The IndyCar split began 20 years ago today

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    Keith Collantine

    20 years ago today Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George declared he would set up a rival to the CART championship.

    Among George’s complaints were the governance of the championship, which he believed was holding back its development, and the cost of competing:

    I have personally made every effort in the past two years to work with the car owner organisation (IndyCar) currently governing the series in order to hear and be heard with regard to the direction the series is heading. I have come to the conclusion that the Speedway and the current car owner organisation are simply going in different directions. […]

    The primary purpose of the new series is to maximise the tremendous growth potential of the series surrounding the Indianapolis 500 for the added benefit of the fans, sponsors, promoters and participants.

    For an explanation why today’s IndyCar championship attracts a tiny fraction of the coverage it once enjoyed, look no further than this moment.

    In July George announced the formation of the Indy Racing League, which held its first race at the Walt Disney World oval on January 27th, 1996. This was when the CART/IndyCar split became reality.

    It lasted until the series were finally brought back together in 2008. In the intervening decade the popularity of open-wheel single-seater racing in America plummeted while NASCAR boomed.

    When George made his shock announcement in 1994 that year’s CART championship was one race old. A look back at the variety and some of the quality in that field rams home the message of what those who ran the series threw away 20 years ago:

    1. Newman/Haas Racing – Nigel Mansell – Lola-Ford
    2. Penske Racing – Emerson Fittipaldi – Penske-Ilmor
    3. Penske Racing – Paul Tracy – Penske-Ilmor
    4. Rahal/Hogan Racing – Bobby Rahal – Lola-Honda V8
    5. Dick Simon Racing – Raul Boesel – Lola-Ford
    6. Newman/Haas Racing – Mario Andretti – Lola-Ford
    7. Galles Racing – Adrian Fernandez – Reynard-Ilmor
    8. Target Chip Ganassi Racing – Michael Andretti – Reynard-Ford
    9. Walker Racing – Robby Gordon – Lola-Ford
    10. Rahal/Hogan Racing – Mike Groff – Lola-Honda V8
    11. Hall Racing – Teo Fabi – Reynard-Ilmor
    12. Forsythe/Green Racing – Jacques Villeneuve – Reynard-Ford
    14. AJ Foyt Enterprises – Davy Jones – Lola-Ford
    15. Walker Racing – Mark Smith – Lola-Ford
    16. Bettenhausen Motorsports – Stefan Johansson – Penske-Ilmor
    17. PacWest Racing Group – Dominic Dobson – Lola-Ford
    18. Hayhoe Racing – Jimmy Vasser – Lola-Ford
    19. Dale Coyne Racing – Robbie Buhl – Lola-Ford
    22. Dick Simon Racing – Hiro Matsushita – Lola-Ford
    23. Leader Cards Racing – Buddy Lazier – Lola-Ilmor
    24. Walker Racing – Willy T. Ribbs – Lola-Ford
    25. Arciero Racing – Marco Greco – Lola-Ford
    28. Indy Regency Racing – Arie Luyendyk – Lola-Ilmor
    31. Penske Racing – Al Unser Jnr – Penske-Ilmor
    39. Dale Coyne Racing – Andrea Montermini – Lola-Ford
    40. Budweiser King Racing – Scott Goodyear – Lola-Ford
    50. Euromotorsport Racing – Alessandro Zampedri – Lola-Ilmor
    55. Euromotorsport Racing – Dave Kudrave – Lola-Ilmor
    71. PacWest Racing Group – Scott Sharp – Lola-Ford
    76. Bettenhausen Motorsports – Gary Brabham – Pensk-Ilmor
    88. Target Chip Ganassi Racing – Mauricio Gugelmin – Reynard-Ford

    The calendar was pretty good back then too:

    1. Surfers’ Paradise (street)
    2. Phoenix (oval)
    3. Long Beach (street)
    4. Indianapolis (oval)
    5. Milwaukee (oval)
    6. Detroit (street)
    7. Portland (road)
    8. Cleveland (road)
    9. Toronto (street)
    10. Michigan (oval)
    11. Mid-Ohio (road)
    12. Loudon (oval)
    13. Vancouver (street)
    14. Road America (road)
    15. Nazareth (oval)
    16. Laguna Seca (road)

    F1 has had its own flirtations with splits and rival championships and so far none of them have become reality. The IndyCar split is a vital warning against going down that route.


    Talk about an all-star field. It’s like 1994 was to CART what 2010-2012 was to F1 in terms of driver line-ups.



    To be fair CART’s leadership made some pretty stupid decisions. They chose boycott and a futile, destructive war rather than showing up at the 500 in ’96 and ending the split there and then. Then came 25/8 etc.

    I’d rather not retread this old ground as it isn’t productive – you said it yourself, this was 20 years ago. Besides, there are other factors to consider, such as the rise of Nascar and the many entertainment options in today’s market.



