Indianapolis 500 Retrospective – The CART Era

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Danny Sullivan's famous "Spin to Win" incident in the South Chute in front of Mario Andretti between Turns 1 and 2 at the 1987 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo

Background

In 1978, Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) was formed, and the white paper wrote by Dan Gurney was developed to bring greater publicity, revenue and direction into Indy car racing. A problem, however, existed. Whilst CART would be sanctioned by SCCA in its first season and later self-governed, it did not include the Indianapolis 500 which remained under the control of the former national trail sanctioning body, USAC. The relationship between the two organisations could at best be described as strained.

Emerson Fittipaldi celebrates his first of two Indianapolis 500 victories. -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Emerson Fittipaldi celebrates his first of two Indianapolis 500 victories. — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
CART in its own right was highly successful. Gurney’s white paper was very effective; it brought a level of competition, of revenue and of publicity to the national series, the kind that had never been seen before. However, it also came with criticism for spiraling costs, the car owners having too much influence on the rules and regulation making, slow to effect change and a movement towards an international ‘flavour’ at a time when the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) was growing at an astonishing rate, and would soon inevitably be a rival to CART for domination over the US racing scene in the coming years.

Whilst the relationship between the two parties wasn’t amicable, some stability did exist. John Frasco was CART’s CEO from 1980 till 1988, whilst Joseph R. Coultier held major influence at IMS from the 1950s forwards in his position as Tony Hulman’s second-in command. Following Hulman’s death in 1977, Frasco held the position as president of the Speedway with the exception of the years between 1980 and 1982.

However the small amount of stability in management would be gone within a few short years. In 1988, Frasco was ousted from CART with two very short tenures by his successors Caponigro and Capels doing little to impact on the future of CART. Meanwhile in Indianapolis, Coultier passed away in December 1989, allowing for Vice president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George to take the helm in January of 1990. In the July of 1990, CART announced William ‘Bill’ Stokken as the Chairman of the series.

Indycar Inc.

Indycar Inc was the 1991 proposal by Tony George to restructure CART’s management in an attempt to bring an end to the lack of unification between CART and USAC. The proposal was given to CART’s members in Houston in November of 1991.

What it entailed was a change in direction for CART. Since its formation, the board was made up of 22 members with each member holding a vote. The proposal was to reduce this to a twelve member board, made up of car owners, sponsors and race promoters with an Indycar ‘commissioner’ acting as the series CEO and Chairman, running the series on a day-to-day business.

George himself would be a member of this board, in his role as promoter of IMS. The reasoning that with a smaller board, and less votes for car owners, decision making could be made easier, and faster, car costs could potentially be cut and the perceived feeling of influence by owners to assist there own operations would be reduced.

The proposal was ultimately rejected after talks between Stokkan and George, following the Houston meeting in November of 1991. Eventually Stokkan gave his proposal that the status quo of CART and USAC been separate would be maintained into 1992, ending hopes of a unification, despite some clear feeling from both sides that a unification did still need to be reached, just not in the way George had proposed.

Indycar found itself at a crossroads in 1992, both in management and the technical regulations. George gave a second proposal to Stokkan, a seven-member board, with George representing promoters and Stokkan representing CART’s interests as an organisation. The proposal would be accepted.

On the track, following the 1991 Indianapolis 500, Tony George had announced his intention to drop the turbocharged engines which had been a staple of the Indianapolis 500 and the CART series for a number of years, from 1993, for the 3.5l engines in Formula One and the FIA World Sportscar Championship. The general idea been that by doing so, Tony George would bring additional manufacturers from F1 and WSC to the Indianapolis 500, others weren’t so convinced and eventually the proposal was delayed, however it was one of many proposals and counter-proposals on everything from small cost savings in areas that the general public wouldn’t really notice, to widespread changes and the continuous echoing of Tony George’s frustration towards CART through to 1994.

In 1994, Stokkan resigned from CART, to be replaced by Andrew Craig. The Speedway held its first race major outside of Indycar in many years, the Brickyard 400, a NASCAR race which created some ill-feeling within the fan base, and in the paddocks. It was in January 1994 when the main event of the years politics occurred, when Tony George resigned from the board of directors at CART, citing continuous dissatisfaction with its direction and decision making, bringing all of the grievances and bitterness which had been rumbling since 1988 to the fore.

