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INDIANAPOLIS -- As the third annual U.S. Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gets underway, the talk among most of the Formula One and American motorsports media is the shaky state of Championship Auto Racing Teams.

Recent high-profile defections of drivers, teams and manufacturers have CART on a death watch with the media and many of the foreign contingent wonder how this great series decomposed so quickly.

The obvious answer is that CART's owners were too greedy, short-sighted and arrogant to be concerned with the future. They had no business plan and no sense of urgency to come up with new engine rules. By the time they finally hired Chris Pook last winter to try and save the farm, most of the big horses were already out of the barn -- and in full gallop toward the Indy Racing League.

It was obviously easier for Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti to follow the Toyota and Honda money train than it was to try and salvage the series that brought them their riches and glory.

But I've got another theory about why open wheel racing has been left for dead and the two main suspects are Bill France Jr. and Bernie Ecclestone.

In 1995, CART played to full houses all over the United States. There were record oval crowds at Phoenix (65,000), Milwaukee (40,000) and Michigan (80,000) while the road courses and street circuits packed 'em in.

Television ratings averaged on the high side of 2.5 and a total of 35,000,000 tuned in on ABC and ESPN for '95. The Indy 500 drew an 8.4 rating, while the Michigan 500 was a 3.7.

NASCAR had begun its ascension with the American public, but CART still challenged for supremacy on TV, Wall Street and in the grandstands.

Formula One was feeling the pressure of CART's international profile. Losing world champion Nigel Mansell to the Yanks in '93 had bothered Ecclestone more than he'd ever admit -- just like the number of people who were watching CART races in England, Brazil, Japan and Australia. He'd already made it international law that CART could never stage a race on a road course that hosted F1.

In terms of competition, variety and the level of skill required to succeed, there was nothing like CART.

If you think France and Ecclestone weren't concerned about CART's momentum then, obviously, you believe all restrictor plates in NASCAR are the same.

Neither considered CART a threat to their empire, but both felt champ cars were a little too popular for their comfort.

They needed an ally and Tony George needed a niche.

Despite counting money every May for the greatest spectacle in racing and the highly successful Brickyard 400, George wasn't satisfied. Tony Hulman's grandson had no affection for CART. He hated CART's engine leases and was still furious that Penske had taken the IMS rulebook and stuffed it up everyone's gearbox in 1994. He also complained that nobody in the CART paddock ever seemed happy to see him.

France had already embraced the IMS kingpin by planting a stock car race on what had been the bastion of open wheel racing. He had George's ear and filled it with suggestions about autonomy, restrictor-plate racing and treating car owners like indentured servants.

In the mid-1980s, George had confessed he wanted to be king of motorsports some day but that couldn't be accomplished until he secured an F1 race. Ecclestone had lost his American treasure (Long Beach) to CART in 1984 and, just a guess, didn't fancy being booted out by a series he considered inferior in every way.

Now, there's no way to prove that France and Ecclestone encouraged George to start the IRL, but it sure is easy to see how they've both benefited from this country's open wheel civil war the past seven years.

While IRL and CART divided their fans, sponsors and teams, NASCAR circled like a vulture and steadily feasted on their carcass. Phoenix, Milwaukee and Michigan became Cup crowds while IRL and CART began playing to more and more empty seats on ovals.

Ecclestone extracted some revenge (not to mention a sweetheart financial deal with George) when he resurrected the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2000. Its attendance goes down every year but Ecclestone couldn't care if there were 25,000 people in the grandstands -- that's about the only revenue he doesn't get.

Plus, F1 is at Indy and CART isn't.

George undoubtedly considers France and Ecclestone his friends when, in fact, they've played him like the rube in a three-card monte game on a New York City street corner.

As NASCAR's TV ratings continue to climb and average over 5.0, the IRL and CART share 1.0s when they go head-to-head on network television.

In its California debut this year at Fontana, George's series drew less than 10,000 in 90,000 seats while CART's turnout at Chicago looked like a Montreal Expos game.

The IRL's best crowds are mostly at tracks that make people buy Indy-car tickets in order to get access to the Cup race. CART is a big hit in Canada and Mexico but mostly an afterthought in America.

Because of the apathy for open wheel, Indy has turned into a one-day event and takes a backseat to the Brickyard in almost every way except the on-track product.

Ecclestone got George to spend millions tearing up IMS to accommodate F1 and he could pick up and leave for a better deal whenever his contract expires.

The open-wheel landscape has become so blurred and surreal with all of those CART guys running to the arms of the man who has spent the past seven years trying to bury them.

And George, who supposedly started the IRL for the American oval-track racer, is now looking at Toyota, Honda, engine leases, racing in Japan, probably two road races and at least 25 road racers in his 2003 season.

It gets crazier if Pook and Ecclestone have actually been meeting to discuss some sort of partnership down the road.

Yet the damage to Indy-car racing appears irreparable, at least in the near future, and right now it's hard to imagine open wheel ever getting back to its lofty heights of the early to mid-'90s.

If CART cannot answer the bell past 2003 or it becomes some sorry SCCA sideshow, it will be a sad day for American racing and the diversity that established CART's credibility around the globe.

Make no mistake, between CART's stupidity and Tony George's ego, the sport that once had NASCAR and F1 sweating now has them chuckling.

But, if they ever dust for accomplice's fingerprints in this murder, Bill's and Bernie's may be all over them.
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