The month of May has been a kind of special time for me since I was a young lad.
The most obvious reason how this came to be was something that’s probably common to many people. The arrival of May meant something was close. The end of the school year was coming and summer vacation was just weeks away. That’s always something to light up the perspective of a young person. The fact that it also meant a significant change in weather certainly didn’t hurt. For me, this came in the context of living in an area of the planet Earth where, for all practical purposes, regardless of the technicalities of the calendar and the definitions of the seasons of the year, winter effectively lasts from sometime in October until sometime in April.
The other part is not common to as many people, but it means something to a subset of humanity. The month of May, for some of us, immediately brings thoughts to mind that meshes nicely with the above, and lasts beyond the period of life when the end of the school year is a major time.
It’s time for the extended activity of the annual Indianapolis 500. As it’s referred to in the traditional promotional hype that has become an accepted part of Americana as much as any kind of advertising and promotional hype has, The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Even if you are a person who really could not care any less about auto racing or any form of motorsports, you know this event. It’s simply one of those big deal events that everybody living in touch with anything resembling American society and culture, or anything basically about what we might think of as modern Western Civilization, knows, the same way they know about the Kentucky Derby, or the Olympic games, or Wimbledon, even if they are not at all interested in any of the sports involved. Somebody can be mostly oblivious to the sport of racing and yet have at least a glimmer of recognition if you mention “A.J”, even if they would be stumped if you mentioned the name of Anthony Joseph Foyt Junior. There is a kind of cultural iconic recognition.
It always has my attention to some degree this time of year. One of the unique characteristics of the event is that it is much more than a one day event, it has always been much more than what is a common event schedule for modern auto racing at a “big league” top professional level, or even amateur club competition: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday track sessions, with the race happening Sunday afternoon. Traditionally, it was always a race that happened on the Memorial Day holiday here in the United States, which, besides its basic purpose, a day of memorial for those who have died in armed services of the country, became a kind of de facto semi-official start to summer. (If you were a young person in school, it meant the last day of the school year and summer vacation was only a week or so away!) That was altered back when the U.S. changed a bunch of holidays to officially fall on a Monday, and at that point, mostly for logistical convenience for spectators, the race was then scheduled to happen on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.
In any case, the event really started in early to mid May with daily practice sessions, including the initial yearly ritual of Rookie Orientation, when drivers who were new to the speedway, even if they were actually experienced racers, were gradually introduced to the place in tightly controlled supervision of officials and experienced drivers, culminating in their rookie test, where they made a run under observation and judged as to whether they were sufficiently competent and sensible to be able to share the track in competition conditions and not be a safety hazard.
It has always been an extended event, with all of the people involved in the competition essentially moving in for the month, occupying blocks of nearby hotels, and moving their cars and operation into the garages of Gasoline Alley for the month. Even the procedure of qualifying for the race was a huge, extended, and somewhat complicated ritual, and I won’t even bore you with the whole explanation of how that worked; first, because it was damned complicated, and second, because that traditional procedure was scrapped a couple of years ago, anyway. (I’ll skip discussion about whether or not they improved it.)
One thing that’s noteworthy about this year is that this shrunk. Before, qualifying at Indy was an extended saga over two successive weekends. “Pole Day” on the Saturday of the first weekend of qualifying, another day on Sunday, then another week of open practice, then the next weekend of qualifying, Saturday, then Sunday, the very last day, which became known as “Bump Day”, because of the simple fact that there were always more cars entered than the 33 starting places on the race grid. Pole Day meant big excitement and drama because this was the day the fast ones were going for pole at the front of the field. Bump Day meant big drama and excitement and suspense at the other end, where the drivers and teams who were at the slow end of the chart sweated it out, as other drivers and teams tried to pull it all together to put together a 4 lap qualifying run average speed (that being one of the unique parts of the tradition at Indy compared to all other racing, incidentally) that would put them in the top 33, getting them into the race, and bumping out one of the slower cars already qualified.
That has changed.
It’s a whole subject of its own. It’s an awkward one to raise and write or talk about. People, like me, who are familiar with racing and the history of this race, know all about it, all the strange drama and complications and changes that have happened. On the other hand, people who are not familiar with all of it, may not even be interested, but if they are mildly curious, it’s confusing and complicated to explain. It used to be you could talk in general about “Indy car racing”, and this was relatively simple and straightforward.
