A House Divided
The date was Saturday April 9, 1994 – the day before the CART race in Phoenix. It was there that Tony George told a handful of reporters that he was forming an alternative racing series to be based on oval racing and American drivers. In my youthful exuberance, I saw this as a good thing. It meant more open-wheel racing weekends. I knew little about the politics of racing back then. I knew that Tony George was Tony Hulman’s grandson and that he didn’t like CART for some reason, but that was about the extent of my interest in the sanctioning body. Times were good. The on-track product could stand some improvement, but why complain? In my naivety, I could see many teams running in both series, since the original plan was not to run races on the same weekends. This seemed like a racing bonus to me.
What I didn’t realize on that spring weekend was that Tony George had just ignited the largest schism in all of motorsports. It didn’t take long for the rhetoric to fly and the posturing to begin. Fans quickly chose sides and dug in their heels. By the 1995 Indianapolis 500, the underlying tension was palpable. I bought the bronze badges back in those days and even the masses in the garage area could sense that the battle lines were being drawn. The AJ Foyt cars sported IRL logos on the lower sidepods as a jab to the CART owners. ABC/ESPN did their best to ignore the silent war because they had relationships with both sides.
By the time the green flag dropped at Walt Disney World for the inaugural IRL race, things had gotten ugly. The Indy Racing League announced that twenty-five positions in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 would be reserved for IRL regulars. This infuriated the CART teams and provoked them to run the US 500 at Michigan International Speedway on the same day as Indy. Unified in their resolve, the CART regulars all headed north of Indy; causing many drivers to reluctantly miss racing at the track that brought them into the sport.
This is not a lesson on the history of “the split”. Instead it demonstrates the deep feelings that run among team owners, drivers and just as important…the fans. For fourteen years after that announcement in Phoenix, the great divide among open-wheel fans was wide and ugly. Next week will mark the two-year anniversary of reunification of what was left of the two series. While it would be a stretch to say that the wounds and feelings have healed in the two years since, things seemed to be thawing among most fans…until now.
When the DeltaWing concept was unveiled last Wednesday, it sparked a river of controversy, emotions and passion among all corners of the IndyCar community. The internet was buzzing throughout the weekend by frenetic fans on both sides of the issue – both sides arguing vehemently that the DeltaWing would either save or destroy open-wheel racing, depending on which side you were on.
You will notice that I now use the term “concept” or “project” when referring to DeltaWing. That’s because confusion reigns on whether this is an actual chassis or a concept for other manufacturers to follow. I’m as completely confused on this issue as everyone else, and if someone says they have a simple explanation for it – don’t believe them. It’s like trying to explain the Infield Fly Rule in baseball or the “lake effect” in Buffalo. No one really understands it. We’ll worry about the concept vs. chassis part at another time.
But the DeltaWing project has quickly become one of the most polarizing issues since the CART-IRL split over fifteen years ago. Whether it is a car or a concept – it has divided everyone. Since Curt Cavin said the e-mails against the DeltaWing outweighed those in favor by a one hundred to one margin, it seems more and more DeltaWing supporters have surfaced. The discussions I read on the different forums and message boards this weekend all took on a nasty tone – from both sides.
The venom has not been limited to fan forums. In the past week, Marshall Pruett wrote three very inflammatory articles for SpeedTV.com. The first two were written before the unveiling. In those two, he basically encouraged the owners to revolt against the Izod IndyCar Series and Brian Barnhart in particular, if the DeltaWing concept is not chosen. The third article was written after the unveiling and reeked of arrogance that is normally reserved for Washington.
In the most recent offering by Pruett, he compared the DeltaWing concept to a big silver vitamin. His exact quote was “I think of the DeltaWing like a big silver vitamin. It isn’t necessarily what I’d call pretty, and it isn’t easy to digest, but it’s what’s best for the present and future health of the series.” Oh, really? This is the type of condescension we have been hearing for years out of Washington – from BOTH parties. It implies that the fans are stupid and the powers that be know more about what we want, than we do. This type of arrogance and elitism is both appalling and revolting.
Pruett claims to be a life-long open-wheel fan, yet his talk of palace revolts is ill timed, at best. His taunting of fans serves to pit the fans against each other (again). It’s one thing to create a buzz and have healthy dialogue. It’s another to intentionally split an already fractured fan base, while encouraging the owners to take advantage of the weaker regime at 16th and Georgetown. Say what you will about Tony George (Lord knows I have), but he left no doubt as to who was in charge. Now with Jeff Belskus and newly hired CEO Randy Bernard running things, the top appears weakened and vulnerable.
In my article on Friday, I joked about how a conspiracy theorist could have a field day analyzing what was behind the true motives of Chip Ganassi and the DeltaWing project. After reading Pruett’s latest article, it has become more evident that Chip Ganassi and the other owners are posturing to leverage more power with the league. It’s odd that the driver being most vocal in favor of the DeltaWing concept is Graham Rahal. I’m sure it is purely coincidental that he is the same Graham Rahal that is trying to plead his case to place him in a third Ganassi entry on the grid next month when the season starts. His clamoring for DeltaWing rings a little hollow when you take that into account.
Whether you love the DeltaWing concept or despise it; this promises to be a volatile issue in the coming months with fans, bloggers, journalists, drivers, owners and league officials. There is still a lot to hear about. As a reader of Curt Cavin’s Q&A correctly pointed out on Friday – DeltaWing dropped the ball by unveiling such a radical car before explaining the actual concept behind it. I’m like most people and I want to hear exactly what this "concept" involves.
The Izod IndyCar Series doesn’t need this. Another power-struggle is the last thing that open-wheel racing should have to deal with right now. With a weakened leadership structure, the loons are coming out of the woodwork. Someone at the league office needs to take a firm stand with the owners. The league has done a poor job with fan relations lately. They have their own image of arrogance that they need to repair. They can start by actually listening to their fans and acknowledging their importance to the life of the series. But now it seems that arrogance is beginning to surface on all sides. A house divided amongst the fans could make any new chassis a moot point.
Read Marshall Pruett’s “Vitamin” article here.