(written January 25th, 1996 on the eve of the "split.")
Winter testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is an odd sight to anyone who has witnessed the annual 500 mile race in May. The permanent grandstands, which are said to hold 325,000 spectators, are empty. In the pit area, a small group of crewmen in heavy parkas buzz about an unpainted race car under a temporary awning before sending it out on another run. In the thin air, you can hear the wail of its engine from almost anywhere in the city. Between Turns 1 and 2, in the Hall of Fame Museum parking lot, hardcore enthusiasts escape the cold and take lap times from the warmth of their cars.
On the surface, all appears well at the Speedway. But in a few months, the established stars of what we know as Indy car racing will not be participating in the most storied race of all, the Indianapolis 500, as the result of a bitter political battle for control of the sport between Speedway President Tony George and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART, or IndyCar, as they are now known), the sanctioning body which has essentially controlled the sport since 1980.
George has decreed that the Indy 500 will no longer be a points-paying round of CART's PPG Indy Car World Series, but instead the centerpiece of a new series called the Indy Racing League. The kicker is that all IRL races - including the Indianapolis 500 - will have three quarters of their starting spots reserved for IRL points leaders. That's 25 out of 33 places on the grid at Indy.
Since CART's teams have no desire to participate in the two IRL races prior to Indianapolis, they claim that George is effectively locking them out of the ‘500.’ In response, CART has announced that they will stage a rival race, called the U.S. 500, on Memorial Day weekend at Roger Penske’s Michigan International Speedway. Most of the top drivers, like Al Unser Jr, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Bobby Rahal, and Emerson Fittipaldi will therefore not be in Indianapolis during the month of May, tarnishing the reputation of the Indy 500 and potentially losing the city millions of dollars in tourist trade.
While the ‘25/33 rule’ was the catalyst which brought the Speedway/CART battle into the public eye, the roots of the disagreement are based on philosophical differences which go back over three decades. And with both groups resolute in their convictions, it appears these differences can only be resolved by head-to-head competition in the marketplace.
Terre Haute native Anton 'Tony' Hulman’s purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945 is a bookmark in Indiana folklore. The Indy 500 was not run during the war years, and by the time World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker sold Hulman the track, it was a weed-infested eyesore.
Hulman’s legendary resurrection of the facility offered race fans the finest in amenities, and his tireless promotion campaign soon turned what had merely been the most important race in America into "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." The purse grew with the notoriety, and the Indy 500 soon established itself as the world’s most lucrative race.
Two catastrophic events in 1955 led to a major shakeup in American racing circles. First, popular two-time defending champion Bill Vukovich was killed in a fiery crash in the Indianapolis 500. Then a couple of months later, the unthinkable occurred in the famous 24 Hours of LeMans sports car race when a Mercedes-Benz driven by Frenchman Pierre Leveigh was launched into a packed grandstand, killing Leveigh and more than 80 spectators.
As a repercussion, the American Automobile Association - who sanctioned most American races, including the Indianapolis 500 - wanted out of racing. Ever the opportunist, Tony Hulman used his clout as Speedway boss and formed USAC to take over the AAA’s sanctioning role. The Speedway and USAC have been inseparable ever since.
For a period in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the USAC Championship Trail enjoyed popularity and status, running races mainly on 1-mile dirt ovals such as the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Races on paved tracks, like the Speedway, were the exception rather than the rule.
The cars competing at Indianapolis in this era were primitive, front-engined "roadsters," most utilizing the venerable Offenhauser 4-cylinder engine which dated to the 1930s. Meanwhile in Europe, a technological revolution was sweeping through Formula 1 Grand Prix racing in the form of the compact mid-engined car. In 1959, Australian Jack Brabham was the first man to win the F1 World Championship in one of these machines, and in 1961, Brabham and his F1 Cooper competed in the Indianapolis 500. Though vastly underpowered, the tiny car finished a respectable ninth.
In 1963, Colin Chapman, chief of the English Lotus F1 team, built a mid-engined car for the Speedway with a Ford V-8 and nearly won the ‘500’ in the hands of Scotsman Jim Clark. By the time Clark and Lotus dominated and won the 1965 Indianapolis 500, the revolution was in full swing. Though only two years had passed, 90 percent of the field was rear-engined, and 1966 would see the last roadster to qualify at Indy.
The technological advances - and the speed - came thick and fast. Turbocharging (where exhaust gas is recycled with great pressure back through the engine via a high-speed turbine) nearly doubled engine power. Aerodynamic wings sucked the cars on to the track (called "downforce") to increase cornering ability, and a tire war between Firestone and Goodyear accelerated the rise in speed.