That changed in 1996. It got really complicated, and frankly, stupid. The Indy Racing League came to be. What followed was something that has repercussions to this day, and even though, theoretically, the complicated situation that started back in 1996 has been resolved, the contemporary form of motorsports now known officially as “IndyCar” still suffers from serious, crippling damages and lingering confusion for anybody only casually interested (say, once a year when Indy rolls around). The year 1996 started an extended saga that was, has been, in the opinions of many people including my own self, a gigantic epic royal raging jungle monkey clusterfuck of hubris, petty squabbles and conflicting interests, and incredible stupidity. It almost completely wrecked what was the premier form of auto racing in the United States for decades, and the damage still lingers. This whole saga is probably the subject of a very long book by somebody someday. I won’t even try to review and summarize it here and now. There’s just no way. What I will do of that here is, by necessity, such a tiny thumbnail version that it’s almost silly, things mentioned almost incidentally.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) has always existed more or less as an entity in auto racing unto itself. The actual sanctioning body controlling and conducting the rules and the event of the Indy 500 has changed over time, something the casual once a year fan might not have even known, or cared about.
For many years it was the American Automobile Association. That’s right, the AAA, the guys you might call for a tow if you have car trouble on the road. That changed after some very bad events in 1955. The operation of the Indy 500, and the rest of the racing series that revolved around it, became the domain of USAC. This continued unchanged for roughly a quarter century. Around 1980, new complications arose when a group of car owners, finally fed up with USAC, revolted, and formed a cooperative entity to conduct the racing themselves, forming their own series, known as Championship Auto Racing Teams, CART.
After a big tussle that lasted a couple of years (another book chapter), this sorted out, with CART basically then becoming “Indy car racing”, operating their own races, writing their rules for car technical regulations and competition, and USAC was out, more or less, concentrating on the other lower level series they operated; midgets, sprints, and “championship cars” that were a complicated story by itself. Once the category generally known to the public as “Indy cars”, in the past days of yore, it was a weird hybrid class that covered both the cars (and most of the drivers) that ran at Indy each year, and the rest of the large speedway races, and also, the front engined dirt oval cars that were basically larger versions of sprint cars. That’s a long historical story in itself.
Once upon a time, there were no differences between those two types. They used the same cars. In the 1950s, those digressed from each other and it actually became two very different kinds of racing cars, racing very different tracks, that happened to have the same bunch of regular competitors, combined in one overall racing series. Today’s version of what were once “championship cars” in USAC is now what you find as “Silver Crown”. Absolutely a completely different world from what had become “Indy cars”. Two totally separate worlds for the most part; the only thing in common by the late seventies was a group of people who had both worlds in common in their experience by virtue of the fact that the majority of the Indy car crowd were people whose racing experience had been coming up through the ranks of USAC, racing midgets and sprints on ovals. That gradually changed over time (another book chapter or two) as Indy car racing became more and more a kind of racing and racing car that had much more in common with the world of single seater open wheel road racing than racing front engine cars sideways in the corners on dirt ovals.
Besides this whole aspect of the story, there was another major factor. Over the years they ran all this, USAC developed quite a serious reputation for being incredibly inept, inconsistent, and just plain stupid and incompetent as a racing sanctioning body. Going off and doing a little historical reading of your own on this sport will produce plenty of finds of stories of past competitors about USAC. You will probably find very few that are complimentary.
Things took a major turn at the end of the seventies, and that can be traced back to something that could be regarded as a major trigger or turning point in what is in reality a more complicated and extended story than anything that can be attributed to one single simple event. The release of Dan Gurney’s famous “white paper”, a relatively short little essay that he wrote and found its way around the racing community. A short little manifesto of sorts (although I doubt he ever intended it as anything formal).
Skipping ahead, CART was formed (with former driver and then, at that time, team owner Gurney among the founders), a business entity formed among Indy car racing team owners to act as their own sanctioning body, operated and controlled by a board comprised of the owners of the teams actually competing, determined that the benefits of competing would actually go mostly to the competitors, with a structure of regulations and rules and officiating that would be controlled by the people who understood the matters involved directly. Arguably even more important, they were determined to have an organization of officials conducting the competition that were what they almost universally agreed was completely lacking in the current powers that be of the time, USAC; fair, consistent, and competent.
CART started, got itself going, and there was a bit of a split existence briefly, in which USAC ran a continued series, including the Indy 500. CART ran their own series, with most of the existing teams and drivers running the new CART series, until USAC dropped this, since there was essentially almost nobody interested. They were all off to CART. However, a fairly strange situation eventually settled into place, and while it was possibly pretty confusing to the casual fan (like people who only paid attention once a year for the 500), it worked out into an odd but more or less stable and functioning arrangement. CART ran their series, with their own races, season championship points, car technical regulations and competition rules, race officials and inspectors, and financial arrangements. The Indianapolis 500 was not conducted by CART; CART was not involved at all, while at the same time, most of the teams, cars, and drivers that showed up and competed at Indy each May were CART regulars. CART scheduled the Indy 500 as part of the CART schedule, and awarded season championship points in their own championship series, according to Indy race results, a simple matter of the practical reality that this was still the same general sport, and Indy was the centerpiece of that sport. However, while at Indy, everything was actually under the control of the speedway as an entity unto itself, with their own rules, officials, finances, and so on. For many years, this meant all of the officialdom and conduct of the event was, still, USAC.
