CART: the series F1 once feared – born of necessity, died of neglect

Inspired by team owner Dan Gurney, CART rose to become a powerful series that even Bernie Ecclestone feared. Sadly, its downfall was equally as spectacular

Nigel Mansell CART Newman:Haas 1993

Reigning F1 champion Nigel Mansell racing for Newman/Haas in 1993 was indicative of the allure of CART at the time

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In 1978, Indycar racing was underpaid, undervalued and under the blundering leadership of the United States Auto Club. Purses were paltry, television money was a joke, sanction fees were laughable and car owners had little if any input into the governing process.

Dan Gurney didn’t like what he saw and worried about the future. “I knew about leadership and what the real potential of the Indy 500 was because I grew up with it,” says Gurney, who drove in nine May classics before his Eagle chassis dominated Gasoline Alley in the 1970s. “I also knew we were only scratching the surface of our potential and nobody seemed interested in doing anything about it.”

So Gurney sat down and wrote a call to arms for his fellow owners to take control of their destiny. It was called the White Paper – a seven-page manifesto of what was wrong with Indycar racing and what it desperately needed.

start of CART Phoneix race 1980

1980 CART race at Phoenix, Arizona

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Gurney advocated staying under USAC’s banner but only if it endorsed letting the owners negotiate TV contracts, sanction fees and asking the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to double the purse (it paid a ridiculous $1 million at that time). He also suggested tracks, promoters, teams and the sanctioning body work together instead of carving each other up.

The result? USAC rejected Gurney’s suggestions so Championship Auto Racing Teams came to life in March of 1979 at Phoenix International Raceway. And, for the next 30 years, CART (Champ Car since 2004) gave us the best and worst of motor sports.

It provided the most diverse and challenging series in the world, brought street racing to major cities and took safety to a new plateau.

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On the down side, it had a staggering lack of leadership, a greedy mob of owners who took the company public, countless conflicts of interest among the membership and no regard for controlling costs.

In its heyday, both Bernie Ecclestone and Bill France Jr feared CART. In its final days, neither Formula 1 nor NASCAR gave it a second thought. It was born of necessity and died of neglect.

“We had something very special for a long time,” laments Mario Andretti, the 1984 CART champion who drove for Paul Newman and Carl Haas for 12 seasons before retiring in 1994 at the age of 54.

By the time Newman/Haas opened its doors in 1983, CART had a nucleus of Pat Patrick, Roger Penske, Jim Hall and Gurney. Can-Am survivors Doug Shierson and Rick Galles joined up in the early ’80s along with Jim Trueman. Patrick and Penske had taken the offensive, spent some of their own money and scored PPG Industries as a title sponsor. (USAC had Marlboro as its title sponsor back in 1971 but lost it after only a year because of incompetence).

Mario Andretti driving at the 1984 Indianapolis 500

1984 CART champion Andretti lamented the demise of the series and US open-wheel racing

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Midway through the ’80s, CART controlled all of Indycar racing except Indianapolis and an uneasy truce existed each May. On the racing side, CART had replaced F1 at Long Beach, branched out into Canada, found a popular home at an airport in Ohio and rejuvenated road racing in North America at Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca and Elkhart Lake.

But off track there was a flaw that would prove fatal down the road. Not only could the owners seldom agree on anything, they usually opted to pick a president who could be manipulated or knew nothing about racing – or both. The litany of lawyers and leeches who occupied the front office was rivalled by the revolving door in the marketing department. Patrick and Penske called the shots and there was a distinct divide between the haves and have-nots by the late ’80s.

Despite the front office follies and underlying lack of trust in the paddock, CART woke up in 1993 and had 1992 F1 king Nigel Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, a dozen American stars, 26 cars, monstrous crowds and major media coverage. The novelty of taking the race to big cities was a hit in Miami, Vancouver, Toronto, Surfers Paradise, Cleveland and Long Beach. The schedule was as diverse as the driver line-up as it mixed road courses, street circuits, short ovals and superspeedways.

“It was the toughest challenge in all of auto racing,” says Mansell, who quickly adapted to ovals and captured the ’93 CART title. “I know that CART was very popular in England at that time,” he claims. “It was a wonderful series.”

Whether he admits it or not, Ecclestone was very concerned with a show that was playing to better TV audiences in England, Brazil and Australia. Ditto for France Jr, whose NASCAR Winston Cup was neck and neck with CART for sponsors, fans and TV ratings in the early ’90s.

But not everybody was happy with CART’s way of doing business. Tony George had taken control of Indy in 1989 and in ’91 he made a bid to buy CART, which was way too low and rudely rejected by some of the owners. Nobody in CART’s brain trust seemed to value the opinion of Tony Hulman’s grandson and that was another fatal mistake.

Nigel Mansell and CART team owner Paul Newman

Mansell was a big advocate of CART – at least in his championship year of 1993

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By 1996, CART boasted four engine manufacturers (Ford, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes), four chassis manufacturers (Lola, Reynard, Penske, Eagle), two tyre companies, 28 fully-funded cars and record attendance.

That was also the year George launched the Indy Racing League. Even though its cornerstone was Indianapolis, the IRL had second-class teams with mostly no-name drivers. When George announced 25 of the 33 starting spots at Indy would be reserved for IRL points leaders, CART made another grievous error. Instead of showing up at the first two IRL events, kicking ass and effectively killing the fledgling series, the CART owners sold the IRL teams their old cars and then staged a 500-mile race at Michigan.

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Not taking George seriously was followed by CART taking its stock public but, instead of re-investing some of their millions in their product, the owners cashed in. CART’s next gaffe was failing to technically ride herd on Honda and Toyota and a controversy over manifold pressure at Detroit in 2000 was the impetus for both Japanese manufacturers to bolt.

Penske, who had quietly but constantly criticised George for wrecking open-wheel racing, then did the unthinkable. He left his beloved CART for the IRL in 2002 with Toyota and Honda in tow. Chip Ganassi was the next big domino to fall, followed by Michael Andretti, who had joined with Barry Green’s brother to start his own operation. Three-time CART champ Bobby Rahal joined George’s club as did Adrian Fernández and that meant CART’s nucleus was supporting the person and series it supposedly despised.

Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe had bested George for CART’s assets in the bankruptcy court in 2004 and called it Champ Car. They spent millions and millions on television, races and teams before Kalkhoven told Forsythe “no more” last winter.

Sebastien Bourdais Champcar 2007

Sébastien Bourdais was the last Champ Car title-winner in 2007

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The delicious, if not depressing, irony of this 12-year open-wheel war is that all of the IRL’s original concepts (American short track drivers, American cars and engines, no engine leases and all ovals) failed, so George adopted CART’s mantra almost to the letter even before unification.

In 30 years, CART gave us great racing, exciting venues, a pioneering safety team and some memorable drivers. But what it couldn’t deliver was common sense and leadership.

“There’s no doubt Indycar racing had more potential than NASCAR in 1979,” says Gurney. “Had open-wheel been given equal leadership, it would still be bigger today than NASCAR.

“Now it just limps along and that’s one of the great crimes of the ages.”