To this day, even the mere mention of 'The Split,' American open wheel racing's near fatal decision to splinter itself into two competing series, continues to draw the controversy and rancor. No open wheel racing fan is without an opinion on the CART/IRL wars that raged in America from 1996 to 2008, and every fan has some one to blame for the schism that nearly cost Indianapolis its 500 mile race.
Indycar, reunited under one banner since 2008, has only began to flourish once more, and even then the success enjoyed by the series in recent years pales in comparison to the droves of fans the sport was able to bring to the track in the early 1990's. And while telling the story of The Split, villains abound and heroes are sure to flourish, the only surefire loser in it all is the American racing public who was, for twelve years, deprived of seeing American open wheel racing at its best.
The United States Auto Club
Controversy and division is no stranger to American open wheel racing. As with any sport, management and labor began to butt heads almost as soon as auto racing became a career path rather than a hobby for rich playboys.
In the early years of American racing, the sport we now know as Indycar was known to the world as USAC Championship Car series, or Champ Car for short. The governing body for the series was USAC or the United States Automobile Club
Created in 1955 following the withdrawal of AAA as a regulating body of American racing, USAC was the brain child of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman. USAC dictated not only Championship Cars but also the dirt and short oval feeder series that supported it, series like Sprints, Midgets, and Silver Crown.
Tony Hulman. IMS owner and USAC creator. He is also the one to start the tradition of saying, "Drivers start your engines," at the beginning of the Indianapolis 500. Photo Credit: The Hulman Family Archives
USAC dictated the rules and regulations of the series, distributed prize purses to teams, and provided a sanctioned set of events for Championship Auto Racing teams to compete at. With Hulman at the helm, USAC built a massive empire, expanding the Championship Cars season to include ovals and dirt tracks around the county.
In the beginning there were only ovals, both paved and dirt, but starting with a 1977 race at Mosport park, also added road races.
The White Paper
However, despite the leagues burgeoning success, cracks began to appear. Massive amounts of sponsorship money was flowing in, thanks large in part to the nearly bottomless wallets of big tobacco. When compared to the budgets and purses being amassed in European's Formula One, USAC's Championship Car series looked like nothing more than a derelict stepchild of open wheel racing, scrapping at the heels of F1, never able to live up to the later's success.
Frustrated at the lack of money available to drivers and teams, as well as the management structure of USAC itself, which held no representatives of the teams themselves.
Drawing on Formula One's FOCA (Formula One Constructor's Association) Gurney proposed a new way to run the sport, one that created a more profitable environment for drivers and teams alike, raising purses and dividing series promotional money between the teams themselves. Like Bernie Ecelstone in Europe, Gurney also laid out plans for the television rights to the sport as a way not only increase the money pouring in, but to also raise the popularity of the sport across the country. This document, later presented to the USAC board became known as 'The White Paper.'
It was a stunning and courageous move by Gurney, and one that USAC promptly rejected. Undeterred, Gurney and fellow owners Pat Patrick and Roger Penske started their own series, CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams).
In a move that would eerily repeated three decades later, CART and USAC ran two separate series in 1979 with CART taking the majority of top drivers, teams, and tracks, while USAC still held the Indianapolis 500.
For that years Indianapolis 500 USAC owners, still irate at the upstart Gurney, Patrick, and Penske, attempted to block all CART teams from entering the greatest spectacle in racing. But their attempts were unsuccessful, and CART teams were allowed to enter. Indeed, it was a CART driver/team that went on to win that year's 500, a young California driver by the name of Rick Mears.
The California Kid, Rick Mears, on his way to his first of four Indy 500 victories in 1979. Photo Credit: IMS Photography
This open split continued for several years, with CART running its own counter series while USAC still held onto its crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500.
Peace in our Time
Then in 1983, the parties reached an agreement. USAC would be allowed to sanction and control the Indianapolis 500 and all CART drivers would be welcome around the 2.5 mile oval. In return, it would abandon its counter series and allow for CART to remain as the undisputed home of open wheel racing in America.
What followed for the next ten or so years are some of the finest stories of racing the world has ever seen. Old school heroes like Foyt, Unser, and Andretti held their own against upstarts like Mears, Rahal, Sullivan, as well as the younger versions of Unser and Andretti.
This so called "Era of Good Feelings" for CART saw, up to that point, the two closest Indianapolis 500 finishes in history (Johncock/Mears and Unser/Gordon), the 'Spin and Win' and saw not one but two 4-time Indianapolis 500 champions crowned. To many, CART at the time represented the very best of open wheel racing. So much so that Nigel Mansel, hot off the heels of his first and only Formula One World Championship defected to join it, and Ayrton Senna even toyed with the idea of joining the series.
One of the most jaw dropping moments in Indianapolis history. Danny Sullivan (L) spins coming out of turn 2. Mario Andretti (R) avoids Sullivan. Sullivan is able to catch the car, resume racing and would go on to win. Photo Credit: AP Photo
But on the horizon loomed another split. A worse split. One that would destroy everything open wheel racing in America had come to represent and everything it had built since the first race at Indianapolis back in 1911. And unlike the USAC/CART divide, the sport would never recover from it.