An odd situation, for sure, but it settled into a functional coexistence, albeit not without the occasional problems. A grudging cooperative arrangement worked out in which whatever the CART rulebook had for technical regulations at the time were, mostly, accepted as default rules by the speedway (and USAC) for the Indy 500, a simple pragmatic approach to reflect the reality that nearly all of the competitors showing up as entries at the speedway each May were CART series competitors, and it wouldn’t work out for anybody very well if the cars everyone was running that year could not be rolled right out on the IMS track as they were. There were still occasional oddities in this situation, though, where IMS had their own little adjustments to the rules where things were just a little different at the speedway, leading to entries of cars at the Indy 500 that were not actually legal the rest of the year in the CART series. This meant a period of history where you would not simply only have cars, teams, and drivers that only took part in the 500 in May, but not the CART series. In a way that was nothing unusual, even in the days when it was all USAC, just because the Indy 500 was such an event unto itself anyway that there have always been teams and drivers entering only the Indy 500 and ignoring the rest of the races. What was more unusual, a side topic all its own, was how this would also bring some unusual, annually unique entries, the obvious example being the history of “stock block” engines allowed under the IMS rules, not part of the CART rules of the time.
But that’s a digression of another book chapter or so. The point was that for about 15 years, this weird coexistence and at least partial cooperation was in place, and it actually worked out reasonably well, although I suspect that some kind of extended interviews with those active in that might produce loads of stories that suggest it was less than ideal. If nothing else, recall the reputation of USAC as a difficult and sometimes seriously inept operation.
Enter Tony George. After World War Two, IMS had been a fairly neglected place, which had been idle over the course of the war, when racing cars was about the last thing where anybody was about to devote time and resources. After the war, the speedway had been bought by Indiana businessman Tony Hulman. He revived the place, and what was in the historical perspective, of probably a great many people, a kind of golden age of Indy, was the period when Tony Hulman owned and ran the place. Eventually, of course, what happened is what happens to human beings, he got old and died. Around the beginning of the nineties, the Hulman family still owned the Speedway, in the hands of his daughter Mary Hulman George, one of the many business holdings of the Hulman family, probably as close to aristocracy as you’re going to find in the state of Indiana. Her son, Tony, was an occasional racer, but essentially, his role in life was a relatively simple one to describe: rich kid. He inherited the role of the guy in charge of the most famous family property, the speedway.
I do not know Tony George. I hate to disparage the man given that from what I can gather of descriptions of the man, he is reputedly a fairly decent nice guy. But I also note that he acquired a somewhat uncomplimentary descriptive term that apparently became somewhat popular as a reference to him by people who had some interest in the speedway and the overall sport known as Indy car racing: The Idiot Grandson. In short, a reportedly nice, personable, guy, a pleasant enough fellow, but a guy whose position in life was by virtue of being born into a very wealthy family holding a piece of central Indiana real estate. It could be argued (and has been, ad nauseum, over the past two decades) that the lad was thrown into a position of management responsibility that, despite some definite familiarity with the sport, was maybe a bit over his head, a little out of his depth.
To be fair, anything about this topic should include acknowledgement of the fact that over the course of the time he was in charge (he’s not anymore, another story of drama in a large family business), Tony George has, in fact, done quite a bit in terms of the maintenance and renovation and improvement of the physical facility of the speedway. He spiffed the place up very significantly. Of course, that’s relatively easy to do, I would think, when you have a combination of massive financial resources of the family business empire to draw upon, and a facility that is the most famous racing venue on the planet, annually hosting the biggest single sporting event on the planet, a place that could generate an enormous amount of gross income simply from hosting one major event each year.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t be satisfied with this state of things and leave it at that. Take care of the place, and host the biggest race in the world once a year. It would no doubt be a large job, but given the apparent financial resources, and the ongoing immense stature and sheer monetary success of the venue’s one big event of the year, it seems that it would not be the hardest task in the world to be a good steward of the place, and, to be blunt, just simply not fuck it up.
The year 1996 saw the start of the organization of the Indy Racing League. To people who know the sport, this started the period that is often simply referred to as “The Split”. It was not a good period, and the damage is still present.
