Can “The Split” Be Described Objectively?

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Normally, I don’t seek out controversy here just to get a few extra hits. I don’t make money off of this site, so extra hits do nothing for me other than give me a warm fuzzy feeling. That’s not the reason I come here three times a week.

But if you ever want to engage open-wheel fans, there are a few sure-fire radioactive topics that can get fans frothing at the mouth. Mentioning Paul Tracy, Danica Patrick or Sage Karam, and the comment section is guaranteed to be full of varying opinions. But one topic that is sure to set off a firestorm is mentioning anything about The Split, American open-wheel racing’s civil war that exploded in the nineties.

We all have our opinions on The Split, and we all interpret the same series of events in totally different ways. No one, and I mean no one, is ambivalent about The Split. Some think it was the greatest thing that ever happened, while others are convinced it has killed the sport forever.

So if I’m not looking for a shock topic, why am I bringing up The Split in December, the season normally reserved for Peace on Earth and Goodwill to all men? I’m obviously desperate for a topic, right? Wrong.

In the past week or so, I’ve heard various reports that one or two authors may or may not be working on a book on The Split that promises to tell the complete story. I’ve heard a couple of rumors that Gordon Kirby may be writing about what all went on throughout the nineties during the nasty and divisive open-wheel divorce. In his mailbag last week, Robin Miller referenced a book that Kirby was working on as the definitive history of American open-wheel racing and he promised it will be a collector’s item. While The Split would certainly have to be covered in such a book, Miller never exactly referred to it as a book on The Split.

Also last week, I saw where former ESPN IndyCar journalist John Oreovicz said on his Facebook page that he was working on a book devoted entirely on The Split. As Oreovicz says, he lived through it and covered it at the same time. He said his book will hopefully be out in May of 2018, which would mark the fortieth anniversary of the first split when CART was formed and broke away from USAC in 1978. It would also mark the tenth anniversary of the unification between IndyCar and Champ car in 2008.

I think it will be a fascinating read and I can guarantee I’ll own a copy. But I got to thinking. Both Oreovicz and Kirby have both gone on record as being very much pro-CART throughout the entire split. How would that play in authoring a book on the topic.

Mind you, I have no problem with that. I was pretty much the same way throughout the nineties. From the time that Tony George announced at Phoenix in 1994 that he was launching a competing series from CART that would be based around the Indianapolis 500 – I knew this could be trouble. The owners had the teams, the drivers and the resolve; but they didn’t have the Indianapolis 500.

At first, it was presented as a friendly breakaway, where CART teams were expected to run in both series. That rarely happened. Rick Galles and Derrick Walker tried it a couple of years, but for the most part teams picked a side and dug in. So did fans.

Although I loved the Indianapolis 500, I sided with CART. I felt like the sport and the event I loved was being held hostage in a power struggle. The first Indianapolis 500 run under the Indy Racing League banner was in 1996. Although it had teams from Foyt, Galles and the remnant of Dick Simon Racing, the drivers were mostly names you had never heard of. Aside from former winner Arie Luyendyk, there were no other former winners in the field. Names like Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi were replaced by the likes of Racin Gardner, Scott Harrington and Paul Durant.

My tickets to the 1996 race went unused, as did my tickets to the 1997 and 1998 races. I kept renewing them thinking this thing was going to end soon. It didn’t. After the 1998 race, I gave up my tickets.

Watching the 1996 Indianapolis 500 on television was surreal. It reminded me of watching the NFL replacement players during the strike of 1987. The uniforms and stadiums looked the same, but the names were all different. Of course, watching the US 500 at Michigan on the same day was not much better, after a disastrous start and a victorious Jimmy Vasser infamously asking in victory lane “Who needs milk?”

Those are the times that I refer to as the dark days. I didn’t even watch many IRL races on television. I was in attendance, however, at the ill-fated IRL race in Charlotte that was ended early after three spectators were fatally injured when a wheel hopped over the Turn Four fence and into the stands. I was sitting in Turn One when it happened. I could tell something was going on, but I didn’t see the tire bounce over the fence. But word started spreading quickly what had happened. When Humpy Wheeler made the announcement that the race was over, the crowd filed out silently.

As The Split trudged on over the years and the solidarity among CART owners began to wane, so did my support for CART. When Roger Penske moved his team full-time to the IRL in 2002, it got my attention. I found myself paying more attention to the IRL races and less attention to CART. In 2003, Chip Ganassi moved his team fulltime to IndyCar, as did Mo Nunn. Michael Andretti bought Team Green and moved from CART to IndyCar. Bobby Rahal expanded to a fulltime IndyCar team while also running in CART one final season. It seemed that all the momentum was suddenly shifting away from CART to IndyCar. So was my allegiance.

