Here’s what we’ve got after the twelve-year war over the future of open-wheel racing ended in February with the unification of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series: a single racing series featuring ovals, road courses, and street circuits dominated by high-dollar teams relying on foreign drivers, engines, and chassis. In other words, the same situation that prevailed before the IRL acrimoniously split from CART in 1996.
Despite millions of casualties (in fans lost), several lawsuits, and enough recriminations to fuel a decade of America’s Next Top Model, the battle for open-wheel supremacy produced only two major changes: First, IRL boss Tony George is now open-wheel racing’s version of Bernie Ecclestone/Brian France/Hugo Chvez. And second, NASCAR has supplanted Indy-car racing as the most important form of American motorsports.
George deserves the credit for persuading the in-over-their-heads owners of Champ Car to agree to a shotgun wedding that allowed them to cling to a few shreds of dignity. But even though he began with laudable intentions, he also gets the blame for starting the calamitous war in the first place. Is open-wheel racing better off without the dysfunctionality of CART and the cluelessness of Champ Car? Maybe. But George’s victory is Pyrrhic at best.
Major-league racing is funded by an aggregate of corporate sponsorships and megabuck egos, so as long as the Indy 500 – still the biggest prize in motorsports – is run each May, open-wheel racing won’t keel over and die. But it will take more than the merger of two broken organizations to put Humpty Dumpy back together again.
Highlights and Lowlights
* January 1996: The inaugural IRL race is held at Walt Disney World Speedway (a.k.a. the Mickyard). Buzz Calkins wins in a year-old Reynard. The reaction from CART: Buzz who?
* May 1996: The 25/8 rule, which guarantees spots in the field for IRL teams, is applied to the IRL’s first Indy 500. CART boycotts the race and stages its U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway on the same day. Buddy Lazier wins Indy. Nobody remembers who won the U.S. 500. (OK, it was Jimmy Vasser.)
* March 1998: CART raises $74.9 million through an IPO and, flush with cash and high on hubris, buys the Indy Lights and the Toyota Atlantic series.
* May 2000: Chip Ganassi breaks ranks with CART and fields two cars at Indy. His Columbian prodigy, Juan Pablo Montoya, becomes the first rookie to win since 1966. The following year, Roger Penske and Michael Andretti join Ganassi at Indy. CART cars sweep the top six spots. No IRL regulars finish on the lead lap.
* 2002: Penske, a founding member of CART, defects to the IRL. Ganassi runs parallel programs in both series. Toyota and Honda announce plans to quit CART and join the IRL. CART loses title sponsorship from Federal Express and is rebranded as – deep breath here – Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford.
* December 2003: CART files for bankruptcy. The following January, a judge awards CART’s assets to Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe, and Paul Gentilozzi. They are not to be confused with Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti.
* April 2005: The IRL stages its first street race, in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Later that season, there are road-course races at Watkins Glen and Infineon Raceway, convincing cynics that the IRL is the new CART.
* May 2006: There are so few entries for Indy that no one is bumped. All thirty-three cars that make qualifying runs end up on the grid.
* 2007: Sam Hornish and Dario Franchitti, winners of four of the previous seven IRL titles, decamp for NASCAR, already home of 1997 champ Tony Stewart. Meanwhile, Sbastien Bourdais, winner of four consecutive Champ Car crowns, jumps to Formula 1.
* 2008: The first race of the unified open-wheel series, running under the IRL banner and rules package, is held in March at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April, the CART and Champ Car names are consigned to history’s dustbin.