The Darkest Days Of IndyCar Racing
Some might consider what I’m about to say as heresy with us on the verge of a brand new IndyCar season. Perhaps the timing isn’t great for those that love nothing but giggles and smiles, but I think in order to appreciate the current state of racing we are enjoying in today’s Verizon IndyCar Series, we need to take a step back and see where we’ve come from. This topic happened to pop into my head over the weekend. Rather than file it away and forget some of the things that were running through my head, I thought I would run with it.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thinking that if someone was to conduct a survey among fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series asking what they considered The Golden Age of the sport to be – the vast majority would probably respond that it was the 1960’s. Even those that weren’t alive then have probably heard people my age and even older wax poetically about those days of tough-as-nails drivers and cars that varied widely from one another.
Count me as one of those that consider the sixties to actually be The Golden Age of open-wheel racing. Over the years, I’ve made it quite clear why I think that, so I won’t go into it again here. But over the weekend, it occurred to me that if there was such a thing that many consider The Golden Age – then there must also be an era that all IndyCar fans would like to forget. What time frame of IndyCar racing do fans and historians agree would go down as perhaps the worst time period for the sport?
One could argue that the years following each world war that saw the track closed for a few years were bad. The equipment was old and the drivers were sometimes as rusty as the cars. Personally, I don’t agree with that assessment.
The 1916 Indianapolis 500 was only scheduled for three-hundred miles to appease some fans that thought five-hundred miles was too long. The field contained only twenty-one cars – five of which were entered by Speedway management. By the time Dario Resta took the checkered flag on Lap 120; Speedway management was already re-thinking their decision to shorten the race.
Due to the war, there was no race in 1917-18. When the Indianapolis 500 was resumed in 1919, it had returned to its original format. The thirty-three car field was the largest since the inaugural race that contained forty cars. Nineteen of the thirty-three starting drivers were rookies, but the race was run by veteran driver, Howdy Wilcox, who had driven in every “500” to that point. I’d say the 1916 race was a much darker time than the 1919 race immediately after World War I.
You can’t say that about the era that just preceded World War II. From 1939 to 1941, anywhere from seven to fourteen drivers failed to even qualify for the thirty-three car field. Those races featured iconic drivers such as Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw and Mauri Rose. Future winners Sam Hanks and George Robson were in those races; as well as major stars such as Ted Horn, Rex Mays, Joel Thorne, Duke Nalon, Ralph Hepburn, Chet Miller and Cliff Bergere. Those were some exceptionally strong fields in those days.
While World War II almost saw the end of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the end of the war ushered in the Speedway’s most prosperous era – the beginning of the Tony Hulman era.
Some might point to the “Junk Formula” which started in 1930. While some credit this era for saving the sport during The Great Depression, others look at this time with disdain. This was not a reaction to the Crash of ’29 as some like to claim. Instead, it was based on the desire of Speedway owner Eddie Rickenbacker to get the sport back to what he perceived to be its roots.
In the twenties, racing cars became too specialized in Rickenbacker’s eyes. The Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 were founded on the principle of being a proving ground for passenger cars. Over the years, the riding mechanics had gone away and engines were built strictly for racing. No passenger cars at that time had supercharged Miller engines. The sport had gotten very expensive and Rickenbacker wanted to get cars back to the formula they had used twenty years earlier.
He reinstated the mandatory use of the riding mechanic and cars much closely resembled passenger cars available to the public. It became affectionately known as “The Junk Formula”.
Hindsight shows that while many may have resented the new rules imposed during the Junk Formula Era that lasted until 1937, its very existence may have saved the fate of racing from The Great Depression.
When talking about dark times, some point to what they call “The Original Split”. Dan Gurney had authored The White Paper in 1978. Consider it the Declaration of Independence by some of the car owners that chose to break away from what they considered a mismanaged USAC and form their own racing body – Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART).
It was a confusing time as owners and fans took sides. The 1979 Indianapolis 500 ended up in litigation throughout the contentious Month of May. There even had to be a special qualifying session held the day before the race when two additional entries were added bringing the field to thirty-five starters. The race itself was a good race that contained all of the familiar names. Rick Mears won the first of his record-tying four victories, while car-owner Roger Penske won his second of what is now sixteen Indianapolis 500 wins.
For a decade and a half, CART served the main body for US open-wheel racing. USAC dwindled to where the only Championship or Champ Car race it sanctioned was the Indianapolis 500. That accounted for the different rules packages allowed for the “500”, that were not permitted in any other race.