By 2003, I reached the point that I was hoping that CART would just go away. It looked as if they were after 2003, when CART declared bankruptcy. Tony George made a bid for their assets, but the trio of Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi won the bid. They rebranded as Champ Car and extended The Split for another four seasons. Before the start of the 2008 season, the two series reunified – at least that’s how it was termed. But in reality, IndyCar took over. The Champ Car teams were forced to use IndyCar equipment and IndyCar got the tracks. Champ Car? Well, the teams that chose to got to keep racing.

It was a dirty messy war. Champ Car lost, while IndyCar won. But the real losers were the fans and the sport as a whole; while NASCAR was the beneficiary. During The Split, TV ratings and attendance for both open-wheel series plummeted, while NASCAR was booming. Hotels and restaurants in Indianapolis suffered in May. The biggest casualty was Indianapolis 500 Pole Day. I was there in 1995 and the stands along the front straightaway were full, even though the weather was cold and foggy. Pole Day today is a ghost town.

Why am I going through my own history of The Split? Because when I heard that there was one and possibly two ongoing projects, I asked myself – would it be possible for anyone to write a totally unbiased history of The Split? I don’t even hesitate with the answer. It’s a resounding no.

You just read my take. You could tell where I stood. My position changed over time, but more than twenty years later – I don’t think IndyCar racing is any better off than it was pre-split. You still have dysfunctional owners that try to run things. There are still engine leases that give complete control to the manufacturers. Car count is a struggle as well as reaching thirty-three cars each May. There are still hurt feelings even after this much time. I can assure you that as I typed this, my blood pressure was rising.

The problem with writing the definitive history of The Split is that whoever writes it will be human. That brings emotion into the storyline. This is still a volatile topic that conjures up strong emotions on both sides. Believe me when I say that there is no middle ground on this topic. Both sides are adamant that they were right; then and now.

If John Oreovicz is writing it, I’ll have no problem with it. He’s a good writer and does his research. As I said earlier, not only did he live through it like many of us did – he covered it. But he has made it clear that he was pretty much pro-CART, just as I was in the beginning. But I don’t think his position ever changed and was a Champ Car advocate to the very end. His take wouldn’t offend me. I’ve always known where he stood and we were on the same side for most of The Split.

But if I were a staunch supporter of the early days of the IRL, I’m not sure that Oreovicz or anyone else that sided with CART would have the ability to write something that would appease me. It would be like having a passionate supporter of one political party writing something in twenty years covering these political times, and expecting that it to be embraced by the other party. It’s just not going to happen.

Over the years, I’ve had readers e-mail me and suggest that I write a two or three-part series on The Split. I’ve always politely declined because I saw it as divisive and counter-productive. I would prefer to look forward to what good is going on with the series as it stands now, rather than pick the scab off of an old wound.

But now that it appears that a book devoted to that very topic is on the horizon, it begs the question – can anyone write and objective book about it while leaving their emotions out of it?. Although I’ve mentioned The Split here many times and revealed where my loyalties were, I’ve never gone into this much detail until now.

Knowing that John Oreovicz is writing it, I’m already confident it will be well done and be a big seller. But I want to warn you that it may not be as nonbiased as you would like. That’s not a knock on John Oreovicz. No one would be able to accomplish that. But after more than twenty years, it’s time to address The Split from the perspective of history, while those that lived through it and covered it can give a thorough account. Someone needs to write the definitive book about it. Why not John Oreovicz?

George Phillips

25 Responses to “Can “The Split” Be Described Objectively?”

  1. John Oreovicz Says:

    As you said, it is nearly impossible to leave all bias out of such an emotional topic. That said, my goal is for an IRL supporter to put down my book and say, “Well, that was more fair than I anticipated.” I would also like to say that I was never “pro-CART” in the sense that I loved the organization. I am pro-Indy car racing, and what I like about auto racing just happened to coincide with what the CART series developed into in the 1980s and ’90s: A reasonably balanced mix of American drivers and oval tracks, along with international stars and road races. In other words, what the IndyCar Series is, circa 2018. Tony George was right about many of the things he believed needed to be changed about the CART series and system, and had he gone about his business in a different way (started Vision Racing in 1994 to run USAC drivers, promoted oval-track races outside of Indianapolis), perhaps the divide would not have been as swift and severe as it played out. I covered the IRL for longer than I covered CART and for the last five years, no one has been more positive about the fact that the IndyCar Series is holding steady or trending upward while NASCAR and Formula 1 are heading for the toilet. So try not to jump to conclusions before you give my book a fair chance.

    • I think that’s a very fair statement. I, too, look forward to reading your book but agree with George that it would be almost impossible for someone who actually lived (as in “made a living”) through the Split to present a full account without any bias, whether that bias be real or simply perceived by the reader. Hell, even those that DIDN’T make a living would be hard pressed to present the entirety of the situation without prejudice. It is a monumental task, and I look forward to seeing the fruits of your effort.