Despite the pragmatic situation of a kind of strained truce between the speedway and the USAC “old guard”, and CART, there was still friction and discord, with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway administration seeing the speedway, certainly with some justification, as the center and foundation of this form of racing, and the CART organization and competitors perpetually seen as “the rebels”, outsiders, usurpers of the grand traditions. A lot of this revolved around the ongoing resentments toward the number of competitors, team owners, technical people, and drivers, who came from road racing, and not what was seen by the old guard as the One True Way of what Indy car racers should be, that is, guys who came up in racing on ovals in midgets and sprints under the authority of USAC. That seemed to grow over time as the newer people entering the sport came almost exclusively from road racing in single seaters and/or sports cars (both drivers and the engineers and mechanics, as the cars that were now Indy cars had much, much more in common with that world than they did with front engined dirt track oval cars). As time passed, the people who had come from the USAC world in the time when that was how it worked, slowly faded as people got old and retired.
It was not always a happy coexistence, and some people just could not, would not, refused to, get over it.
Among the speedway administration, and their old associates of USAC, there was apparently a permanent feeling that this new state of things was just wrong, and that the rightful seat of power and control of the sport of Indy car racing in general should be firmly in the hands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in all aspects. Eventually, that faction decided to take decisive drastic action. If CART would not be what they, the IMS/USAC people, thought “Indy car racing” should be, then they would do something. They would create their own series and write their own new rules as they saw fit, regardless of what the CART rules were, and this, of course, would be including, as the centerpiece event, the Indianapolis 500. The CART bunch could join them and play along, or not, but as far as they were concerned, there was a new boss.
The sport of Indy car racing would be under the new IRL, run by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway people headed by Mr. George, and the annual event would certainly be completely under these guys, under their rules, and they no longer cared what the CART people thought or wanted regarding the car technical regulations. As if this was not enough, they decided to take an extra step, to, putting it charitably, encourage teams to commit to the entire new series. The relevant twist here was that since the IRL and their new order was a brand new thing, there was a slight problem. Considering that this was brand new, the only existing cars were the current CART spec “Indy car”. That meant no difference in “IRL” chassis and engines and “CART” chassis and engines. It would still be a simple thing to run the CART series with the equipment you had, run the Indy 500 in May as had been the usual routine, and ignore the remainder of the races of the new IRL series.
So the speedway/IRL decided to throw in a new rule for the 1996 Indianapolis 500, the first race of the new IRL. It was sometimes referred to simply as “the 25/8 rule”. This stated that 25 starting spots on the grid of 33 would be guaranteed to those committing to run the entire 1996 Indy Racing League schedule. If you were not committed to agree to enter the entire IRL season (which of course would have some conflicting scheduling with the CART season), you would take your chances of running a qualifying speed fast enough to make the 33 fastest, but be bumped out of the field by one of the people with the IRL guarantee.
No surprise, the CART teams were not pleased by this prospect, having no intention of abandoning their current series, especially understandable when you consider that, to most observers, the state of “Indy car racing” embodied in the CART series of the first half of the decade to that point, was arguably the best Indy car racing had ever been, even seen by many (including me) as possibly the overall best racing series on the planet. The general response of the CART teams was basically summarized as something along the lines of “bite me”. They pretty much told T. George and company to take their new series and their attitude of “Indy belongs to us, we dictate how this goes from now on, and you will like it” and stuff it somewhere.
The first race of 1996 of the new Indy Racing League took place at what was almost universally regarded as a ridiculous little new pseudo-oval track at, of all places, Walt Disney World outside Orlando, a place that did not even have permanent grandstands. The CART people who were “Indy car racing” were noticeably absent, and that inaugural race was won by one Buzz Calkins, a driver whose previous experience at the time was running in the Indy Lights series, the secondary level race series that ran CART race weekends as a support race extra feature and was considered the “feeder series” for CART (somewhat like AAA minor league baseball, or as the present Insurance Company Series is in NASCAR). Buzz was a mid-pack to backmarker runner in Indy Lights, a competent driver, but nobody anybody probably expected to ever have any significant success in CART if he ever even got a ride there).
When the 1996 Indianapolis 500 came around, the entry list was all teams and drivers who were considered to be anywhere from midfield level to barely acceptable to be on the track in CART, with few from the ranks who had been running in CART. Maybe most notable was the team of A.J. Foyt Racing, A.J. having never been particularly happy in the CART series, his sympathies firmly with Tony George in his new venture. The equipment was all second hand chassis bought from CART teams, last year’s cars.
The CART organization decided to make a stand and announced their own new race for the same day as the Indy 500, which was maybe just a tad optimistically naïve, the “U.S. 500” at Michigan International Speedway, starting later in the afternoon (when the Indianapolis 500 was probably still going to be running about 200 miles away to the southwest). They decided they would make it their own version of the big day, not only a 500 mile race, but even duplicating the format of a starting grid of 33 in 11 rows of 3.
