Why “Indy Split” Needed to be Written

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We are now more than twenty-five years removed from the inaugural Indy Racing League (IRL) race at Walt Disney World Speedway, which was won by Buzz Calkins driving for Bradley Motorsports. While the track, driver or team will not evoke iconic images of Bill Vukovich or AJ Foyt sipping milk in Victory Lane at Indianapolis – the event marked a major milestone in the history of open-wheel racing. It was the day that the dividing line between CART and the fledgling IRL became official.

More than a quarter-century later, the scars of what has simply become know as The Split are still visible even as memories fade. Whenever I go to races today, I still see fans wearing Champ Car apparel. I don’t think it is by accident that someone reaches into a drawer of race-wear, and just happens to pull out a shirt that hasn’t been current since 2007. Yes, I enjoy wearing some vintage shirts and jackets every now and then, but I think anyone wearing a Champ Car shirt to an IndyCar race today is out to make a statement – much like this gentleman we came across this past year, just inside of Turn One at Road America.

Champ Car

Longtime IndyCar journalist, John Oreovicz, has spent the last several years writing a book about The Split. What I say next is not to name-drop, but to offer full disclosure – John Oreovicz is a friend of mine. I’m not quite sure when we became friends, but it was probably around 2014 or 2015. He could have played the “bloggers are interlopers” card like some do, but he never once treated me as the lowly blogger that I am. Instead, he treated me as someone who loves motorsports – much like himself.

I can’t count how many times we’ve met up at Dawson’s on Main for a tenderloin or an adult beverage (or two). When Susan and I made our last trip to Indianapolis in November of 2019 for a Titans-Colts game, we met up with John at Dawson’s for dinner. I’ve grilled steaks at his home and most recently, he volunteered to fill-in here a couple of times last July, after the sudden death of my mother.

By all accounts, “Indy Split” by John Oreovicz is an excellent read. Some have said this is the first book written about The Split. That’s not quite true. I forced myself to read “The Indy Car Wars” by Sigur Whitaker a few years back. It was sleep-inducing. The author was the great-great niece of James Allison, one of the four founders of IMS. Sharing DNA does not make you an expert. While the factual information was correct, there was really nothing there other than a dull presentation of those facts. There was no effort to pull those facts together and tell the reader what they all meant. I feel quite certain that “Indy Split” by John Oreovicz, will not fall into that trap.

Book

I’ve never made it a secret that I sided with CART during the beginning of The Split. While I always loved the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I resented the fact that Tony George was upsetting what appeared to be a good thing. Although I purchased tickets for the 1996 and 1997 races, I had no interest in spending the time or money to watch a diluted field of drivers. When it came time to renew for the 1998 race, it was becoming obvious that both sides were in this battle for the long-haul. I let my ticket renewal lapse. I continued to watch it on television, but to me – the Indianapolis 500 had become a sad shell of what it had been for all of my life.

When Chip Ganassi returned in 2000 and Juan Montoya dominated, it made me smile. Then when Penske followed and won the next three years along with other IRL-outsiders taking the top six positions – I could not have been happier.

When Andretti, Rahal and Fernandez all defected to what was now known as IndyCar – my loyalties began to shift. Newman/Haas and Forsythe were the only ones left that I knew from CART as they continued along under the Champ Car banner beginning in 2004. Tony George and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had won in my eyes. The Indianapolis 500 was regaining some of its luster and by that point; I just wanted Champ Car to go away. It took another four seasons, but it finally happened in February of 2008, when reunification between the two series finally took place.

Oreovicz had a front-row seat for the CART/IRL split from beginning to end. As a journalist, he has covered IndyCar racing since 1993 for impressive organizations such as National Speed Sport News and ESPN. He also had a two-year stint as the PR Representative for Bruce McCaw’s PacWest Racing in CART. Like many of us, he was a fan of the Indianapolis 500 as a kid growing up. He was there when Janet Guthrie qualified in 1977 and attended his first race the following year, when Al Unser won his third Indianapolis 500. Unlike most of us, John was able to parlay his passion for racing into his profession.

Some have questioned whether Oreovicz can be objective, since he was vocal about siding with CART at the time. So were a lot of other journalists – including Robin Miller. But being familiar with his work I think Oreovicz is capable of being fair in his presentation of the subject. I’ve heard him say that there is plenty of blame to go around with several people on both sides, but he does think that Tony George is responsible for at least 51% of the blame. I’d say that’s fair.

Others have criticized Oreovicz for writing the book at all. They say that we are about to embark on our fourteenth season since reunification and that this is re-opening old wounds that need to heal. To those people, I would say “don’t buy it or read it”. That is the same mentality that finds Dr. Seuss or Pepé Le Pew offensive and needing to be removed from our culture. If it offends you, ignore it – but don’t remove it from those of us that are not offended. What’s the old saying…those that ignore the past are doomed to repeat it?

