IRL v. CART: The IndyCar Civil War, and the complicated history of American open-wheel car racing

When I wrote my views on professional wrestling’s Monday Night War between Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (or World Wrestling Federation at the time) and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, I have a hard time thinking of the paralleled analogy, that was until I stumbled upon a YouTube channel by an English video blogger Aidan Millward regarding to this topic, pardon the language), and the process of how to provide this complicated history that occurred during my viewership on the American open-wheel car racing as I began watching that in great detail have intrigued me, particularly I have also been critical (and being criticized at the same token) by the sorts of auto racing I had been watching around the same time that Formula One’s 3-time Drivers’ Champion from Brazil named Ayrton Senna was killed in Imola during the San Marino Grand Prix race (that’s another story for another time).  However, in order to understand the infamous split between CART/Champ Car and Indy Racing League resulted from a long-standing dispute between team owners and track owners, and all the details leading to the eventual merger, and the struggle to reclaim the support of fandom since then.
Before I began, though, I have been skipping, if not missing, quite a few races since I followed Motorsport, some because I didn’t have cable television subscription until September 2004 while others were related to my preferences towards road and street circuits like Macau, Monaco, Spa, Hockenheim, Austin, and Interlagos than the absolute majority oval counterparts (thought Indianapolis Motor Speedway is very close to be excluded as well) due to lingering safety issues related towards latter, and it’s impossible for me to reverse such views as long as the ghosts of Dan Wheldan and Justin Wilson still haunts my memories after their untimely deaths, much like Ayrton Senna from the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Yet, the exhilarating triumphs of victory and the agony of defeats have symbolized, above all else, what Motorsport at large has been all about, however, deaths during oval races in such frequency have reduced my enthusiasm towards those circuits that I had watched occasionally during my 30-year following.  Shall we continue on after my “clearing the air” announcement?

American_Automobile_Association_logo.svg.pngThe original version that later became Championship Auto Racing Team is traced back 1902 when American Automobile Association (AAA) began sanctioned the first motorsports event in the United States by initially using the rules of the Automobile Club of America (ACA) before forming its own rules in the following year.  Two years later, its Contest Board launched its first championship season in 1905 with Barney Oldfield declared as winner; however, while single races were held during the following 10 years (1906 – 1915), no official season championship were recognized as they were deemed “unofficial” since points table weren’t created until 1927, during which the Indianapolis Motor Speedway held their first competition, the Indy 500, which has since been the cornerstone of the American open-wheel racing calendar that will be discussed in details of the infamous split below, although the competition was voluntary stopped due to United States’ involvement during World War I.  Racing resumed in 1920 and continued on throughout the Depression before national rationing was declared as the country was heavily involved from 1942 to 1945, before it resumed in 1946 with a caveat as most of the racing vehicles were competed as traditional sprint car, in fact, many of them were traced as two-seaters instead of single-seat form that we have seen ever since.  The AAA participation ceased their involvement in auto racing at the end of 1955 season due to a series of high profile fatal accidents that had occurred, specifically with the 1955 Le Mans disaster on June 11, 1955, which claimed 85 lives and French Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh (AKA Pierre Bouillin) with 180 others were injured, and the death of Bill Vukovich during the 1955 Indy 500 race on May 30, 1955.  Then-owner of the speedway (IMS), Tony Hulman, formed United States Auto Club (USAC for short) and they took over the national championship for the next two decades, as the popularity on championship racing continued in a stabilized environment with the focus were placed primarily on oval and dirt tracks, and road courses were also introduced by drivers and team owners with road racing backgrounds during the 1960sUnited_States_Auto_Club_logo_2009, before increasing costs due to economic crisis during the 1970s have driven some of the USAC owners out of the sports, as well as growing dissents towards USAC management with lack of promotions on events held beyond Indianapolis that resulted in low attendance, and a tape-delay televised contract with American Broadcasting Company (ABC) Network for Indy 500 and non-televised non-Indy 500 events weren’t helping the management’s cause.  

On October 27, 1977, the first crack of USAC began surfacing with the death of its founder/IMS President Tony Hulman via ruptured aortic anuerysm during surgery.   Then, six months after Hulman’s passing, eight members of USAC board members (see below) and the owner/pilot Don Mullendore were killed in a plane crash when the 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftan crashed during a thunderstorm 25 miles southeast of Indianapolis while returning from a race at the Trenton Speedway in New Jersey on April 23, 1978.