As it turned out, that particular detail was a problem (as they managed to start off the event by the field rolling to take the green flag and having a huge multiple car crash when the field, fortunately, had not gotten anywhere near full racing speed). In retrospect it’s amazing that a full field of 33 cars took the start of both races. The reality there, however, was that in both cases, both series had to scrape together anybody who could put a functional car and reasonably competent driver on track. The CART series field was very healthy at the time, generally 26 or 28 cars at races other than Indy, and when CART would visit Indy each May, more cars and drivers would come out just for Indy, not CART regulars, always producing more entries for Indianapolis than the available 33 starting spots. However, in this case, this year, many of these “Indy only” efforts tended to still view “Indy only” as their plan, as it had been , or they saw the new IRL, and the sudden void of no CART regulars who had been the competitive teams, as a great new opportunity to shine now that all the serious competition had disappeared. That certainly was the case.
That first “IRL 500” was won by Buddy Lazier, driving for Ron Hemelgarn. Both driver and car owner had competed in their respective roles in CART previous to that. Not to mean any disrespect to either, but in CART, and previous Indy races among the CART folks, neither had done any better than just kind of being there and running laps. Filling the field, functioning competently and respectably, earning some money and showing sponsors names to the public, doing the business, but never being anything like a race winning proposition.
So began “The Split”. It was not a happy time.
The slogan of the US 500 in 1996 was something about “the cars and the stars”. In short, the idea was, yeah, this isn’t the old tradition and grandeur of the Indy 500, but all of the serious drivers and teams and good equipment are here. On the other hand, a couple of hundred miles away, was the majesty and tradition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and The Greatest Spectacle In Racing (well, maybe not now) that had been running Memorial Day since 1911, with the only problem being that, now, people looked at the drivers and cars actually running the Indy 500 now, and nobody gave a shit. The average occasional casual racing fan probably didn’t know who any of them were with maybe a few exceptions.
The epic saga of the ensuing years was a long story. The IRL continued to suck while the CART series was still strong and kept many of their fans. CART, however, suffered from the disappearance of the Indy 500 from their activity, the core of the sport, including a great deal of profound personal frustration among drivers and teams who loved Indy. People who were always excited and attentive about each year’s events at Indy in May lost interest. Many people who saw both the Indy 500 and the competitors who were running in CART, no longer at Indy, as belonging together, were disgusted and many people wrote off both. Supposedly Tony George started his whole new “vision” in order to, as he saw it, with many supporters, “save Indy car racing”, but it can be argued that the only benefit of the whole ordeal and circus was to NASCAR, collecting many of the casual racing fans who now saw both CART and the IRL as degraded.
One irony is that when it all started, Tony George and his associates laid out their “vision” for Indy cars as they saw it, as the way to save the sport that had actually been as vital and interesting and successful as it had ever been, when they set out to “save” it. I won’t spell it out here, but the overwhelming irony is that not just that in the process, they all but killed Indy car racing. It’s that if you go through the list of all the items of Tony George’s “vision”, virtually every one of those points and principles was abandoned, or pushed aside by simple reality rather than explicit changes by the IRL.
Missing the Indy 500 each year eventually drove some of the CART teams and drivers to the IRL, not necessarily because they were any more fond of it, but simply because they decided that they could not skip the 500 anymore, whether for personal reasons in terms of why they were in the sport, or simple business reasons, because sponsors and potential sponsors wanted them to be at Indy.
Starting in 1997, the Indy Racing League started running their new specification chassis and engines, their total break from CART. That was it, the equipment CART was running and the equipment the IRL was running were now completely different cars. No common rules between Indy and CART from then on, putting up a definite wall of separation. This, of course, at least made the “25/8” rule unnecessary to force a commitment. Ironically, for a few years there around the turn of the 21st century, this still didn’t stop what happened for a short period. That was, CART car owners and drivers actually making the major effort and expense of buying cars to run only the Indy 500, and entering. In 2000 and again in 2001, CART regulars (both team and driver) won the Indy 500, beating the IRL series regulars.
Unfortunately, after that, the Ganassi and Penske teams (the 2000 and 2001 winning teams, respectively) abandoned the CART series to go to the IRL, basically (as T. George had always wanted) because of Indianapolis. Eventually the top teams of CART followed, and while there were still very good teams and drivers in CART, it deteriorated. CART went bankrupt (from being extremely healthy when the IRL started). The remnants were bought and turned into “ChampCar”, including changes to the series to make it a full road racing series, and moving to an interesting new chassis (a spec chassis, unfortunately). However, they finally called it a day. After years of unsuccessful attempts at “reunification” of the divided sport, ChampCar ceased, and teams and drivers moved to the IRL, which was now calling itself “IndyCar”.
