Memorial Day race will be shifted to one of the new tracks under construction in Texas and California.

Vasser’s car owner, Chip Ganassi, hopes that won’t happen.

``While there’s other great circuits around the country,″ he said, ``I think we have a certain responsibility to the Midwest, where people have supported this kind of racing for many years.″

People like Geri Hamilton were willing to give up Indy, but not if it means a trip to Texas or California.

``Keep it here,″ she pleaded.

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