  • Ray Marquette, USAC’s vice-president of public affairs and a former sportswriter for  the Indianapolis Star
  • Frank Delroy, chairman of USAC technical committee
  • Shim Malone, starter for USAC races and head of its midget racer division
  • Judy Phillips, graphic artist and publication director of USAC’s newsletter
  • Stan Worley, chief registrar
  • Ross Teeguarden, assistant technical chairman
  • Don Peabody, head of the sprint division
  • Dr. Bruce White, assistant staff doctor

These two events provided an opportunity for most of the team owners who have been pressing for reforms within USAC, with former Formula One driver Dan Gurney, whom had become a team owner himself by the 1970s as chairman & CEO of All American Racers from 1970 to 2011, spearheaded a written memo that was later referred to as the “White Paper” to USAC by calling for controlling interests under “actual participants” than under USAC, which the whole proposal was inspired by then-Brabham team owner and later the FOM supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who had founded the Formula One Constructors Association.  USAC initially outright rejected the notion as AJ Foyt was the sole descent, but was later deferred the decision to Automobile Championship Committee for the United States (ACCUS), who then arranged a settlement between the two parties, with most of the team owners including Gurney, Roger Penske, and others except for A.J. Foyt, who was the sole dissent, with Indy 500 remained under USAC control with the rest were run by CART with assistance Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).   This arrangement led to the CART’s rise as being recognized as a prestigious national competition, though IMS had instigated some shenanigans surrounding the 1979 Indy 500 entries by denying several CART teams from entering the competition, and it was initially called Championship Racing League with both USAC and CART were involved before USAC scuppered the CRL arrangement soon after.  Stability returned throughout the 1980s as CART took full control of the championship before another dissent emerged from within CART Board of Director as Tony Hulman’s grandson, Tony George, took over the IMS management from his predecessor Joe Cloutier via latter’s passing in 1989.  Meanwhile, as the CART schedule grew, an ongoing issue that led to the CART/USAC split and a peculiar and familiar phenomena made its way as the influx of South American and European drivers like former Andrea Moda driver Roberto Moreno, Stefan Johansson, and three certain former F1 World Drivers’ Champions named Emerson Fittipaldi, who had won the 1972 championship with the legendary Collin Chapman’s Team Lotus and the 1974 title with McLaren, which had a hand into the above-mentioned split as they joined Gurney’s contingents to push for reforms; Mario Andretti, who had actually returned from Formula One after winning the 1978 Drivers’ Championship with the very Lotus team that Fittipaldi had driven 6 years prior, and had made his initial run by winning the 1969 Indy 500 before joining F1; and a certain British driver named Nigel Mansell, who had spent years with Williams before finally won the 1992 Drivers’ Championship, made his debut with Newman/Haas Racing in 1993 and essentially dominated that season, not only becoming the only driver who has held both CART and Formula One Drivers’ Championship, but in the ironic twist, also drew an ire with Tony George, who had felt that “those” drivers have essentially warped “his” racing league into road-course-centric, claiming international drivers as “undesirable”, and proclaimed what CART had done was completely foreign to his taste, his lack of knowledge of the larger auto racing community caused the infamous split in 1996 as he withdrew from CART and formed Indy Racing League as retaliatory act.

CART-ChampCar v. IRL v2

Prior to the infamous split, though, Tony George had made a concerted effort of announcing Brickyard 400 would be held at IMS beginning August 1994 as an annual NASCAR event, and proceeded to drew criticisms from the Indianapolis purists as they felt stock car racing had no place for the track itself, but George made no efforts of removing the race from the IMS schedule.  One year later, his leadership was further questioned as George offered a “cost-effective” and all-oval schedule with little or no foreign drivers who he claimed as “undesirables”, much less the fact that George thought that he could have made new stars from the new league’s roster overnight.  Tony George was turned away from CART and proceeded to form Indy Racing League in 1996 to fulfill that promise, however, it had an opposite effect as it was evidently disastrous during the 1996 Indy 500, with attendance dwindled by half since CART had also held United States 500 at Michigan International Speedway on the same day, and proceeded to split the audience.  What made matters worse was the infamous “25/8” rule that George had instituted for that race to curb CART teams from entering, which was unprecedented and a catastrophe in itself as it had left CART teams and drivers like Fittipaldis, Unsers, Bobby Rahal, and the Andrettis being locked out from the most prestigious event, resulting into a court order to allow some of them to participate, and he even dared to accuse CART of boycotting the event to add salt to injury.  Fans, media, and advertisers left IRL in droves to NASCAR as a result of the confusion, and both series eventually suffered financially with CART went into bankruptcy in 2003 after the likes of Chip Ganassi, Team Penske, and Andretti Motorsports joined IRL along with advertisers for those teams – albeit with great reluctance, might I add, as well as going back to the initial promises.  

