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.

George Phillips

25 Responses to “The Darkest Days Of IndyCar Racing”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    I have never been one to get all worked up over Tony George and I blame him for nothing. All my Indiana relatives were Georges from Curt Cavin’s home town of Frankfort.

    I just fired off some money for my Road America ticket. I was going to pop for one of those rides around the track in a IndyCar. However, having just suffered a brain seizure, I think zooming down that long, downhill straight into the 90 degree left-hand turn 5 might be too much for this ol’ brain to process.

    St. Pete will soon be upon us. I stocked up on some brats today.

  2. Well it was this race:
    that started me following Indycar [sic]. I can still hear the sound of the cars all waiting for the pit lane to open at let ’em loose on the track. Fantastic.

  3. If you loved CART and hated the IRL so much, why do you follow the sport now? Oh that’s right. CART doesn’t exist anymore. I wonder why.

  4. Mike Silver Says:

    I always thought that 1955-56 was one of the darkest periods in racing. Driver and spectator fatalities happened worldwide. The sport was almost banned. The Split was a frustrating blip which made it hard to watch but I never thought the sport was in the danger it was in the 50s.

    • billytheskink Says:

      A good point, and one that is often forgotten about.
      It reminds me of a discussion I was having with some of my college friends about the biggest college sports scandals. Most of those mentioned were recent (and certainly “worthy” of consideration), but not one mentioned college basketball point shaving scandals of the early 1950s that resulted in dozens of arrests, the shuttering of several programs, and threatened to end the sport itself. So too did the incidents of the mid-50s threaten the very existence of auto racing.

      And on that note, we should not forget that the eight years of the “junk formula” resulted in 20 fatal incidents at IMS, more than a quarter of all such incidents in the track’s history. The formula, of course, was not entirely responsible for these incidents (much of the blame could be laid on the still-primitive IMS track), but it is not a coincidence that the reintroduction of riding mechanics to cars that were lighter, faster, and less-expensive than the last cars to carry riding mechanics proved to be a very dangerous combination.

  5. The Split is ancient history. A person could argue that there were valid reasons on both sides, just as you could argue there were petty reasons on both sides. The number of fans who still squabble vehemently about it puts me in mind of the Hatfield/McCoy feud.
    I’m a fan (and sometimes critic) of Indycar in it’s present incarnation and have long ago stopped caring about who was right back then.

    I enjoy the discussions on the future of auto racing (if there is one), new or revisited venues, new drivers, old drivers, what the cars look like or sound like, the economics of the sport and of course, the history of the sport. But I don’t enjoy all the bickering that ensues, obliterating all other conversation, whenever that particular subject is mentioned.

    On to St. Pete.

  6. You make an excellent point about how the unpopular Junk Formula may have allowed the 500 to last through the Great Depression. I had never considered that the leadership changes brought by the IRL may have allowed open wheel racing to last through the 2000’s. That point doesn’t usually get brought up during discussions of The Split.

  7. Its really hard for me to judge eras before I was born. Definitely the period after World War II was bleak because of the (almost) loss of the Indy Motor Speedway, which would have doomed Indy car racing. In my lifetime, the biggest problems began in 1979 with the owner “revolt.” Cart fans never want to admit it, but the sport already had some serious issues by the early 1990’s and trends that began in 1979 led to the split. Tony George had the right ideas, but not the business acumen to make them happen. Many of those ideas are still the right ideas, and I always find myself hoping that those running Indycar today start to see many of those ideas as the way to grow Indycar.

  8. tonelok Says:

    IRL years by far in my lifetime. I’m not sure I can think of one positive that came from the IRL. Can someone help me? The cars, the engines, the drivers, the tracks, the season (first race in January at Mickey Mouse Fun House Speedway. It was an absolute joke. I was an assistant manager at a tire store and put the race on in the back and everyone looked at me like “what the hell are you watching?” I’ll never forget the horrendous sound of the Aurora v8 and the Infinity as well. The cars were butt ugly and the drivers looked like the were plucked from a local Sprint Car track. It (as well as following years) probably the most depressing time in IndyCar racing.

  9. Ed Emmitt Says:

    If Indycar is in such great shape today why do we only have a handful of owners?
    Racing is what it.It’s a niche sport like it or not.
    I would rather of had a discussion about next weekends race.

  10. Will Schilling Says:

    I actually loved the early period of the IRL, we had more races combined, especially ovals. I had posted of the 1992 season on my bedroom wall that showed all the tracks that season and I kept saying they needed more oval races. It was never a dark period for me, I got more IndyCar racing to watch between the IRL and C^RT.