      From my perspective, trying to tackle it is certainly like peeling the proverbial onion and always needing to go through more and more layers. To understand what happened in 1996, you need to understand what happened in 1991. To understand 1991, you need to understand 1978. To understand 1978, you need to go back to 1956. From 1956 to 1945. From 1945 all the way back to the beginning. How many volumes are you planning on this being?

  2. A retelling of the events can be very objectively done by anyone who wants to. as in: This happened at this time, this happened at this time, Person A did this, and said that, etc. Where it usually goes into the weeds is when people get into the conspiracy theories and the hints and wisps and innuendos of secret motivations and agendas. Why did Person A meet with Person B at Location C just days before announcement B? BECAUSE IT WAS ALL A SETUP. That kind of thing. It seems to me the motivations and actions of most everyone involved are pretty clear and not that controversial in the sense of what the facts of what they did and why.

  3. Being from Indianapolis I was on the IRL side of the fence as my loyalty lied with IMS . But for a few years in the 90’s I know of many fans that stop going to the Indy 500 and they did not return until around 2008 . My biggest outrage was one year before the Brickyard 400 Jimmy Spencer was running his mouth saying the Brickyard 400 is the future of the IMS and if you want to see a Indy 500 you better go soon because Nascar will be the King of the IMS sooner than later . I had bail money for the battery charge and was ready to find Jimmy Spencer and smash him in the mouth that day . Many of the local fans went full ape crap for Nascar back here until about 2008 . Those fans here in central Indiana could care less about the split during those years .There was more of those fans than loyal IRL & IMS hardcore like myself .

    • Oh the irony on that comment now. NASCAR only gets like 50k to IMS after the Goodyear tire failures in 2008. NASCAR should get out of IMS because they are not the hot draw like 15years a go.

  4. Dale Christenson Says:

    Let’s face facts, Tony George is a guy that was born on third base thinking that he hit a triple, and if it wasn’t for the lucky sperm club he would be a two towel man at a car wash. The management of the Speedway needed some direction at that time and they simply picked the wrong guy. The France family played him like the chump that he is and put a good fleecing on the Speedway and we are just staring to recover from this period. If there is one person that is responsible for the decline of open wheel racing in America it is Tony. A lot of race fans are enamored by the Hulman-George family and think that they should be thanked for OUR INDIANAPOLIS 500 but I believe that they are merely caretakers for Tony Hulman’s vision, and, please don’t fix it anymore, we can’t afford more screw ups.

  5. I wrote a college paper about it, it was enjoyable to write. I watched both series but there was no doubt that CART had the drivers and teams. I enjoyed seeing the shoestring budgets in the IRL though and those races were crapshoots.

  6. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    Tony George should still be ashamed for what he did to the Indy 500 and open wheel racing in America. It still makes me angry.

  7. I don’t think it was the split that so permanently damaged Pole Day as much as the decision to slow the cars down so that there would be no new track records. As I recall they started messing with the format as early as 1997, going from two weekends to one, before going back to two. We all know what has happened the last ten years or so. The lack of cars trying to qualify has also decreased, although for reasons beyond the split. Those issues alone would have diminished Pole Day. The decisions made in the last few years have not helped, either.

    I was a strong supporter of Tony George and what he attempted to do. Sadly, from a business perspective, he was not able to pull it off. But many of his ideas were spot on. Indy’s issues really go back to 1979, when Penske and other owners tried to take the sport over. I always blamed some of these owners for the split, much more than Tony George, which is why to this day I can’t support a driver for Penske or Ganassi.

    I don’t believe I watched one CART race after the split began. The IRL races in those days were actually fun to watch. I attended all the Indy 500 races from the split until 2000 when I stopped going for a few years while my kids were young.

    It would be great to read a truly unbiased history of the Split. I hope Mr. Oreovicz can pull it off.

  8. At this point in my life there are at least two things I could not care less about: Da Bears and Da Split, and I like Tony George. For a more feel good (and timely) story, go to Racer.com and read the story about Sato taking the Borg Warner trophy to Japan and the reception he received.

  9. billytheskink Says:

    The effects of the split can stated and largely analyzed objectively, of course. In fact, ESPN’s 1996 Outside The Lines special “500 Miles Apart” does a good job of showing the split’s immediate impact in from a relatively unbiased perspective (ESPN having an interest in both series likely contributing to that).

    The causes, however, are very difficult to examine objectively. I certainly could not do it, as I held very strong CART partisan (CARTisan?) views through much of the split. I still hold many of them even today, though I now refuse to let any of these opinions keep me from enjoying the sport as it is. They are views on history to me, they may edify me but should not dictate my current interest in motorsports.

    That said, I do find it interesting to hear well-put perspectives from folks who strongly supported the “other side” of the split. I only recently really understood how much sincere passion there was from fans and participants on both sides, and I think we are distant enough now from the conflict to look back together and try to understand it all… if we want to.

