A great screaming whine signals the approach of an Indianapolis-style race car. It looks something like a jet fighter, except the body has been sentenced to the ground by an unimaginative law of gravity.
A change of gears interrupts the piercing noise and the low-slung car slides haltingly into the pits. Fashion model Christie Brinkley and several other celebrities around the pit toss their hair appreciatively at the sleek machine, which they like because it is dangerous, handsome and expensive and perhaps even reminds them of themselves.
The ambiance is chic and international, but this is hardly Monte Carlo. Last weekend, they ran the U.S. Grand Prix here at the Meadowlands, next to Giants Stadium and a horse-racing complex, one of 14 stops on the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) circuit, America's answer to European Grand Prix competition.
Most Formula 1 racing is done on roads in some of the more glamorous settings in Europe and South America. Indy cars are more versatile, racing half on oval tracks, like the Indianapolis 500, and half on road circuits, like the Meadowlands. Until now, Formula 1 has been the more glamorous of the two, even if the Indianapolis 500 is the most prestigious race in the world.
But glamor is rapidly coming to Indy-car racing. It was strewn across the Meadowlands like paint last week: in Danny Sullivan's pit alone there were actress Susan Anton; singer Christopher Cross; Cecilia Peck, daughter of Gregory Peck; Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner, and of course, Brinkley and her husband, singer Billy Joel. Oh yes, Paul Newman is half owner of Mario Andretti's team.
Souvenirs are sold out of "High Performance" concession stands. They sell racing jackets and glittering patches, steering wheel leather and designer hubcaps. Show cars are placed strategically around the course, Lamborghinis cut like diamonds, Cadillacs shaped like pocket calculators.
None of them compares to the real jewels of the event. Indy cars look just like those fragile Formula 1 beauties and go for about $2 million. If you ask Mario Andretti or Rick Mears or Danny Sullivan, they'll tell you that on a straight line going flat out, an Indy car can whip the chrome out of those dandified European jobs.
"Let's face it," said Richard Stahler, director of special events for Beatrice, the company that sponsors Andretti. "We're talking NASA control here. Except these things are designed to stay on the ground."
Over the course of the U.S. Grand Prix, Andretti was hit from behind and smashed into a wall, Sullivan spun out of a turn, six other drivers were involved in accidents, there were two flash fires in the pits, an engine caught on fire, one wheel came flying across the course and five drivers were forced out of the race with mechanical problems. Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi lost part of his steering column halfway through the race, but finished second anyway, holding the wheel together with both hands, letting go only to shift.
More glamorous than anyone at the race track is The Driver. Out of the car steps a silky, form-fitting suit, debonair scarf and polished Racer X helmet, the most handsome figure in the most dangerous and expensive sport in the world.
It is the question most asked of him, but a driver never gets tired of talking about it: why does he do it? Probably for the same reason that Andretti drinks with fighter pilots and flies ultra lights, something in his blood that is mysterious and incorrigible and abhors boredom.
"Every year, I get my new car," he said. "I'm like a kid, and I'm waiting. I'm waiting for the ultimate toy."
Andretti, 45, is leading the CART points championship, which he won last year. He won $3 million last year in prize, salary and bonus money. He has won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 in a stock car and the Grand Prix world championship in Formula 1, meaning he has titles in virtually every sort of auto. He's known as one of those truly "fast" drivers who find great speed along with strategy and mechanical reliability.
"If I wasn't a driver, I'd be a fighter pilot," Andretti said. "We have a lot in common: getting the most out of your machine, finding new ways to make it go faster. Everything is maximized, but nothing is wasted. It fits you like a glove."
Sullivan, 35, recent winner of the Indianapolis 500, has been racing for 13 years, contrary to the common perception of him as the ingenue who was a former New York cab driver. Actually, he is the son of a well-to-do contractor from Louisville who also has raced Formula 1 and had cocktails with Prince Albert of Monaco. With movie star good looks and friends in the film business, he has an acting career ahead of him and is leading the glamor movement on the circuit.
"You take it to the limit and see if you can get out of it," he said. "People say they come out to see the accidents. But it's the excitement. I spun at Indy (a complete and astounding 360 degrees, in fact), but they were more excited to see me get out of it than hit the wall. It's like football. You want to see hard hitting but you don't want to be carried off on the stretcher."
Rick Mears still is suffering from injuries incurred in a crash last year in which he badly broke bones in his legs and feet. He can race only on oval tracks at the moment because road racing takes too much braking and accelerating. He has remained with Roger Penske's team of Sullivan and Al Unser Sr., running in oval track events when he can.