The Split, the divide of something into two separate worlds, the conflict between the groups involved, was over after more than a decade of this. It could be viewed by observers as a situation where, when it was all finally more or less resolved, that Tony George and the people who supported his “vision”, his quest to save Indy car racing, had won. The word “won” almost needs to be put in quotation marks here. It’s hard to say seriously that somebody “won” in this. People can have different views on this, depending, of course, on what they fundamentally viewed as the right thing to do, the right form of existence and characteristics of this particular form of professional motorsports.
It begs the question, obviously, of how much it even matters in the larger scale of things. It’s just a sport. The general sketch of the saga that I’ve outlined is something, as I’ve said, that’s already known to people who care a lot about the story, and the people who really don’t know or care about it, probably don’t know the story at all other than being dimly aware that occasional viewing of racing on television or catching bits of the sports news has left them occasionally a little confused and puzzled.
But for the people involved directly or indirectly in some form of participation or association, and for people whose only involvement is watching, it does matter. The point of all this, a story that might seem trivial and irrelevant to people who were never interested to begin with, is something more general, maybe a few points to be derived from the whole epic.
As I’ve said, there were, supposedly, a number of issues and goals of the newly formed Indy Racing League organization, back in the mid nineties when it was formed, and then underway in 1996. There were several points to the “vision” as laid out by Tony George, which met with some popularity among the people who joined his new series.
One was the lack of American drivers, or at least the state of things where the “Indy car” drivers would be almost entirely, if not entirely, Americans. The new vision being mostly, if not all, Americans competing. The idea that all these road racers in the field in CART and at Indy each May were, literally, “foreigners”, not just in the sense of being either citizens of other countries, or immigrants, but not belonging in Indy car races except as an occasional guest, an outsider. The idea that “Indy car” competitors should come from the ranks of USAC through an apprenticeship in midgets and sprints, like the old days (regardless of how completely different the kinds of cars and racing were now). The idea that costs were out of control, that the old days, the way teams worked, were gone, and somehow this could be forced back into being with new car rules carefully dictated by the new order. An idea that “Indy car racing” was supposed to mean, in a properly ordered universe, oval tracks (which in their view, put things back into the USAC tradition and ranks of advancement).
The way things were in CART at the time included all of the engine manufacturers having engine lease arrangements. This meant that teams no longer bought, maintained, and tuned and modified their own engines that belonged to them. Instead, the engine manufacturers basically maintained a pool of sealed engines, with work not allowed on those engines by anyone but the manufacturer. Engines were leased to the teams, with swaps for new engines as needed.
The engine lease arrangements were regarded as unacceptable in the new vision, which was more about going back to old ways. This was despite the fact that, while good arguments could be made for this, that is, against engine leases of a pool completely controlled, there had been good reasons for the engine lease method coming into practice. In the new IRL, engines were required to be available for purchase, with these becoming the property of the teams to do with as they pleased, just as long as they met the technical regulations when they were at the track.
In the end, almost none of the supposed “vision” was maintained.
Over a period of years since the start of the IRL, the original manufacturers left, and, eventually, the only engine manufacturer providing engines was Honda, which had been, at the time of The Split, one of the participating manufacturers in CART. The current sole engine in the IRL is Honda; by engine lease agreements of sealed engines, only.
As past high level CART teams and drivers defected and moved to the IRL, not necessarily because of any great belief in “the vision”, but simply because they saw it as necessary in order to be at Indy in May, the teams and drivers that had been IRL regulars, who appeared and competed when the IRL formed, because they saw a chance that was not there running against the CART bunch, gradually faded. They were now consistently being beaten by the teams and drivers who had, or would have, thoroughly outrun them in CART. There were a few drivers of the USAC ranks who took an opportunity in the early years of the IRL, filling a new series when most of the people who in essence had been “Indy car racing” were in CART, but not much has come of that. Today, now everybody who had been in CART, or younger drivers who would be in CART if it still existed and was healthy, is in the IRL, and basically, the character of the field of drivers in today’s Indy Racing League “IndyCar” series is pretty much exactly what the CART field would have been. In recent years, of all the drivers competing, the only one who fit the mold of “USAC driver up through the ranks”, what the IRL promoted in past years as “The Road to Indy” (literally a promotional slogan, with decals and everything) was Ed Carpenter. It should be noted that Ed Carpenter is the stepson of Tony George. This year, he is only racing at Indy, and as of this writing, has made the field for the 2010 Indy 500 (and actually qualified well).