  11. I really think 2009 was a dark year for Indycar. Obviously the Recession had a lot to do with it, but the massive drop in car count, loss of quality drivers, failure to integrate Road America/Cleveland, and the move to Versus really ruined a major growth opportunity for Indycar. Ratings in 2008 on ESPN2 were pretty solid; around 1.0. I think the Hulman’s shouldn’t have cut Tony’s funding off that quick. They invested so much to win the Split, then cut funding right when they had a chance to take it to the next level. October 2011/spring 2012 is another massive missed opportunity. The combo of Wheldon’s death, Danica leaving, and the cars/engines not working out (remember Cavin projected 30 full time rides for 12) + the collapse of the SMI/Indycar relationship did a lot of damage and saw the slow growth of Indycar take (another) step back.

    NASCAR is in such bad shape at the moment and most sports are growing or at least reasonably healthy, these two missed opportunities are very disappointing.

    • Bruce Waine Says:

      Would the Boston Consulting Group qualify as an addition to your list?

      • See that’s what is so weird to me. BCG is a very well respected organization which is trusted by some of the most successful companies in the world. But their Indycar thing was not good. My guess is it is a lack of motorsports understanding coupled with Indycar only paying for a basic report. Usually management consulting is a more in-depth thing- or at least it should be if you want it to be successful. Maybe it was a summer intern led project. I am not sure.

  12. I am always an Indianapolis 500 fan first so I will go and have gone wherever The 500 goes. However, I did not enjoy those middle 90’s races.

    Now, I would have to think that the races after WW II had to have been pretty damn fun because Wilbur Shaw and Tony Hulman were so enthusiastic that the race and track were back in operation and that the plans for the future in those days were exciting to work on and think about. As a fan, you’d think that all of that enthusiasm from Wilbur had to rub off on you.

  13. George, you started off with the sixties being the Golden Era. This just being my opinion. I think fifties were the Golden Era. The sixties saw a lot of death with the rear engine cars (funny cars as the mechanics called them) . The starts at the 500 seem to be difficult for drivers for a couple of years. With the new cars came new problems in building them and controlling the fires from tanks bring placed everywhere in the car. I just remember a lot of my childhood heroes dying in race cars. Early to mid-seventies wasn’t nice either.

    • The sixties saw a lot of death in rear-engine cars? This is simply false.

      From 1961 (Brabham’s debut with the rear-engine Cooper) to December 1969 there five fatalities in rear engine cars.

      From 1950 to 1960 there were 20.

  14. Fermin Velez was an outstanding sports car driver who won the 12 Hours of Sebring twice, two World Sports Car titles, and two class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans as well.

  15. No coward ever wrote an opinion piece about The Split. Well done.

  16. the darkest days were when Indycar would have been banned.
    1950’s could have been the end. no CART no IRL no nothing.

  17. Yannick Says:

    Thank you George for your great article on how you perceived the Split era compared to other eras of US open wheel racing.

    However, I find the headline to be somewhat misleading. The “Darkest Days of the Sport” have always been those when somebody dies or gets hurt whilst participating or watching the sport they love.

    The time I first got interested in US open wheel racing started when my favourite F1 driver Nigel Mansell joined CART. That interest (which included watching several races live on a TV station called Eurosport each year and / or reading about it im motorsport magazines) continued until Penske and Andretti-Green Racing moved to the oval-centered IRL.
    Only when my next favourite driver Dario Franchitti won his first Indy 500 in 2007, my interest in the sport slowly returned. However, his 2 back-flips that year scared the expletive out of me, even though I didn’t see either of them live.

    The main reason why I disliked the IRL as a concept was not what some would call “inferior” drivers but the risks of racing in a an all concrete oval series. I’m sorry to have to drag that word out again, but at the speeds cars were going the mid-90s and early 00s, oval racing was dangerous as an expletive.

    Something had to be done about that. I wonder if the SAFER barrier would even exist around just one racetrack today if there had not been an open-wheeled all-oval series like the IRL had been. Back when Tony George announced the formation of IRL, I guess nobody would have had the hindsight that this would eventually lead to “soft walls” and less injuries.
    In the long run, George’s role in the history of the sport is likely to be remembered more for his funding the development of the SAFER barrier and making it mandatory for IRL tracks than for those 5 years lesser-known drivers ran at the front of the IRL field.

    To put my comment into perspective, I sided with CART when the Split occured, preferring to watch familiar drivers and teams race, much like you did. Still, I would not disregard Kenny Bräck and Scott Sharp as lesser drivers: Sharp had a solid career and would most likely have been a solid mid-fielder and occasional winner in a unified series as well. And Bräck won both in IRL and in CART but his career was cut short due to an accident. I don’t know enough about Greg Ray to say something about his driving in his heyday. But would Tony Stewart be considered a major star today, had he stayed in a unified open-wheel series and not moved to NASCAR? The reversed question can be asked of AJ Allmendinger.

    I agree with one of my forespeakers that losing so many events from the ChampCar era such as Portland, Cleveland, and later Surfers Paradise was a pity. Yet, at around the same time, the unified series also lost IRL events: Chicagoland, Richmond, Kansas, to name but a few, and later Sparta/Kentucky and Milwaukee, too, so that development was not limited to either preceding series at all. IndyCar president Jaye Frye is still working on clearing up the debris from that time today.

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