Tuesday, Sept. 17, 1996 | 11:59 a.m.
IT'S probably not fair to characterize a speedway on the basis of one event. But if you had to put an early line on Las Vegas Motor Speedway based on Sunday's Las Vegas 500K Indy Racing League event, it would be "too fast on the inside, too slow on the outside."
With 67,132 of its 107,000 seats filled on opening day, the still unfinished track's debut was qualified as an unmitigated success.
But a series of grinding crashes raised the question of whether the lightning fast, D-shaped oval is too fast for comfort. And long traffic delays on I-15 and Las Vegas Boulevard, which provide the only access to the $200 million LVMS complex, will have track officials grappling for a solution to what could develop into a long-term problem.
There were nine caution periods in the race, eight due to crashes. An IRL record 75 laps (of 200) were run under the yellow flag. The race lasted two hours, 36 minutes, which does not include a 20-minute red-flag period caused by Johnny O'Connell's frightening flip down the main straightaway 15 laps from the finish.
O'Connell was not injured, although three drivers still were hospitalized with various broken bones today.
Some drivers blamed the wrecks on the windy conditions and the dirt that was blown onto the race track; others indicated race speeds of 215-plus mph are not conducive to running in traffic. Another theory making the rounds was that debris from previous crashes resulted in cut and punctured tires, causing others.
But more than one competitor indicated that driver error and inexperience were to blame for many of the mishaps.
"It's a tough race track," said veteran Mike Groff, who called his third-place finish "survival of the fittest."
"You had to watch out for the dust up high. Some guys did get in it and paid the price for it. Whatever the reason (for the crashes), I think we need to get in together and talk about it, because that's not good. It's a quick race track, and you've totally got to have a lot of respect for this place."
Groff said new IRL cars that will debut in January in Orlando, Fla., may alleviate some of the concern. The IRL is switching to less expensive cars featuring nonturbocharged engines and less-refined aerodynamics. The new package is expected to slow the cars by as much as 20 mph.
They'll still move a whole faster than Sunday's race traffic did.
Getting to the track actually was a bigger problem than getting around it. An informal survey indicated that those who left the house before 10 a.m. (as track officials suggested) saw the 1 p.m. start. Anybody who didn't joined the race in progress, if at all.
There were reports that dozens -- maybe even hundreds -- of frustrated fans turned around and went home. A speedway receptionist said the track heard from many of them Monday. But she said there were just as many positive calls and faxes.
Traffic snarls are not uncommon on race day, even at tracks that have hosted major-league racing for years. Some use buses and other public transportation to expedite the flow of traffic to and from the track. But in time, Las Vegans probably will learn the secret to having a fun day at the races is to leave early and stay late.
* DRIVERS RECUPERATING: Injured Team Menard teammates Tony Stewart and Mark Dismore were expected to be released from University Medical Center today after being injured in separate incidents Sunday. Stewart suffered a fracture to his left shoulder blade when he struck the turn 2 wall on lap 79. He also is complaining of back pain. Dismore sustained a pelvic fracture upon crashing in turn 4 on lap 149. Brad Murphey , who suffered a broken right thigh in a grinding three-car crash involving Eddie Cheever and Stephan Gregoire early in the race, was listed in fair condition.
* FIRED IN LAS VEGAS: The crew chief and gearbox specialist for IRL driver Arie Luyendyk were fired at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday, just hours before the green flag. A Treadway Racing spokesperson confirmed that Brad McCanless and Steve Eppard were let go as a result of an internal dispute. Team manager Buddy Lindblom manned the radio during the race, and the dismissals apparently did not affect Luyendyk's performance. The 1990 Indy 500 winner, who started from the pole and led the first 25 laps, crashed out of the race on lap 106.
* GALLES TO IRL: Longtime IndyCar team owner Rick Galles announced he would compete in the fledgling Indy Racing League in 1997, with veteran Davy Jones as driver and Delco Electronics as primary sponsor. The combination finished second in last May's Indianapolis 500. Galles said if proper sponsorship can be found, he would consider running a two-car IRL team next season. Galles' arrival will help offset John Della Penna's decision to compete in the rival CART IndyCar series next season. Della Penna Motorsports driver Richie Hearn won the inaugural Las Vegas 500K.
* ZAMPEDRI IN PITS: Italian driver Alessando Zampedri, who suffered devastating foot and leg injuries in a last-turn crash triggered by Roberto Guerrero at the Indy 500, made his first public appearance since being released from the hospital at the Las Vegas 500K. Zampedri hopes to be walking without crutches by Christmas and to be racing again by next year's 500. He still harbors bitterness toward Guerrero, who he thought was driving irresponsibly. Zampedri, who drove the Mi-Jack car on the IndyCar circuit in 1995, led deep into the race at Indy before falling back to third place.