Clark posted the first official 150 mph lap in Speedway history in 1965; the top mark had increased to over 190 mph by 1972. Bobby Unser’s pole speed that year was more than 17 mph faster than the existing record set just one year before!
From a safety aspect, something clearly had to be done, particularly in the wake of the disastrous month of May, 1973, when popular drivers Art Pollard and Swede Savage were killed at the Speedway and the ‘500’ was halted by rain after 332.5 miles.
The foundation of a successful racing series is sensible rulemaking, fairly and equally implemented, and this is the key area where USAC failed in the 1970s. It ultimately cost them control of Indy car racing.
When speeds at Indy reached the 200 mph level in 1973, USAC’s initial solution of narrower tires and smaller wings worked well, lowering lap speeds by nearly 15 mph. But racers are racers, and the new aerodynamic restrictions merely shifted the search for speed to the engine compartment.
In 1976, the Vel’s-Parnelli Jones team converted a Formula 1 Ford-Cosworth engine to Indycar specifications. By 1977, the engine was more powerful and more efficient than the still popular Offenhauser, and almost mandatory to win races.
It was also expensive - around $35,000 per motor - and this created the same sort of animosity with USAC’s old-boy school that rear-engine cars had years before. Offy stalwarts boycotted USAC events in July, 1978, claiming the Cosworth was pricing them out of the business.
USAC’s response was an attempt to equalize the various engines by regulating the amount of turbocharger boost available. But they never got it right. Their vacillation got to the point where turbocharger boost limits often differed on a day-to-day basis, infuriating the contestants. Pressure-relief, or "popoff" valves were introduced to regulate the boost, then valves were required in qualifying only, as fuel mileage limits were implemented to control boost in the race.
"In many ways, this is a very backwards segment of the sport," three-time F1 World Champion Jackie Stewart commented in 1978. Stewart nearly won the Indy 500 in 1966 and was ABC’s expert analyst for their Indianapolis coverage for many years. "This is not something that’s new, it’s been like this for years. You can see it in USAC’s attempts to keep the 40 year old Offenhauser engine competitive. You can see it in many of the cars which fill out the field which are no more than service station specials."
USAC had other problems to worry about. Tony Hulman’s death in October 1977, coupled with an April 1978 plane crash which killed a number of top USAC executives and officials, including highly respected technical chief Frankie DelRoy, left the organization facing a serious leadership crisis. They were also struggling in the sports marketplace. While the Indianapolis 500 continued on the path of progress, the rest of the series suffered badly. By the late seventies, the USAC series was run exclusively on paved ovals, in front of sparse crowds for very little prize money and with limited TV coverage. Field quality and size diminished.
As if all that were not enough, a number of leading entrants (notably Roger Penske, Pat Patrick, and Jim Hall) formed CART in the summer of 1978 to mount an organized attempt to improve the USAC series. When CART’s petition to make a number of changes involving series structure, purses, and engine rules was unanimously rejected by the USAC board on November 18, 1978, the CART-USAC war was on.
USAC and CART both staged a series of races in 1979. Rick Mears won the inaugural 10-race CART title while A.J. Foyt, who controversially abandoned CART at the eleventh hour, took the 7-round USAC honors.
As usual, the drama climaxed at Indianapolis. The month of May, 1979 is generally considered the focal point of the CART-USAC war, and until the Scott Goodyear pace car fiasco of last year, it is also remembered as USAC's most public display of incompetence.
Before the month even started, the Speedway tried to bar the top six CART teams from competing at Indianapolis, claiming that "they were not in good standing with USAC." In a landmark decision which is ironic in light of the current situation, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Noland ruled in CART’s favor "because of the irreparable harm that could be suffered...there is no way the driver plaintiffs can sit out the Indianapolis 500."
There was trouble on the track, too. A number of teams were successfully overriding the popoff valve to gain power and speed. That’s cheating, and it was rampant and went basically ignored until USAC decided to make an example of somebody and disqualified Dick Ferguson from the field, creating a storm of controvery and outrage among the contestants.
After an official protest, a USAC Court of Appeals allowed 11 bumped competitors to make an additional qualification run the day before the race - an unprecedented occurrence. 35 cars, not the traditional 33, took the green flag after a month which brought USAC’s ability to officiate big-time automobile racing into serious question.
New Speedway president John Cooper was instrumental in briefly merging the interests of CART and USAC with the creation of the Championship Racing League in March, 1980. But just weeks after a much more peaceful month at Indy, Cooper ran an end-around and forced USAC to renounce their agreement with the CRL if they wanted to keep officiating the Indy 500. USAC has sanctioned the Indianapolis 500 ever since - the one and only Indy car race they maintained control of.
