A giddy air of defiance pervaded ceremonies before the United States 500 on Memorial Day weekend in 1996, a race that challenged open-wheel racing's doctrine of papal infallibility. Tony George had formed the Indy Racing League and excluded the unfaithful, who rejected his new formula, from participating in the sacred ritual of the Indianapolis 500. The disfellowshipped directors of Championship Auto Racing Teams sent their star drivers to the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway and revived the Vanderbilt Cup as a simulacrum of Indy's Borg-Warner. For his "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," George was left with a scab workforce.
Before the huge MIS crowd, the cars came around three abreast - just like Indy - to take the green flag. Wheels touched, and almost half the field wrecked. ESPN announcers ad-libbed until backup cars could be rolled out for an anticlimactic restart.
CART's subsequent endeavors were marked by real disasters. Soon after the U.S. 500, driver Jeff Krosnoff perished on the track at Toronto. Three fans died at MIS in 1998 when a wheel bounced through a grandstand. Greg Moore's 1999 death at Fontana deprived the series of a young star. And days after 9/11, Alex Zanardi suffered grisly injuries in Germany. CART was on a long downer. Roger Penske had already repented, joined the IRL, and returned to Indy, soon to be followed by Chip Ganassi and other major team owners. As old-guard CART drivers like Al Unser, Jr., and Michael Andretti retired, the IRL picked up popular newcomers Sam Hornish, Jr., and Danica Patrick. CART's stock fell from $35 per share to 56 cents. The organization morphed into the Champ Car World Series, all but disappeared from TV, and fizzled after the 2007 season. Once widely vilified, Tony George prevailed with his IRL gambit, and everybody acknowledges that the pope is in Indy.
Breedlove vs Arfons
A twenty-foot rooster tail of salt succeeded by an ungodly bang probably meant you were at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1964 or 1965: the dawn of jet-powered cars propelled by their own exhaust gases. With these streamliners pushing every known limit during an unprecedented reign of one-upsmanship, metal and rubber were known to rain down over the land-speed-record course after a 600-mph blowout. In rapid succession during the trials of those years, Art Arfons and Craig Breedlove topped each other six times.
Driving his innovative "Green Monster" in 1964, Arfons took home the honors with a two-way average of 536.71 mph over the measured mile. The next year, during a thirteen-day span, Breedlove boosted the mark to 555.48 mph, then Arfons unfurled a run of 576.55 mph before Breedlove drove his "Spirit of America - Sonic 1" to an astonishing 600.60 mph, keeping bragging rights until 1970. Arfons turned to jet-powered tractors and exhibition dragsters, but as recently as 1997, Breedlove stayed active in the land-speed chase, dueling with current titlist Andy Green's "ThrustSSC" (766.61 mph) on Nevada's Black Rock Desert.
"After you've driven the fastest car in the world . . . you find that you miss the intensity," Breedlove once said. "It's great to have something like that to live for. It's the difference between feeling alive and not feeling alive."