Bruised egos festered throughout this period. Tony George, the grandson of Tony Hulman, had attempted to have some control over the direction of CART. He was appointed as a non-voting member of the board, but that did nothing to give him a voting voice in a direction he did not agree with in open-wheel racing. His attempt to get Goodyear’s Leo Mehl on the board failed, so he made an announcement the weekend of the Phoenix race in 1994 that rocked the racing world. George was going to start his own open-wheel series based around the Indianapolis 500. It would be a low-cost alternative to CART. It would also be an all-oval series that would put an emphasis on American drivers.
The Indy Racing League (IRL/IndyCar) commenced racing over twenty years ago. Hardly any of the key players on either side at that time are even involved with racing today. Some that still remain that were involved are owners Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Dale Coyne on the CART side and AJ Foyt on the IRL side. Some drivers in CART at that time, Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal, are now owners in today’s Verizon IndyCar Series; while Sam Schmidt was a driver and IMS President Doug Boles had part-ownership in Panther Racing in the early days of the IRL.
Time has erased some of the wounds, but not all of them. While many of the participants are mostly unfamiliar with the bitter dispute of The Split in 1996, many of the fans have not forgotten – or forgiven. That applies to fans on both sides of the discussion.
I was a little different than most. While I was a staunch supporter of CART in the early days of The Split, my allegiance shifted to what had become IndyCar by 2003. When most of the top teams in CART (except for Newman/Haas) shifted over to IndyCar, so did my allegiance. By 2004, I just wanted CART or Champ Car to just go away. I didn’t get my wish until 2008.
Why am I picking at this scab regarding The Split? Because of the original topic of this post. Like the Junk Formula, historians may look back and debate whether or not it eventually saved open-wheel racing. While there was certainly nothing wrong with CART’s on-track product in the early nineties; off the track they couldn’t get out of their own way. Had the IRL not come along, would CART’s leadership model and unbridled spending be able to sustain it through the sponsorship challenges of the 2000’s? We’ll never know.
But the immediate result of the formation of the IRL led to some of the most forgettable racing I can remember in my lifetime. For five years, the names of Unser, Andretti, Rahal and Fittipaldi were replaced with names like Racin Gardner, Dr. Jack Miller, Jim Guthrie and that most-American driver – Fermín Vélez. And for those who will insist on pointing it out – yes, I’m aware that Johnny Unser and Robby Unser raced in those early IRL years. Do you honestly think either of them would have made the Indianapolis 500 field in the early nineties?
I went from going to the Indianapolis 500 every year in the early nineties to watching something that looked (and sounded) completely foreign to me. Yes, there were open-wheeled cars going around the track, but it wasn’t the same and I found it painful to watch. I hate to admit it, but I actually dozed off during the 1998 race – and I was still a few months away from forty then, not pushing sixty as I am now.
I know some will disagree with me and say that was a very exciting time for open-wheel racing because it brought new blood into the sport. But Tony George’s vision of creating opportunities for American drivers was already missing its mark long before the CART teams came over in 2002-03. The first five years after The Split produced two American Indianapolis 500 winners ass opposed to three in the five years prior to it. The first five years of the IRL did produce four American championships, but the five years prior – CART produced three.
But it all boiled down to who had the best drivers from top-to-bottom. Sure, CART had some seat-fillers in that time and the IRL had some good drivers. But Tony Stewart notwithstanding, did Buzz Calkins, Scott Sharp, Kenny Bräck and Greg Ray really stack up to Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Montoya and Gil de Ferran? In my book, no. Others that finished in the Top-Ten in both series at that time were Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Jr., Michael Andretti, Greg Moore, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan; as opposed to the IRL’s Mike Groff, Robbie Buhl, Eliseo Salazar, Marco Greco, Mark Dismore and Jeff Ward. Please.
So in my opinion, the dark days of the early IRL from about 1996 to 2001, are the worst that I can recall or know about since the first Indianapolis 500 ran in 1911.
What I stated here is strictly my opinion and I don’t wish to see the conversation devolve into who did what during The Split. That’s another subject altogether. But it’s hard to ignore what the off-track politics of the sport did to the on-track product.
I am not the end-all, be-all when it comes to racing. I know that. I have my opinions and each of you have yours. I’ve followed this sport for a lot of years, but I also know that there are many that frequent this site that have followed it much longer than I have (are you out there Ron Ford?). Perhaps you have another era in mind that you consider much worse than those first years of the IRL. I’d love to hear about it.