Remembering the split that nearly sunk Indycar racing

Indycar Racing News

Indycar racing was in great shape under the CART banner but an ambitious competitor eventually dethroned it against all expectations

1996 CART GP of Long Beach

CART was in full pomp in 1996. 10 years on and it was an entirely different story

David Taylor /Allsport

During an otherwise forgettable dinner 25 years ago, I listened with stunned disbelief while 37-year-old Tony George, whose family owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, explained how and why he was going to blow up the American open-wheel-racing universe by creating something called the Indy Racing League.

This, remember, was at the height of CART’s considerable power and profitability. Championship Auto Racing Teams had been formed in 1979 by a group of owners – including luminaries such as Roger Penske, Dan Gurney and Pat Patrick – who were frustrated by what they considered to be the parochialism and ineptitude of USAC. It had been an acrimonious divorce, but CART prospered while USAC devolved into a minor-league sanctioning body.

In 1996, the Indycar schedule featured 16 races on three continents – a mix of six ovals, six street circuits and four road courses. There were four chassis builders, four engine suppliers and two tire companies. Six drivers won races while eight others made the podium, and attendance and TV viewership numbers were at record highs. Both Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and NASCAR head honcho Bill France were said to be spooked by CART’s growing popularity and global reach.

But Tony George was hot and bothered, too, for entirely different reasons. To begin with, he was frustrated that he’d been marginalized by the CART board of directors. He also felt that, by shifting its focus to road racing, CART had forsaken the American oval-track drivers who wanted to follow the traditional path from midgets and sprint cars to the promised land in Speedway, Indiana.

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So George decided to create the IRL. The idea was to implement a more affordable, more accessible formula for rear-engine single-seaters racing exclusively on ovals, thereby creating new opportunities for homegrown drivers. After dinner, when we were alone, my companion asked me what I thought of George’s proposition. I told him it seemed delusional and that the IRL was bound to crash and burn while CART continued to prosper.

As predictions go, this one belongs up there with groaners like “that Hamilton kid won’t amount to anything.”

In my defence, I wasn’t the only one who got it dead wrong. “The common wisdom at the time was that there was no way the IRL could succeed even if you took the Indy 500 away from CART,” says John Oreovicz, a crack American journalist who covered open-wheel racing at the time. “To me, CART was the best of both worlds. It featured a combination of Indycar racing and Formula 1 that hit a sweet spot and really resonated with the public. For Tony to do what he did when he did it was almost inexplicable.”

“They had the teams, the manufacturers, the sponsors, the drivers, the momentum. But the owners never focused on the bigger picture”

Oreovicz recently revisited the catastrophic break between CART and the IRL in his new book, Indy Split, which will go on sale in May, fittingly enough, over the Indy 500 weekend. In it, he unearths the seeds of the dispute, going all the way back to Tony Hulman, George’s grandfather, buying and resurrecting the Indianapolis Speedway in 1945. But he focuses on the calamitous events that unfolded between 1995 and 2008, many of which he witnessed as a reporter.

For example, Oreovicz was at the Indy 500 in 1996, which was boycotted by CART in favor of its same-day race at Michigan, the U.S. 500. “It was kind of sad,” he recalls. “If you’d been to the Speedway in recent years and seen the level of hospitality and sponsorship, it just looked small. It looked amateurish. It looked ragtag.”

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Early on, the IRL was a not-ready-for-prime-time operation featuring cut-rate teams, a lowlight reel of hellacious wrecks and minting only one genuine hero, Tony Stewart, who promptly decamped for superstardom in NASCAR. But the IRL had Indy, and, ultimately, that’s all it needed because the 500 was more important than all of the other races on the schedule put together. CART went bankrupt in 2003, and although it was revived as Champ Car, the series ceased to exist when open-wheel racing was reunited under the IRL banner in 2008.

“CART should have won,” Oreovicz says. “They had the teams, the manufacturers, the sponsors, the drivers, the momentum. But the owners never focused on the bigger picture and the common good. They were always out to make sure they maximized their own piece of the pie.”

In 2019, the Hulman-George family sold IMS to Penske, marking the end of an era that put an indelible stamp on the Speedway. For 2021, the NTT IndyCar Series schedule features 17 races – seven on road courses, six on street circuits and four on ovals. Sound familiar? “It’s bizarre,” Oreovicz says. “We’ve ended up with the old CART series, but under IMS management.”

With a spec engine, spec tire and choice of only two engines, IndyCar isn’t a series for fans who geek out on design and engineering. But if you’re looking for take-no-prisoners action with plenty of overtaking, IndyCar makes Formula 1 look like a tea party. It’s no coincidence that, while F1 and NASCAR lost viewers during the Covid-impacted 2020 season, IndyCar saw modest increases.

Still, I can’t help but wonder where the series would be today if CART hadn’t been so arrogant and Tony George hadn’t been so callow. Instead, they waged a brutal civil war to achieve nothing but the status quo ante. What’s the old expression – two bald men fighting over a comb?

Let’s hope the Penske era brings Indycar racing back to the prominence it deserves.

Indy Split is available from Octane Press on May 30, 2021, priced at $27.