In 1989, Tony George, grandson of Tony Hulman, ascended to the Speedway presidency. Due to the death of his father Elmer George in a mysterious 1976 shooting accident, Tony had been groomed for the top spot at the Speedway for a number of years. George tried his hand at a racing career in the 1980s, advancing to what is now known as the Indy Lights series, and he still occasionally takes part in some endurance racing events.
During his tenure as head of the family racetrack, George hasn’t hidden his dislike for the direction Indycar racing has taken under CART’s leadership. He isn’t happy about the way the Indianapolis field has increasingly consisted of ‘wealthy road racers,’ often non-American, while homegrown oval talents like Jeff Gordon have ended up in the predominantly-southern NASCAR series. George also believes the costs of IndyCar’s series are out of control, and he maintains the sport should be governed by an independent authority, not the team owners.
Most racing insiders consider George’s creation of the IRL nothing less than an attempted hostile takeover of Indy car racing. Some might call it reminiscent of CART's ambush of USAC 15 years ago, but the circumstances are almost completely opposite.
For starters, CART made their power play at a time when the sport was in serious trouble. George, on the other hand, is starting his series at a time when Indy car racing is healthier than ever before. An annual survey by Goodyear indicates that since the late 1970s, Indy car season attendance has increased from around 600,000 to 3.1 million fans, a rate of increase faster than the vaunted NASCAR series. For the last year statistics are available (1994), record crowds were achieved at 15 of 16 venues, and over 56 million Americans tuned in on television, according to A.C. Nielsen figures.
The IndyCar series is enjoying an unprecedented level of manufacturer participation. Ford, Honda and Mercedes-Benz have been active proponents of the current turbocharged 2.6 liter engine formula, and they will be joined this year by Toyota. Leading British carmaker Reynard is building a $5 million technical center in Indianapolis.
Fields are also bigger and deeper than ever. The arrival in recent years of ex-F1 stars like Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell has broadened the appeal of the series and captured a worldwide audience. And there is plenty of American talent; aside from established stars Rahal, Unser Jr and Michael Andretti, young guns Robby Gordon, Scott Pruett, Jimmy Vasser, and Bryan Herta have all showed race winning potential.
Despite all of the things that are good about modern Indy car racing - or perhaps in spite of them - George decided to move full speed ahead with the IRL. For the most part, the reaction in the IndyCar camp has been simple: If the Speedway and USAC were unable to properly run the sport in the past, why should anyone believe they can now?
Though judgement will have to be reserved until the IRL actually runs a race, that would appear to be a legitimate question. Every detail which has slowly emerged about the IRL has been greeted with considerable skepticism by fans and the media, not to mention just about anyone affiliated with the CART series.
In May 1995, USAC stipulated new engine and chassis regulations for the IRL’s 1996 season in the interests of safety, but were forced to rescind them when current IndyCar engine and chassis suppliers expressed no interest in building products to IRL specifications. USAC's reaction was to backpedal and keep the 1995 regulations intact, leaving IRL hopefuls scurrying to buy whatever used racecars were on the market.
A couple of months later, CART announced their own '96 rules which were somewhat similar to USAC's discarded proposal but with key exceptions. As a member of CART’s Technical Committee, USAC Technical Director Mike Devin participated in the formulation of this package, along with representatives from chassis manufacturers Lola, Penske, and Reynard. This kind of partisan discussion has enormously enhanced CART’s ability to maintain safe and stable rules throughout their existence.
What got everyone’s attention was the Speedway’s July ‘95 announcement of the IRL points scoring system, especially the reservation of 3/4 of starting spots for series points leaders. The Speedway says this move was made to encourage league participation, but IndyCar officials call it a clever way of limiting their chances at Indianapolis, where only eight "at large" spots will be available in the field.
This seemingly minor clause - and the Speedway’s steadfast refusal to eliminate it - has been the central issue in the CART-IRL fight. "Our objection is very specific, related to restrictions being imposed upon the Indy 500, which we think are repugnant and go against the very essence of fair competition and open sport," says CART CEO Andrew Craig.
"Certainly, a resolution would be, I think, in the best interest of the sport, in the best interest of the Speedway, and in the best interest of CART. There is no question about that, but compromise does require that both sides recognize that there has to be give and that the compromise is not merely where one side prevails over the other. What we are not prepared to do is just walk away and say, ‘Well, if that is what the Speedway wants to do, okay.’ Our teams have worked too hard, too long, and it is our teams that have made this sport what it is today."