Tony George back away from actively running the IRL a few years or so ago, to form his own team and compete in the series he formed, forming a new team called Vision Racing, which included stepson Ed as one of the drivers along the way. Vision Racing is now defunct, and Ed Carpenter does not have a full time drive in an Indy car in 2010 as of now.
Part of the big plan was to have chassis for the new series that were more easily afforded, make racing less expensive, by created very tightly controlled regulations, and, more significantly, changing the rules even in terms of the actual business. In the new way, chassis could only come from car builders who were “approved suppliers”, with the selling prices of chassis limited to a maximum set by the IRL rules. The way things have worked out, today there is one and only one chassis in the IRL IndyCar series, made by Italian maker Dallara.
Everyone has only one chassis choice, one engine choice, the engines are sealed and provided under lease deals, and it’s still a very expensive proposition. As has pretty much always been the reality in motorsports competition, generally, going faster than the competition costs more money, and in a highly sophisticated, technically complex kind of racing, even more so. This is true to an extent even when you have something like today’s IndyCar series, where it is, for all practical purposes, a “spec” car. For those not familiar with racing, a “spec” series is one where essentially everyone is required by the rules to run the same car. Same chassis, same engines, with either little or no variations and modifications allowed, same tires, same fuel. The variations in competitiveness then come from the skill in chassis setup, and the driver’s ability, team race strategy, and so forth. Theoretically, a spec series levels the playing field and creates a series where the differences, and relative success, comes strictly from the skills of the people involved, in car preparation, in driving, in general “racecraft”, not by the ability to buy better hardware, and/or in the abilities of different chassis and engine designers. To some degree that does work toward the intended result.
However, generally, in racing you find spec car rules in a racing series that is a kind of development or ladder series; in other words, a racing series where the focus is to make the competition, as much as possible, all about the skill of the people involved, not about who has the most money to throw at car development and design and construction. In top level professional motorsports, part of the essence, really the main purpose in the origins of motorsports, was about being a competition between the machines, and who could bring the best machine within the bounds of a set of technical rules.
For all of the past hype and claims about bringing Indy car racing back to the ways of the good old days of a past golden era, one of the most ironic things about the whole story of the past decade and a half has been this. Along the way, in the course of Tony George’s “vision”, his supposed quest to save this kind of racing from the perceived usurpers of the sport, one very significant result came from it. For many, many people, myself included, the biggest appeal and fascination with the annual epic of the month of May at Indianapolis, and Indy cars in general, was the technical interest of the cars, the variety of competing chassis, and engines, of different design approaches.
All of that is completely gone. To be clear, the current IndyCar series, this form of racing, is still, and will probably always be, a very technical, very sophisticated form of motorsports. But all of the technical knowledge and skill and subtlety can only go into the setup of chassis, and some better understanding of the car’s behavior in the driver to enable them to make the most of things. From the outside observer’s perspective, there is little to nothing to engage in terms of technical interest in the tradition of motorsports… who can build the better mousetrap? You can watch a television broadcast of any of the series races, of the Indianapolis 500 itself, even of coverage of practice and qualifying leading up to the big event (although that itself has gone underground since anything but the Indy 500 and a few selected other races during the season has gone over to the cable network Versus). You will probably hear and see little to nothing at all about anything technical of the cars themselves. There’s nothing for them to show or talk about. They’re all the same cars, the same chassis powered by the exact same engines, without even tuning variations in the sealed engines, and carefully controlled and limited options even in settings of the engine control electronics, all on the same tires. The only differences, other than maybe a few bits and pieces, are in chassis setup, and this is something teams probably will not talk about, and nobody can see, say, a slight change in camber or toe, or spring rates, or shock valving, or ride height. You can watch hours of television coverage and never hear a thing about anything technical about the cars. You might catch a word or two said about the fact that it’s a Dallara chassis, or Honda engines, or being on Firestone tires. It hardly matters. They’re all the same. Who even cares, when neither Dallara, nor Honda, nor Firestone, have any competition? The only technical competition at all is between the chassis engineers of the various teams. Who dials in the best setup. That’s pretty much it. Interesting and challenging for them, for certain, but that’s all. Nothing of any interest in that department for fans and spectators. There’s no accomplishment to focus on for the makers of the chassis and engines. If you win, well, of course, you’re the only option, you’re guaranteed to win. No interest or suspense there. There are no unknowns to be answered in competition, like, will a particular engine, that has been extraordinarily fast in practice sessions and qualifying, actually hold up to the checkered of the 500, or will it turn out that they got that performance by pushing things to and beyond the limits, and be breaking in the race?