    One other thing: The irony of CART being formed after a previous split in 1979 (following the deaths of most of the USAC board in a plane crash) is not lost on me. Ten years later, a board consisting largely of team owners had full control over US open wheel racing.


    Keith Collantine

    @jb001 Mistakes were definitely made on both sides but CART’s biggest tactical error was surely letting the IRL use their old chassis to begin with.

    But I don’t believe in ignoring the mistakes of the past just because they’re uncomfortable. To retread the cliche, those who don’t learn from it are doomed to repeat it. Motor racing seems particularly susceptible to the kind of thinking that led to this split and I’d hate to see something similar happen to F1.


    Iestyn Davies

    Would it be fair to say, that George now heads a smaller operation than what existed back then? When he could not do so, as it was the team owners that held the power? I.e. the pie got smaller, but it gravitated to George, and that’s why he instigated it. Sounds like the opposite of how F1 gravitated towards Ecclestone and got bigger..

    I imagine Jeff Gordon would have moved into single-seaters rather than NASCAR? Or would he move across later on, like Tony Stewart/JP Montoya/Danica Patrick?

    Car-wise.. the development under CART was such that the speed record is pre-IRL and the drivers were blacking out at Texas or Michigan when average speeds hit 240mph. Agree a budget cap, and they’d have had sustainable profitability, something currently missing from F1 (if that was the issue). I dread to say it, but perhaps they needed a ‘strategy group’ working like Bernie recently instituted, spreading power out to the teams, sanctioners and Indy (representing the tracks) in equal measure (or something like 40-20-40, like the track layouts of the time).



    I commented on yesterday round-up on this topic. I don’t think F1 fans have seen or felt the sort of crushing disappointment that Indy Car fans have. People talk about F1 being ruined and whatnot (and let’s be honest, the decisions being made regarding the rules are getting very bad) but I don’t think it’s even come close to the absolute mass of financial wreckage American open wheel racing became. It’s hard to fathom now that it was at one time the pinnacle of racing in the United States. NASCAR has had a stranglehold on the American mentality of what racing is for so long that now people wonder why the Indy 500 is held in such high regard still. Think about that. For nearly 100 years Indy was THE race. Now some Americans couldn’t tell you what the hell it is and many certainly don’t know what type of cars or racing is done there. If ever there was a crying shame, that would be one.

    So don’t lament too hard yet. It could get worse for F1. SOOOOO much worse.


    Iestyn Davies

    The problem now is that even with re-consolidation, viewership numbers are falling to new lows, like 300,000 in the US.. Long Beach is being courted by F1, to replace Indycar in California.. People like Dan Wheldon are still dying in the cars (from series mismanagement, in an effort to promote Indycar and regain lost ground.. like F1 in 1994).. Now Franchitti is sidelined by a huge accident, while F1 barriers wait at New Jersey for that to get off the ground..

    Ex-Champions returning to Indianapolis really needs to revitalise the series, along with closer racing. Busch doing double duty may help bring some more attention from NASCAR, and maybe the new Q rules will make it more appealing to TV. But I’m all out of ideas on how to revitalise it, while Haas from NASCAR is trying to set up an F1 team based in the US, which will take more single-seater attention towards F1.



    This clears it up a bit, since I never understood why IRL/CART turned out the way it did. That 1994 grid looks pretty damned impressive, and I find it cool that F1 drivers went to CART (i.e. Mansell, Fittipaldi, Andretti) to add to their CV, whereas these days it would be because you couldn’t get a Formula 1 seat (I’m assuming WDCs like those three would have left F1 of their own accord, rather than because they couldn’t find a seat).

    It’s a real shame, too, since IndyCar (while I don’t watch it as often as I should) can be pretty exciting. I really wish it featured more former F1 drivers/champions since I love the idea of top drivers in more-or-less standardized cars.



    Mansell left F1 because he couldn’t stand being teammates with Senna (and Prost, although that wasn’t relevant for the 1994 negotiations). Then came back after his second CART season didn’t pan out (while falling out with the media and Mario Andretti). Fittipaldi’s owner-driver effort (Corspucar, sp?) flopped in F1 so he headed stateside a bit later. Speaking of F1, These days it’s about how much money you can bring if you’re not signed by a top team at age 16. Programs like Racing Steps Foundation and 13th Avenue are placing their drivers in Indycar’s feeder series because they consider it a better use of their money. That suggests the stereotypes being referred to above are untrue.

    I mentioned this example previously, but Ryan Briscoe was a Toyota junior driver who won a couple of championships in Europe (Italian Formula Renault, 2001 and Formula 3 Euroseries, 2003) before heading to Indycar. Seems to have panned out well enough for him, given that the alternative was taking a Jordan drive in 2005.

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