"My job is my hobby," he said. "I get bored easily, I always have. This is the only thing that ever held my attention. It's changing all the time. Nobody ever thought we'd get to 150 miles an hour, and then nobody thought we'd hit 200. Now it's 250. You can go faster all the time. There's no end to it."
It costs about $2 million a season to race an Indy car, that travels with about $250,000 worth of additional parts in a semitrailer and another semi with a mechanical shop. A staff of 10 mechanics, engineers, aerodynamics experts and pit men cares for the finicky darling and, unlike the prevailing image of race mechanics as unshaven tinkerers, most have a college degree.
The attraction for a mechanic is not the speed or the danger, but the high-tech. Indy cars are state of the art, and many of the mechanics and engineers have experience in the aviation business. Last year's Indy cars already are obsolete, and the cars that tend to be the most successful usually are the most expensive.
"Most of us would just like to build them and put them in a museum," said Chuck Sprague, chief mechanic for Andretti's team, which some say has as much as a $20 million bank account with which to play. "You sort of hate to see them get dirty."
Mechanics are almost as finicky as the car; they look suspiciously at every oil stain on the asphalt, listen intently to every small ping the engine makes, kick concernedly at burned rubber and make adjustments on the car to every track condition and slight weather shift. But while they are extremely sensitive to the car, most wouldn't get behind the wheel.
"I don't mind fixing them, but I won't drive them. No way," said John Daniels, mechanic for rookie Jim Crawford.
The point of all the tinkering is speed. Crews will work for hours if they think they can squeeze out another tenth of a second. The race itself is only a fraction of the work involved and they are all speed demons at heart.
"You've got have a basic interest in fast machines," said Ken Bova, a former airline mechanic who works on the Andretti crew. "I guess all of us have a little Andretti in us. The rental car companies will tell you that."
Some argue that CART has passed by its European counterpart. Purses for the 14-race tour are worth more than $12 million, which includes a $1 million bonus point system. It is growing at a mind-boggling rate. In 1983, the first prize for the points championship was $75,000; this year, it is $300,000. Mears won the first circuit title in 1979 with $408,078 in winnings. Last year Andretti won it with $932,963.
CART was founded in 1979 by a group of car owners headed by Roger Penske, who felt that the old system run by the U.S. Auto Club was failing. Attendance and purses were falling off, sponsors were hard to come by, races weren't paying their expenses and Indy was the only race that mattered.
Since CART took over the circuit, corporate sponsorship has become huge, including Beatrice, Marlboro, Miller and Budweiser. Drivers have started coming from around the world; at the Meadowlands, there were drivers from 10 nations.
"As far as I'm concerned, we're stronger than Formula 1," Penske said. "Visibility is on the rise, and so are the drivers, the teams and the sponsors. So if you look at the economics and the growth, we're ahead."
There still are oval races for the 500-mile enthusiasts who like to see the 200 mph speeds, and there are the road races for fans who like something more subtle, who like the turns and shifting, although speeds are more in the 90 mph range.
"Each side has its own character," said Andretti, who won the Formula 1 world championship in 1978. "I don't think it's necessary for us to have the same ambiance because we'd always be missing something, that international aspect. It doesn't mean this isn't appealing. It's an exciting series because the drivers are getting stronger all the time, and the purses are good. There's enough bait out there."
Al Unser Jr., 24, won the Meadowlands Grand Prix when Andretti and Sullivan cracked up. His father Al Sr. finished third, the best father-son finish ever on the tour. Racing also is a family business, and Al Sr. was proud enough of his son. But he wasn't overjoyed.
"I still wish I'd won," he said. "People are always asking what will happen when it comes down to the two of us at the end of a race. I'd have liked it to happen today."
"Little Al," as the young driver is called on the circuit, is one of a new breed coming up differently than their predecessors, who started on dirt tracks and had to race every kind of machine before they got to Indy cars.
The young ones now start on a higher level and are coming up through Super Vees, which are sort of miniature Indy cars and tend to race on the same card as Indy events. Sponsors see young drivers in the Super Vee races and pick out the talented ones. Michael Andretti, 22, is a newcomer on the CART circuit and his brother Jeff is in Super Vees.
Little Al's victory was his second in three years of CART racing, which runs thick in his veins. Al Sr. and his brother Bobby each won the Indianapolis 500 three times. Little Al was picked up by his father one day when he was 8 and put into a Go-Kart. He won the Super Vee national championship in 1981 and the Can-Am title in 1983.
"When he got started, he didn't know if he liked it," Al Sr. said. "Sometimes it takes a couple of years to know if you like something. But I liked it. So I got him up every morning and put him in his kart. After a couple of years, he liked it."