The First Split In Open-Wheel Racing

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Everyone always seems so pre-occupied with what went on with the “split” in IndyCar racing. When you use the term “split”, most people are assuming that you are referring to the CART/IRL split that took place in 1996. Then again, who is to say that you’re not referring to the original split? Oh…you mean the split when CART broke away from USAC before the 1979 season? No – you have to go back a little further than that.

The split I am referring to took place prior to the 1947 season. It wasn’t actually a split, but more of a threatened strike. A group of prominent drivers, led by crowd favorite Ralph Hepburn, formed a driver’s organization known as ASPAR (American Society of Professional Automobile Racing). It was their goal to receive guarantees of prize money of at least forty percent of the gate receipts of each track that held championship races.

Their stance was to force the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to accept these same terms. The trouble was, comparing the Speedway to other tracks of the day was ridiculous. Most tracks at that time were small facilities mostly located on state-owned land. Local taxpayer dollars subsidized most of the upkeep and maintenance of the tracks. Forty percent of the gate was not totally unreasonable for these tracks. Unfortunately, the Speedway was a different story.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was just a little more than a year removed from being spared the fate of the wrecking ball. At the urging of Wilbur Shaw, Terre Haute businessman Tony Hulman had just bought the run down facility in the fall of 1945 to prevent real estate developers from buying the land for development. The neglect of the war years had taken its toll on the Speedway. Tony Hulman and Wilbur Shaw had spent a great deal of money and effort getting the dilapidated track ready to open for the 1946 race. Tony Hulman had just saved the 500 – mile race from extinction. They had a guaranteed purse of $75,000 along with an extra $20,000 in lap prize money – amounts unheard of in those days.

What Ralph Hepburn and the rest of the ASPAR drivers didn’t understand was that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was privately owned and derived all of its revenue from hosting only one race per year. All operating expenses for the year had to be covered from gate receipts and income from that one race. To demand forty percent of the gate at IMS would have shut down the Indianapolis 500 – by far their biggest race of the year. In so doing, would have probably ended American motor racing forever.

Having been explained this by IMS President Wilbur Shaw, the ASPAR drivers still didn’t budge. The April 15th deadline for entries came and went. There were about thirty-five solid entries but none of the ASPAR drivers which claimed to have thirty more car and driver combinations in their fold. It turned out to be about half of that. ASPAR took its fight to the press claiming that the Speedway and new owner Tony Hulman was being greedy and unfair. Things got ugly on both sides. There was strong resentment among the drivers who had gotten their entry forms in on time that there should be no concession given to late entries by ASPAR drivers. Hard feelings grew on both sides. Ralph Hepburn, who had been one of the most popular drivers among competitors and fans was now vilified. He was actually receiving anonymous death-threats.

When the track opened for practice on May 1, there were many prominent names missing. As the Month of May progressed and cars began to qualify for the race, it became obvious that ASPAR was quickly losing whatever bargaining power it had in the first place. By the time ASPAR caved, it would have been necessary to get the written permission from every other participant in the race to allow the striking drivers to qualify. Finally an agreement was met that stated that none of the already qualified twenty-one spaces would be bumped by an ASPAR driver so long as that car had met the established minimum qualifying speed which was 115 mph.

As it turned out, only nine of the ASPAR cars could meet the minimum speed to qualify. This put a quick end to ASPAR but was only the first of many attempts in future years to question the viability or staying power of the Indianapolis motor Speedway. Sadly, Ralph Hepburn was fatally injured while turning a hot lap in the Novi during practice the following year at the Speedway. He lost control, exiting turn three and hit the outside wall in the north chute.

So the next time you hear someone sound so smug when they refer to the original split, make sure if they are referring to 1979 or 1947.

George Phillips

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3 Responses to “The First Split In Open-Wheel Racing”

  1. Very interesting George.
    I knew about the 1979 split and was a distant witness for the one in 1996, but didn’t know about the post-war threat.
    Ironically, it, in many ways, is nearly identical to the threatened split in F1 this year – again about the teams getting more money from the organisers; that happened to be hamstrung from deals made only a few years earlier.

    Life running around in circles, etc…

  2. Brian McKay Says:

    George the historian comes through again. Thanks.

  3. I only know of the ASPAR split from reading GO! The Bettenhausen Story. It seems Tony Bettenhausen Sr. was supposed to be driving one of the two Lou Moore entered Blue Crown Spark Plug cars as a teammate to Mauri Rose. Tony sided with ASPAR, lost his ride, and Bill Holland took his place. Unfortunately for Bill, he took it too “E-Z” and Mauri Rose passed him for the win. By the time Tony got back to driving for Lou Moore in the early 1950’s, the Blue Crown front drive cars that won from 1947 – 49 were obsolete.

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