This book needed to be written. Many IndyCar fans want to learn the history of our sport – the good and the not-so-good. We want to learn the back-stories of the CART/IRL split of 1996, along with the White Paper and the USAC/CART split of 1979 and the AAA/USAC split of 1956. In “Indy Split”, Oreovicz traces things back to the fall of 1945, when Tony Hulman purchased IMS from Eddie Rickenbacker. Each of these events led to the other, and things were never fully resolved until Roger Penske bought IMS and the NTT IndyCar Series in November of 2019. That’s when everything seemingly went full-circle.

Personally, I find the topic of The Split fascinating. Yes, it is still polarizing and many fans are still bitter over what eventually happened. John Oreovicz was there in the middle of it, from the time the formation of the IRL was first announced at Phoenix in 1994, through the unification of 2008. But the events leading up to, during and after The Split illustrate how significant the CART/IRL split was and is to this day. Oreovicz can offer us fans a detailed first-hand look at exactly what went on behind the scenes, and how those events affected the sport we love today.

I am fortunate to be old enough that I can not only remember everything that happened leading up to 1996, I also remember when CART split off from USAC – which ultimately got us to the CART/IRL split of 1996. Not everyone is old enough to remember what led to the split of 1996. If you are now thirty-five years old, you were eight when Tony George announced his intentions to form the IRL. Chances are, most eight year-old racing fans weren’t paying attention to the politics that were driving the sport. As a thirty-five year-old, you would probably like to have a definitive history that shaped the sport of IndyCar racing today.

Personally, I’m glad that John Oreovicz has taken on this challenge. It needed to be written. I think it takes someone with his stature of a journalist to pull off a project of this magnitude, but as I admitted earlier…I’m a little biased. You can pre-order “Indy Split” directly through the publisher, Octane Press out Houston, here and you can enter promo code Indy 20 to get 20% off; or you can also find it at Amazon.com. The book ships on May 15 – just in time for the heart of the Month of May. I look forward to reading it.

George Phillips

17 Responses to “Why “Indy Split” Needed to be Written”

  1. Brandon Wright Says:

    I’m sure not many will agree with me, but while I think the split did damage the sport, when I look around at the current state of motorsports I don’t think today’s IndyCar is much different than what it would have been had the split never happened.

    • Paul Fitzgerald Says:

      Brandon, you are correct. I don’t think you have a clue. The Indy 500 was the biggest race in the world in 1995 and became a shell. It is now awesome but regrettably will never be what it was. The split allowed NASCAR to take over. So sad. Tony George was led around and made the worst decision in automobile racing history.

      • I agree with Brandon in the sense that open-wheel was going to be facing a lot of the problems that the split exacerbated, and everything tends to get blamed on it.

        I believe the 1995 500 was the first to get lower TV ratings than Daytona.

        You had a lot of the old guard of drivers retiring from 1997-2000, you had the tobacco settlement (which had far more to do with CART’s decline than any of the more hyperbolic analyses go on about), the mercurial manufacturer funding.

        Instead of the shock collapse in prestige, I think Indy would have still faded a bit, and I still think a theoretical USAC/CART structure would still be facing major, major issues ~2004-5

      • Brandon Wright Says:

        I think you misunderstood me Paul. It’s now 25+ years later and in 2021 America most people don’t care about cars and as a result don’t care about watching cars race. A lot of 15 and 16 year olds today don’t even care about getting their license and some don’t get it until they’re out of high school. Good luck getting them to care about watching cars race. In the current America most Americans see a car the same as they see a toaster or oven.

        Of course had the split not happened then IndyCar and The 500 would have been much stronger in the late 90s and early Naughties than what we had, but I think by the time they got to the 2020s things would have been about the same as they are now. If anything, I think we might have a better product today than if the split hadn’t happened because they’ve had time to reinvent themselves and distance themselves from the mistakes of the past (there were plenty of mistakes made that weren’t related to the split). Maybe this would make a good blog topic some day? Is IndyCar better off having lived through the split than they would have been if the split didn’t happen?

  2. This is a book that needed to be written. For years, I hoped Robin Miller would write such a book, but I’m looking forward to reading Oreo’s take on the split. I preordered the second I heard about it.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    I look forward to reading it because I trust Oreo to know what is interesting enough to present to potential buyers of this book, buyers who are likely quite familiar with the split. I also trust Oreo to provide a good bit of balance on the split politics, because the market to read only one side of the split surely cannot be very large.

    Also, I have worn Champcar shirts to Indycar races without the intent to make a statement, but I expect that I am in the minority on that.

  4. I’m happy for the book and the author, while I love Miller, I think he’s great at writing about trees but ends to miss the forest, so I don’t think he was the guy to write a definitive encounter.

    The split was personal for a lot of fans in a few ways. I remember as a Canadian fan thinking of the IRL as a pretty blunt statement that fan interest in street races here (which was considerable) just didn’t matter, and that the only opinions that mattered were old men in Indiana who wanted AJ Foyt back.

