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The second American civil war– Indy/CART split

The story of the CART-era 'split'.

37w ago

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In April of 1861, the Northern and Southern governments of the no-longer 'United' States began fighting what would become one of the bloodiest wars in the history of the nation. It was a long dark night, but ultimately, the north prevailed, and preserved the union.

It would be 135 years until the next civil war in the states, and while the latter of the two didn't cost any lives, it was destructive in its own right, with no unity left when the dust settled, and the greatest racing series of American history in ruins.

The protagonist in the former war was Abraham Lincoln, but in the latter, it was the equally-powerful king of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George, who decided to secede from CART due to rising costs, and take the Indy 500 with him, to form his own adaptation of American open-wheeled racing- the Indy Racing league, for the 1996 season and on.

Pinetrest- 1997 Indy 500- Indy Racing League

Pinetrest- 1997 Indy 500- Indy Racing League

America had entered its second long, dark night. The US's royalty, CART, had it's crown, but no jewel, and the opposite was true for their wannabe-royalty, who had the jewel, but lacked a crown.

CART, in dire need of a that 'jewel' flagship race, had to make do with the US 500 held at a lesser-known oval near their headquarters, but the series would never be the same. The US 500 lacked the support of the Indy Racing League's home race, and it's attempts to replicate old traditions didn't sit well with fans, who preferred the real-deal, rather than the 'made in China' knock-off.

They began to suffer, losing fans and money, as well as drivers and teams, causing their finances to tumble. Without the Indy 500, CART was merely 'a motorsport series'. No more, no less.

Even with the benefit of the Indy 500, however, IRL's (Indy racing league's) management and drivers were laughable, with ex-CART failures being front-of-the-field in the George-run series, and poor decisions at the top leading to chaos within the CART alternative.

A near-sponsor-less IRL car in 2002

A near-sponsor-less IRL car in 2002

Both sides were losing the battle, but, surprisingly, CART was the first to show signs of illness, following disaster 2001 and 2002 seasons, in which several races were cancelled, and the series' bold move into Europe was nearly thwarted by the tragic 9/11 attacks.

CART's infrastructure was dwindling fast, with their drivers moving to the now more-popular IRL, and F1. As drivers, sponsorship revenue, and viewer numbers fell after ESPN and ABC ditched, the problem worsened exponentially, and ultimately, even Team Penske, who had stuck with CART since its birth, jumped ship.

The once-famous series declared bankruptcy post the 2003 season, but were saved by a consortium. Still, losing their title sponsor, they were forced to rename to 'Champ Car'. Rebranding did nothing, however, and CART's problems grew more and more evident as years passed, making even IRL look put-together, despite their problems being equally difficult, as even their teams began leaving, despite the big players joining years earlier.

By the time 2008 arrived, open-wheel racing in America was hurting, as both sides were falling apart, and neither thought they had enough cars for a successful season. IRL and CART agreed to finally merge, and while not graceful in the early stages, the two became fully integrated later on.

Still, in similar fashion to the first Civil War, peace was not the end of the road. Reconstruction had just begun, and this proved the most difficult task. The destruction caused by the split took years to remedy, and the newly-formed 'Indycar series' felt the effects all the way through to 2018, when they finally seemed to get their rules right, and sort their platform.

But even still, this is not the end. Just recently, one of the original members of CART, Roger Penske, purchased Indycar, and there is hope that this will be the first step to recreating the dominant all-powering American motorsport that CART once was. And, barring the chance that he bans the Indy 500 (which he owns) from Indycar (which he owns), I think you can be sure he'll do just that.

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Comments (11)

  • I feel Roger Penske is the perfect person to help guide IndyCar in the next few years. He has always loved IndyCar racing and with his name , reputation and character more corporations will want to be involved with IndyCar.

      8 months ago
  • The roots of the split were partly due to some good old American xenophobia. Old racers like Smokey Yunick has been loudly drumming a tune in his Circle Track column pulpit that the American Indy 500 had been “taken over” by foreigners. UK suppliers Lola and March dominated chassis and Cosworth ruled the engines. Even Roger Penske has to set up shop in the UK. There was no room for shade tree garage mechanics anymore and the proto #MAGA crowd didn’t like it. Tony George listened but there were no American cars that could replace the UK supplies.

      8 months ago
  • Interesting. That's a great piece Duncan!

      8 months ago
  • Having been a CART fan since, we’ll forever, I still curse the name Tony George. In my mind he almost destroyed open wheel racing in the US. Insisting that the cars only run on ovals, and continuously switching engines, along with sub par talent was not a winning strategy. The 500 was all that kept them going.

    It’s been 23 years since the split and American open wheel race is still not where it was before the split.

    Hopefully with George completely out of the picture now, and Penske in charge we can finally look to forward to growing the brand.

      8 months ago
  • I've got to call some serious BS on what appears to be a slanted article here. Living two blocks away from the Indy 500 all my life & knowing many of the drivers & owners & being too all but 11 of the 500 since 1964 & nearly every Brickyard, Formula 1 or MotoGP & the GTs &the IROCs, I think that I am fairly qualified to express something here. You are correct in assessment of the George family & their delusions of grandeur after Tony Hulman passed away. Although to his credit Tony George did do some major infrastructure improvements on the track that radically changed it into a more modern facility. But Patrick & Penske & a few other of the teams had their own meltdown of egos during that time frame. It was obvious to people who are more than a casual observer that this wasn't an argument over Motorsports- this was an argument over a bunch of people convinced of their own self-importance & the power of their own dollars. Penske was quoted on the local news after Emerson Fittipaldi won the race as saying that he's "going to have to hire that guy to work for my team since I can't seem to beat him". Fittipaldi drove for him the next year. Both sides had their good/bad points but it was big egos that caused the problem & George's effort to keep the sport affordable for the independent teams was used as a football to kick back & forth between the two sides until it disappeared and was pushed to the back burners. It seems to me & a lot of the other longtime attendees, fans & local citizenry that grew up around the track that none of us were considered at all and the whole thing was about how some guys with a whole lot of money a way could make more. That was the ending statement of more conversations than I can remember.

    Sorry for such a long reply, Jack

      8 months ago
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