  10. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I supported the IRL faction simply because I grew up on USAC and cars on oval tracks. The deeper Champ Car got into trouble, the more they shied away from oval racing, to the point that many, myself included, felt the owners were trying to be F-1 Lite.

    The big bone of contention (and it still is) was the administration of Tony George. For better or worse, he wanted racing to be affordable for smaller car owners, and frankly, with their unlimited supply of other people’s money, the owners created a very small “club” of teams that could seriously compete.

    The problem came when, with the explosive growth of NASCAR in the 90’s, the CART/Champ Car owners saw their ocean of money drying up. Whether George saw that coming or not is anyone’s guess, but as the financial problems deepened, the IRL was, by virtue of having the 500, in a better position to survive.

    What amazes me to this day is the rancor surrounding Mr. George, even as he has “re-blended” himself back into the “family.”

    Would it have been better to let the owners have their way and continue to run the cost of racing up exponentially? Well, we saw what happened with CART/Champ Car and I have to say no. Was the racing product in the IRL anything close to Champ Car? Not initially, but as time went on, and more teams crossed back to the IRL, it got better and better.

    To my way of thinking, today’s IndyCar series features the BEST RACING we have ever seen. I harken back to the pre -Split days when a driver would win the 500 by half a lap or better. Not today. Accordingly, however we got there and whatever damage ensued, IndyCar has survived and seems to be on the verge of thriving.

  11. Honestly, I don’t think I’d read either book, or any book about the Split. I’ve already read enough words about it to suffice for several lifetimes, and I feel like I already understand both sides plenty well enough. In the meantime, even though I think I’ll skip his book (I’ve already got like 6 racing-themed books in my nightstand that I haven’t had even an hour of free time to start), I’ll wish Mr. Oreovicz well with writing and marketing his tome and choose to follow his advice to continue enjoying the 2018 version of American Open Wheel racing, which is, by most accounts, pretty excellent.

  12. Mark J Wick Says:

    In my days as a sports writer I was know for my objectivity. If I wanted to write about this topic and put the time into the research, I could write about the facts without injecting my feelings or opinions. Any good, professional journalist can.
    I was not happy with what happened to the 500. After being at every race from 1963 through 1995 (except ’64 and ’66) from 1972 on as a credentialed member of the media, I completely ignored the 500 until 2000. I went back to cover it again 2001-2003 before calling it quits on that part of my life. A few years later I worked on the safety Patrol for three years to have that experience. I have been to a 500s races as a spectator since 2004. I may go to the race in Portland next season. My interest in the 500 and the entire series is about what it used to be but it is nowhere near the center of my interests as it used to be.

  13. Its hard to believe sometimes it has been 20 years. As I read about all that happened between 1996 and 2008 I begin to get confused as I watched both series through that time. I was an assistant manager at a tire store and I put the inaugural January IRL race on in 1997 on t.v. in the back. Anyone that showed any interest expressed confusion and I later realized this would set a trend that would last 10 years. It was a disaster as casual fans, that could not tell the difference between an F1 car and and IndyCar did not understand that there were now 2 IndyCar series’ where one raced at indy and the other did not. Meanwhile NASCAR gladly and quietly acquired confused and pissed off fans.

  14. It must be “sweeps” month.

  15. – raises the question – not, “begs the question”.

  16. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    Can it be done? Yes. Will it be difficult? Yes. It depends on the intent of the author and of the material used to ‘construct’ it.

    I would honestly be surprised if any book by anyone on this subject could be written in an unbiased manner, outside of basic timelines and events.

    News reports of the time aside, it would seem to be a challenge to find anything or anyone not ‘tainted’ to a noticeable degree with precious little middle ground either then or now.

    Ultimately I just hope it is something that will do all sides of the issue justice. Perhaps then we can all again realize what we have in front of us now, and appreciate it for the quality that it is.

  17. ed emmitt Says:

    I want to thank all the race fans that quite going to the 500 after the split given that I was able to score 4 tickets in the NWV Sec 1 near
    the top that I can see 3/4 of the track. The racing was not bad plus Jim Nabors sang Back Home in Indiana each one of those years.

  18. Really looking forward to Oreo’s book. I was a big Newman Haas fan in the CART days. If Paul & Carl would have chosen to move to the IRL in the mass exodus of ‘03, would Kalkhoven and the others still have been interested in buying CART’s assets and prolonging the split for four more long years? I’ve always wondered about that.

  19. the grammer police “were” notified

  20. The thing is it seems pretty hard to have any sort of positive opinion about early IRL or Champcar, so for the most part it seems like CART was superior till about 03, then IRL after that.

    I hope the books are good; one thing racing really misses out on are harder hitting books with good sourcing and research. Hopefully these two have that.

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