The Split

In March of 1994, George announced his intention to form the Indy Racing League (IRL) a rival to CART in his own vision, with the core philosophy of controlling escalating costs, fairly determining the rules and crucially developing a ladder system for North American drivers, but it was flawed.

The announcement came, then came the silence, whilst on the other side of the argument, CART’s new CEO Andrew Craig was developing a schedule that locked IRL out of most of the events, by the time IRL did announce its season opening event in 1995, it was a newly created oval at the Walt Disney World in Florida. The entire schedule for 1996 comprised of just three events, in the winter with one key ingredient which was the lock out of the Indianapolis 500. The initial announcement said the IRL would share an engine formula with CART, but by the time it was formally announced, this had become a normally aspirated option, and the 25/8 rule was imposed in 1995 for the first season Indianapolis 500 with IRL control in 1996.

Scott Brayton, #2 Glidden Menards Special, Lola, Menard -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
Scott Brayton, #2 Glidden Menards Special, Lola, Menard — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo.
25 entrants would go to IRL teams, whilst CART could field just 8 of the 33 car grid regardless of what the qualifying result showed. It created fury, and in response, CART looked for alternatives feeling that with the star drivers, the partners and the circuits within its championship, the series could see off the threat of the IRL by embarrassing it on its biggest stage with a race set for the same day at the Penske owned Michigan International Speedway, known as the ‘US 500’. All teams accept for Foyt, who switched to the IRL agreed.

The plan wasn’t really a success. Yes CART had the stars, the cars and the sponsors, but Indy was still Indy, in spite of the fact that it was with a field of relatively unknown drivers and less technologically advanced cars than what CART had fielded in recent years. Meanwhile, the US 500, whilst moderately successful in its own right as a race, didn’t have the desired effect in terms of media coverage, with Indianapolis still seen as the main ‘event’ of the weekend.

A lot of media hope still existed throughout much of 1996, that by 1997, the split would be over, a small but sad footnote in the history of the Indianapolis 500, from both sides of the argument, that hope wasn’t to be reality. In 1997 IRL dropped the 25/8 rule, but continued to mandate that only IRL machinery would be allowed at the Indianapolis 500.

It would take until 2001 for progress to be made, despite a number of potential attempts at reunification for the Indianapolis 500, from both Tony George and Andrew Craig. In 2000, Ganassi entered the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 1996’s split, followed by Team Penske in 2001. From then on, CART’s days where numbered and the road to reunification at the Indianapolis 500 began to occur. It would take until 2008 before a full reunification between the IRL and CART’s successor Champcar to occur.

The damage had been done. Indycar was no longer the largest player in the US Motorsport scene, NASCAR having overtaken it in the mid 90’s onwards. The Indianapolis 500 was no longer the massive international event it once held, still an important national event with an international feeling but the world had moved on, as had the fanbase, losing millions of fans in the process.


In the next part of our retrospective, we will look at the evolution of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race into the new millennium heading into the rebranded INDYCAR era.

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photogcw
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photogcw
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Great article! Many American open-wheel racing fans like myself saw The Split coming long before it happened. Though I had hoped to read about Penske Mercedes-Benz strategy using the Indy engine “loophole” and its aftermath which hastened The Split.

TomFirth
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TomFirth
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Yeah, I should of, actually had planned to do two pieces on the era, one focused almost entirely on the politics of the era, which deserved a deeper exploration than simply in 1996 ‘Tony George ruined our sport’ and one with a look at the on track events of the era, which of course did include the Mercedes-Penske loophole in 1994 and the subsequent embarrassment in 1995.

MIE
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MIE
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Tom, can you put links to all the previous articles in the next piece, just in case some have missed one.

We’re the regulations for the Indy 500 always different to the rest of the series, or was it just during this era? I am thinking of the Ilmor developed pushed engine in the early 1990s.

J. Doug Patterson
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J. Doug Patterson
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The 500 has always had a unique ruleset. The differences just became more pronounced after the CART/USAC split in the 1980s. Even now, there is a special set of technical regulations for the 500.

FryDaddy
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I went to college in Albuquerque and would visit the Galles Racing headquarters and plant. The first time I visited was during Geoff Brabham and Jeff MacPherson’s last year in CART. They had just announced that Jr (That would be Al Unser Jr), notable son of Albuquerque, would be returning to the team for the following year. His return helped with sponsorships and if I recall, a full sponsorship was only $5MM USD back then. You are spot on about the international flair that CART brought to the sport. It was one of the things that appealed to me, and… Read more »