    I don’t know if it was a chicken and egg thing, but the IRL chassis in the 00’s also just drove me nuts. It took me quite a few years to come back to the sport in general after the steep decline in CART.

    That being said, I first went to the 500 for the first time in 2019,and I understood the other side of the argument a lot better, even if I still think it was shortsighted.

  5. I vividly remember the split. It was a Saturday in January when the first IRL race was broadcast live. I was working as an assistant manager at a retail tire store I put it on t.v. in the back for everyone to watch. Most were cool with it but some were mystified by my selection. The only positive was that there was an IndyCar race in January instead of having to wait until April. That was it. The IRL was a major downgrade. The drivers most had never heard of. The cars were dangerous as hell and sounded terrible and so was the racing for the most part. The series eventually devolved into pack racing which drew a lot of fans for many years but it eventually wore off with the last chapter in Las Vegas. The decline lasted way too long. I witnessed IRL races at Pikes Peak International Raceway and ChampCar races at the Denver Grand Prix. ChampCar had better cars and better drivers. The real looser was the Indy 500 until JPM smoked the field in 2000. He made it clear which side had more talent. The consequences of the split are still present today. It should have never happened. It should have ruined the sport for good. People that minimize the effects of the split did not live through it and have no idea what they are talking about imo.

  6. Can’t begin to express how excited I am to read Oreo’s book. Sure, we long-time fans know the story, but we never really got the in depth details. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time!

  7. I can’t wait to read John’s book. I have it on pre-order with Motorsport Collector. And yes, it does need to be written… and read.

  8. Thanks for your interest in the book, everyone!

  9. Roger Penske buying the speedway and the league means that the goals of CART are now the goals of Indycar. It is possible that within 5 years the only oval race will be Indianapolis. The league will be F1 Lite. This is what was going on in the late 80’s and early 90’s and what Tony George tried to stop. Many of us saw Tony George as trying to save Indy Car racing and traditional American open wheel racing. If only he had been a better businessman. He had the right idea.

    Oilpressure recently had a post asking if this was the golden era for Indycar. I didn’t comment because I didn’t want to be negative, but this is not a golden era. Even with a driver like Scott Dixon who would have been a star in any era. Ovals continue to decline. Drivers coming in get their only oval experience on the job in the “big league” of Indycar. The new drivers coming into the league are mostly or exclusively road racers. So much for a balanced league of various types of racing.

    I hope Mr. Oreovicz can give an unbiased view of the split. But already blaming Tony George for 51% of the split does not make for a promising start. Having lived through all of this I’ll always believe Roger Penske was in a largest way responsible for the splits of 1979 and 1995.

    • Oliver W Says:

      Or Bernie E …..

    • If the “good old days” was the actual goal, they would have used the 1996 model of old chassis/engines long term, there wouldn’t have been 25/8, and they would have gone for coexistence.

      It was a hostile takeover attempt.

    • I agree one thousand percent. Indy racing is now back to what was wrong with it when the 90s dawned and you now have drivers who refuse to do any ovals other than Indy. That is a joke. Give me the late 90s IRL drivers any day of the week over today’s drivers who don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the men who made Indy and who cut their teeth in oval track racing in its classic period.

  10. I am leery of reading any book that is going to be taken from the perspective that CART was a wonderful can-do-no-wrong operation in the early 1990s and Tony George ruined all that. I was an Indy fan for two decades but during the 1980s my patience was being tested frequently as I saw CART turn Indy car racing into F-1 lite with more street races that were frankly the most boring form of racing I have ever suffered through. For seven years I went to the Meadowlands Grand Prix, which was CART’s misguided effort to crack the NYC market. I enjoyed seeing the drivers and the atmosphere, but as for the races….BORING. And on top of that, seeing Roger Penske and two-three elite teams dominate all of CART racing wasn’t making it fun either. The only reason I still watched was because the “Old Guard” drivers from the 70s were still on the scene and there was always the forlorn hope that one of them might still make a last trip to Victory Lane.

    Come 1994, all of the Old Guard was now gone and I had to subject myself to the farce that was Indy that year with Emperor Roger’s snoozefest domination and meanwhile more road racing/street racing with drivers I had no interest in. The IRL at least was a chance to return Indy to its roots, and for that I was all in favor of.

    When it comes to the races that were held in 1996, my loyalty to the IRL was cemented when CART put on that joke at Michigan in which all the “names” couldn’t make it to the starting line and then thanks to a rule that has never existed at Indy the guy who crashed on the pace lap was allowed to substitute an alternate car in his original starting position and win the race. What a joke!

    No, I won’t defend all the things Tony George did, but I’m more than fed up with the line that CART was oh-so-perfect in 1994-95 when it was driving me a lot of fans like me away from the sport. I still look back fondly on the days when I could watch Indy in the late 90s and not have to worry about Penske winning another race and got to see A.J. make one more trip to Victory Lane.

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