Some of the highlights and lowlights of each series including the multi-car crash in the opening lap at the US500; Scott Brayton was killed in a crash during the 1996 Indy 500 practice session on May 17, 1996, with Buddy Lazier won the subsequent race just 11 days later; USAC ended their sanctioning of the Indianapolis 500 after 1997-98; the deaths of Gonzalo Rodriguez during qualifying session at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California and Craig More during the Marlboro 500 races at Fontana’s California Speedway overshadowed the championship case between British driver Dario Franchitti and Colombian driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who later drove for Williams in Formula One before an eight-year stint with NASCAR, only to make his IndyCar return during 2014 season; pressures from commercial sponsors forced Chip Ganassi Racing to return to IMS for the first time since the split … and decimated the entire field with a clean sweep at the podium – a few months after Andrew Craig was forced to resign as Chief Executive Officer and was replaced by part owner of Rahal-Letterman Racing (with former NBC’s Late Night and CBS’s Late Show talk show host David Letterman as the other owner) Bobby Rahal was named in his place for six months; the returning Alessandro Zanardi, who made his return to CART after spending a less than stellar performance with that very Williams team that Mansell and Montoya had driven, lost both of his legs after suffering a huge crash with Alex Tagliani at the tri-oval ciruit of EuroSpeedway during 2001 “American Memorial” (originally named German 500 but changed the name of the event after the September 11th attack) in Lausitz, Germany that he was even given a last rite before finally released from hospital with both legs amputated, led to the insolvency of that circuit and the 2002 event not held subsequently; after a 5-year stint airing CART on ABC/ESPN with the Lausitz race was aired strictly on tape-delay basis instead of live, the network signed with IRL and CART was on scramble mode and turn to SPEED (later became Fox Sports 1); and finally the infamous 2011 Texas Motor Speedway race and its subsequent cancellation due to excessive G forces created by CART cars that were using turbo engines rather the natural aspirated counterparts that were more suitable for driving through steep banking the circuit has, which caused most drivers with blackouts as a result, and the cancellation was a public relations disaster that CART could never recover.

Despite having a public offering in the CART company stock, the CART board slowly became destabilized as teams like Penske and Andretti left for IRL, as well as CGR under pressure of then-sponsor Target, and engine suppliers like Mercedes and Honda followed suits, CART filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2003 season, the IMS Chairman (George) then tried purchasing through bankruptcy court by strategically lowballing the bid in hopes of keeping the series dormant, but was instead sold the assets to a trio of owners (American Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi) along with Dan Pettit as Open Wheel Racing Series LLC, keeping the schism remained wide open for another few years.  Now renamed as Champ Car World Series, they somehow managed to maintain a full field along with most of CART’s street circuit sanctioning agreements that have differentiate CART from IRL as latter maintained all of oval circuits as their main theme races.  CCWS would see a pitched multi-season battle between Newman/Haas Racing and Forsythe Racing that included a heated rivalry between veteran Canadian driver Paul Tracy, who had once driven for Team Penske, and then three-time champion Sébastien Bourdais, who later drove for 18 months with F1 outfit Scuderia Toro Rosso and once teamed with eventual 4-time Drivers’ Champion Sebastian Vettel, who was promoted to the senior Red Bull team and won those championships before joining Scuderia Ferrari in 2015 after a dismal 2014 season which Vettel did not win a single race, before returning to IndyCar in 2011 (which I’ll explain later as to why that season was so controversial).  Unfortunately, both series suffered a common issue of having their audience split in both attendance and, worst yet, loyalty that has become so vitriolic and polarized that there were still bad blood lingering when the 2008 merger was announced.  On the surface, this reunification was a long time coming for both sides, with both drivers and team owners alike welcomed the reunification, with IRL finally admitted that road course racing have their fanbases that couldn’t be ignored; however, finger pointing by fans from both sides were still very bitter with betrayals from their beloved series by the merger.  Some like Mr. Millward claimed that Tony George had the moral high ground, I, on the other hand, don’t believe that was the case as the sole responsibility of the infamous split was caused by Tony George himself as the above-mentioned lack of knowledge of the larger family of motorsport community in spite of his best intentions to lower operating costs among team owners with a spec car with interested engine suppliers that were willing to collaborate with the league while still keeping the competitive edge, and he had to suffer the consequences via resignation from both IMSs and Hulman & Company a result after spending millions of dollars to make all the oval circuits much safer than years prior.  While I had to give him credits for bringing back Formula One to IMS for the first time in half of century, the speedway was continually losing money as a result of overhauling the speedway to accommodate F1 in 2001, as well as other expenses including drivers entry fees, marketing plans, other IRL teams included his own racing team,Vision Racing, airplanes & personnel.  The final straw for George’s dismissal was the discontinuation of United States Grand Prix as George and Bernie Ecclestone couldn’t reach an agreement to continue racing at the brickyard from 2008 onwards.  Mary Hulman-George, the mother of Tony George and the daughter of Mary Fendrich-Hulman and Tony Hulman, and her daughters took over the business before appointing former Professional Bull Riders CEO Randy Bernard as the CEO of IndyCar in March 2010.  