It’s certainly better financially to have bulletproof engines that aren’t blowing up regularly, and safer, and that rarely happens. The current Hondas are extremely reliable. The engineering is stable, there is no reason to try anything clever to squeeze out a few more horsepower to edge ahead of the competition. There is none. Honda has provided a powerful engine with solid, modern, high performance engine engineering that can make the cars fast enough to befit the name “Indy cars”, and then, with the circumstances of being a sole engine supplier, and providing sealed engines that cannot be changed by the teams using them, tune them accordingly to provide the best possible reliability. They don’t have to beat anyone else, so it would be, from the perspective of their interests, absurd to attempt to push the limits. They can’t beat anybody else for bragging rights to promote their own capabilities, but they can in essence beat themselves if they provide a spectacle of a series of broken engines spewing oil, coolant, and smoke on television and in front of the paying spectators. So they provide a consistent, reliable machine that’s the same for everybody. It’s good in some respects, but the down side is that there’s no engine competition, no engine manufacturer or engine tuners and builders trying to get a little extra and be that little bit faster, no interest in seeing who did best in that. There’s no interest even in seeing somebody go a different way, working to get the best fuel mileage, perhaps, and having just a little less power, but managing a race strategy that might not have them in front for much of the race, but taking the checkered flag first and collecting the big Borg-Warner trophy.
This whole subject of the cars and how interesting they are, or are not, can continue further. That could include a bit of discussion about just the subject of the racing itself with the cars as they are, and how good that is, or is not.
The whole bottom line is that the manifestation of the entire Indy Racing League era and the results and repercussions of the “vision” of Tony George and his supporters is a racing series, and the Indianapolis 500 each year, that is not nearly as interesting and engaging as it used to be.
Even worse, there is more, in addition to what I talked about earlier, and how what has resulted is something that some have called “CART Lite”. Remember the part about ovals? Today the IndyCar series as run by the IRL does include a set of races on road courses, including temporary street circuits. Many. Something that made it much better in my view, and the view of many other people who really loved the mix of types of racetracks that were present in the CART series. I don’t know how people feel about that in the “USAC-all ovals” crowd who were the supporters of Tony George. The USAC guys, and “The Road to Indy”? Try some names for recognition. Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart. Ryan Newman. Kasey Kahne. Do you recognize these names? They were all successful drivers in USAC, the kinds of guys who went to Indianapolis and Indy car racing in the past, and supposedly these were the kinds of drivers that were to be ushered back into their place in the natural order as Indy car stars, in Tony George’s new world of the IRL. So, how do you know these names? For a randomly selected human in the United States, it’s an obvious guess as to what their answer will be. “They’re NASCAR drivers!”.
Tony George? I already mentioned that a few years ago he stepped aside from running the day to day racing operations of the Indy Racing League to start and run his own team competing in the series, Vision Racing. Vision Racing has ceased operations. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League are still owned by Hulman and Co., the Hulman family business, but Tony George is no longer at the head of any of the three (IMS, the IRL, or Hulman), apparently removed by some sort of internal family power shift. I don’t know what he’s doing now. I really don’t have a clue.
The early days of the IRL saw unbelievable, absolutely pathetic small numbers of spectators at any races other than the Indy 500. Even the Indy 500 saw extraordinary changes there. Through my lifetime, up until 1996, it was always said that not only was the Indianapolis 500 always sold out in the grandstand seating (capable of holding something like a quarter million people, the place is huge), but I had heard many times that people made it a point to buy their tickets for the next year’s race immediately upon the opening of ticket sales shortly after the current year’s race, otherwise, they would be sold out. Now, it is a case where ticket sales have to be promoted, and while as far as I know the speedway never releases official attendance counts, it has appeared that the 500 has not actually sold out since The Split. In last year’s television broadcast of the Indy 500, occasional overhead views of grandstands provided easy views of vast numbers of empty seats in the stands, a stunning sight for anybody familiar with the history of the event. Qualifying used to draw fairly large crowds as an event in itself, with crowds that looked sparse in the gigantic capacity of the stands at IMS, but actually very large crowds, tens of thousands of people, just for qualifying, which was regarded as a big event all on its own. Not so much, in the last 14 years.
Now, the month of May, in 2010, has seen a schedule change. What used to be two full weeks of practice sessions during the weekdays, and qualifying on Saturday and Sunday, four days of qualifying over those two weekends, is no more. The new schedule: a week of practice, then two days of qualifying the weekend before the race, and the race the following weekend. Still a big schedule compared to a standard 3 day weekend schedule as is common practice in many forms of racing, but not the epic month of May of days past.
I will be watching the Indianapolis 500 on television on May 30. Somehow, though, it just won’t be what it was.