By December, when the IRL announced plans to switch to 4.0 liter production based engines in 1997, it was totally clear that no reconcilliation between the groups would be forthcoming. Apart from lowering costs and speeds, IRL officials believe the switch to these less sophisticated "stock-blocks" will resurrect a cottage industry of engine builders.
Most racing experts say this plan won’t work. Modern single seat racing cars use the engine as a main structural element of the car. Production based engines cannot withstand the torsional forces the current engines are subjected to. Therefore even if someone builds engines to the new IRL specifications, they cannot be used in existing cars, and none of the current carmakers have been contacted about building chassis - for which rules are yet to be determined. For all of the Speedway’s talk about reducing costs, major changes like this only increase them.
As it stands, the IRL’s inaugural season will consist of only three races - 200 milers at Walt Disney World on January 27 and Phoenix International Raceway on March 24, and of course the Indy 500, which will annually serve as the IRL finale. New Hampshire International Speedway and a new oval in Las Vegas will be added for the 1996-97 IRL schedule.
The IRL scored a coup by winning the Disney venue. CART had negotiated with Disney, but withdrew when Disney would not share the costs involved in putting on a race. The Speedway had no problem in that regard; they created a new division, called IMS Properties, and financed, designed, and built the 1-mile Disney oval, for which temporary seating will be trucked in.
Two existing oval venues switched allegience to the IRL - Phoenix, and New Hampshire. CART already had a strained relationship with Phoenix promoter Buddy Jobe, and New Hampshire owner Bob Bahre has longtime USAC ties, so the moves were not unexpected. However, Speedway officials were taken aback when CART scheduled their ‘96 Elkhart Lake race on its traditional mid-August date - the same weekend as the previously announced New Hampshire IRL race.
Entry lists reveal that almost all of the top drivers remain allied with the IndyCar series. IRL races will feature smaller fields consisting mostly of has-beens and nobodies in older model cars, a potentially lethal combination. For all of George’s complaints about IndyCar’s second-rate foreign road racers, it seems the third- and fourth-rate ones have migrated to the IRL, and a near total lack of response from the USAC dirt crowd cannot have pleased the Speedway president. Arie Luyendyk and Roberto Guerrero the only Indy car race winners confirmed for the full IRL slate.
It would appear the Speedway has taken some serious liberties in marketing the IRL as "the cars and the stars of the Indy 500." But they are publicly unconcerned, choosing to make brash statements like "the stars don’t make the Indy 500 - the Indy 500 makes the stars."
In that light, Speedway officials were confident that the CART team sponsors would balk at not going to Indianapolis. But that hasn’t been the case. Valvoline, whose longtime sponsorship agreement with the Speedway is up for renewal next year, is the only major sponsor which has pressured their CART team (Walker Racing, with driver Robby Gordon) to run at Indianapolis instead of Michigan in May.
In truth, the exposure that Indy provides sponsors comes at a high price. The Indianapolis 500 consumes one-fourth to one-third of many teams’ annual 16-race budget, mainly because personnel needs to be housed for four weeks instead of the usual race weekend of four days. The ‘500’ may boast the biggest payday in the sport, but only the top two or three finishers come close to breaking even for the month.
In addition, the Speedway is now making Indy 500 sponsorship agreements contingent upon IRL series sponsorship. This subtle-as-a-sledgehammer policy has already led to Miller beer withdrawing their 25-year support of the annual Pit Stop Competition. Sponsors are also unhappy they can no longer provide their own hospitality food and beverages; for the last couple of years, they have been forced to purchase these items through Speedway-approved caterers at exhorbitant prices.
Since George announced his plans for the IRL, there has been a lot of argument and prognostication about if he is right or wrong and whether the reputation of the Indianapolis 500 will ultimately be tarnished or enhanced. But clearly, a perception of arrogance and greed on the part of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, along with a lack of confidence in the United States Auto Club, has led Indy car racing’s top participants to conclude that they no longer need the Indianapolis 500.
George rightfully has a lot of faith in the drawing power of the ‘500.’ But will an event which calls itself "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" live up to that billing when the drivers who contributed so much to that reputation are racing 250 miles away? And even if Speedway officals save face with a competitive and safe race this year, can the IRL survive the transition to the radical technical changes USAC has mandated for 1997 and beyond? These are legitimate questions, and history suggests that the Speedway can provide nothing more than tradition as an answer.
Until now, tradition has been enough to maintain the ‘500’s’ position as one of then world’s greatest sporting events. That may no longer be the case. Tony George is putting the reputation of the Indianapolis 500 on the line, and a significant portion of the Indianapolis economy and the fate of open-wheel racing in America are at stake.