INDYCAR_logo

Bernard’s vision of “increasing the sport’s visibility among general audiences, expanding the schedule to markets that are important to advertisers, and achieving a 50/50 split between oval and road courses races” was something that most fans from either side of the split wanted to hear and finally relented the hate for so long.  His other achievements included bringing Chevrolet back and manufacturer competition to IndyCar, reclaimed the term “indy car”, retired the stupidity of “Indy Racing League” and renamed IndyCar in 2011, and finally oversaw the project “ICONIC”, which was a creation of a brand new chassis known as IR-12 as replacement of IR-05 that has been used since 2005 IRL season, and new engine formula & suppliers.  However, for every step forward came with a step back, amongst those were the decision to race at Twin Ring Motegi just a few months after the Fukushima earthquake on March 11, 2011, but reached a compromise by racing in the road circuit instead of the damage oval circuit after raising many safety concerns including the potential radioactive leaks into the water supplies; secured a deal with Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the 2011 IndyCar season finale but the race was marred by the death of Dan Wheldan and series of warnings that was unheeded by Bernard; the development of IR-12 (whch was re-named DW-12 in memory of the deceased driver) and its engine supplies were overpriced, and though he had secured a return to both Pocono and Fontana, Fontana was excluded from the IndyCar calendar since 2015 due to yet another crash by Russian driver Mikhail Aleshin during practice.  All of that culminated in Bernard’s resignation at the end of 2013 season with Mark Miles as his replacement.   While Miles and Bernard shared its commercial expertise, Miles saw a transition of elimination of Houston double header and above-mentioned Fontana race after 2015 season, the re-entries of Phoenix, Gateway, NOLA, Watkins Glenn, Road America and Portland, expanded coverage and production by NBC Sports, and a balance schedule that fans would appreciate; however, the death of Justin Wilson during 2015 Pocono race marked the beginning of a renewal effort to track and race car safety movement, and saw the debut of universal aero package that has since been subbed IR-18 along with expanding supply packages from PFC that includes brake calipers since 2018, amongst others.  Miles had also hired those who have extensive knowledge in auto racing to maintain, if not exceed, the current standards of competition before Jay Frye took over in 2019, and new cockpit protection will be introduced as a merger of Halo and aeroscreen to be supplied by Formula One’s Red Bull Advanced Technologies.  

When I watched the video on YouTube a few weeks ago, Aidan Millward presented a comparison with the professional wrestling’s Monday Night War between Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling and Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (Federation at the time), in addition to the football equivalent of splintering the FA Cup by the owner of Wembley Stadium.  There is a major difference between Monday Night War between WCW and WWE as the lynchpin of the split was not caused by CART, but by Tony George himself, in stark contrast to how WCW rose to prominence in 1995 with Ted Turner spearheaded the challenge against Vince McMahon’s WWE.  The entire chain of actions was caused by Tony George with his “small-minded” views towards motor racing across the world by justifying every race should be EXCLUSIVELY raced in oval circuits without reservations, but by excluding the major teams and drivers who have made the Indianapolis 500 into a juggernaut, it’s more like the age old problem that have caused the creation of the original Dream Team in 1992 as a result of the humiliation from 1988 Olympics in South Korea when the Soviet Union and the rest of the European countries have snuck in professional players into the Olympic squad, or the decline of American Wrestling Association due to new wrestling stars weren’t developed as fast as years past and was left with a depleted roster with either mostly veterans who may have past their primes or young wrestlers who weren’t prepared for being thrusted into the main roster from training camp.  As Mario Andretti said during an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Line, the whole split was all about keeping the oval racing as the sole focus while forsaking everything else, in addition to the control of interest of IMS establishment while citing “cost cap” as an excuse fighting against the reality of motorsport in general.  In fact, road and street circuits like Long Beach, Laguna Seca, Road America, Detroit, and the most recent addition of Circuit of the Americas have shown the large marketshare for those races, and with the safety concerns related to Pocono, Fontana, TMS, and even IMS after claiming many competitors, Tony George, at least in my eyes, had no moral high grounds in his argument even after bringing back most of the big name teams to IRL, and the loss of income for those who were involved along with the waining interest of American open-wheel series by siding with NASCAR during the late 1990s and early 2000s, IndyCar has a tough road ahead to regain that were lost, just as long as we don’t have to witness another split in our lifetime.