On 26 May, 1996, two major open-wheel races were held on United States soil. One was run for the 80th time, the other was a newcomer. One was a bleeding giant, the other is a swift and cheeky foilist. They were in for the fight, yet little did they know both of them were about to lose. This was the Indy 500 vs. the US 500.
It will probably register itself as an exemplary entry in the history book of all of sports one day. One of America’s finest sports products at the time, open-wheel racing, split into two in 1996 - the Championship Auto Racing Teams (aka CART) and the Indy Racing League (aka IRL). The series that was commonly referred to as “IndyCar” up to that point gathered some of the finest drivers in the world, running alongside the heroes of Formula One. The fateful day in the Month of May with two races running for the same spot foreshadowed the gloomy future of said all-American instiution for years to come. To better understand what happened and why, I contacted former Chairman and CEO of CART, Andrew Craig, 1996 CART champion and winner of the inaugural US 500 at Michigan International Speedway, Jimmy Vasser, and one of the fastest people ever around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IRL driver at the time, Roberto Guerrero.
“Those were the best of times in my opinion” says Jimmy Vasser. “Wide-open competition with engines, tires and chassis. I really enjoyed the mile ovals. I think they put on the best shows. The fans enjoyed the airport courses like Cleveland. They were able to see the whole track.” Andrew Craig has a more layered opinion on Indy-type of racing at the time: “While there is no question that IndyCar was providing great racing, I would not describe IndyCar as being at its peak. While it had an attractive driver line up, the reality was that it was hardly profitable and very badly starved of resources. My predecessor, Bill Stokan, had made a number of good moves to improve the series and to make it more professional but it was still a work in progress.”
‘Work in progress’ still meant there was some coming and going of open-wheel drivers switching seats between Formula One and IndyCar, like Roberto Guerrero: “I believe the late 80’s and early 90’s were the best years in Indycars but I don’t believe there was ever a revolving door between [Formula One and IndyCar]. When I switched to Indycars, our F1 team, Theodore, closed its doors, Morris Nunn and I had the opportunity to work for a very competitive team in IndyCar and we went for it. I thought I’d be in IndyCars a couple of years and return to F1 but it never happened.”
The early 1990s saw an increased global interest in American-type open-wheel racing with the arrival of former Formula One stars as Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, while the old guard such as AJ Foyt, Rick Mears, Al Unser, Sr. and Mario Andretti were on their way out. “I was offered a drive in one [Formula One] team the same year Zanardi left for Williams.” refers Vasser to the young talent-pool-fishing both series were engaged in at the time. “But it was a new team and a late arriving car. That coupled with the fact that I was perfectly happy at Target Chip Ganassi.” While people all around the world (including some drivers) remember then-IndyCar as “F1 Type B”, especially when it started its wide-range international expansion, Andrew Craig has a slightly different recollection: “It was never the intention to become a minor version of F1. With growing international TV distribution, it was clear that there was a demand for IndyCar’s dynamic style of racing and we saw the opportunity to take the series to a limited number of overseas events The benefit of overseas races was that the fees CART could obtain were very much higher than fees in the US. We already had a very good race at Surfers Paradise and then added Japan and Brazil with Germany following shortly after. The monies from these races greatly increased revenues and enabled CART to invest in its future. I also saw this as an opportunity to broaden the sponsor base. However, with a few exceptions, most teams simply did not have the skills needed to attract new “foreign” sponsors. Finally, overseas races helped improve our international TV coverage even further.”
This is exactly what upset some American fans. “Too many foreign influence and winners, not American enough” said the paraphrased general criticism. “Concerns about the direction of IndyCar started long before I added more international races” says Craig. “The key issue was foreign drivers ‘stealing’ drives that could have gone to Americans. This was a myth, the reality was that the arrival of foreign drivers increased the quality and quantity of IndyCar. Top US drivers remained.” Among those voices were Tony George, owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and non-voting member of CART - IndyCar’s sanctioning body as owned by the teams. He opposed CART’s way of treating IMS without - according to him - much special attention. By the time Andrew Craig stepped in as the CEO of IndyCar, George already laid out his plans for the IRL. “My due diligence before I joined CART was poor” says Craig. “I was not aware of the extent of the rancor between Tony George and CART’s team owners. I think that on Tony’s side there was a belief that all he had to do was announce the IRL and teams, sponsors and race promoters would rush to join the new series. [...] Put simply, the race promoters felt that their interests would be far better protected with CART than with IMS and the IRL. I think that the split should have been avoided but alas it was not. Tony George was sincere in his thoughts and ideas but, I think some of those around him had their own, self serving agendas or old scores to settle because of past tensions with CART and its teams. [...] It is easy to blame non-performance on others rather than to admit to mediocrity.”
Ultimately both parties pressed on with their own concept. Except there were two major problems around the split. There was an issue revolving around the use of the long-established “IndyCar” trademark and more importantly - who could race where when IRL introduced a new qualifying system to the Indy 500 where 25 out of 33 spots on the grid were reserved to IRL regulars, virtually excluding the majority of CART teams wishing to take part i the prestigious event. “After a long and protracted anti trust case, as part of the settlement it was agreed that while we would not use “IndyCar” as a brand name (hence the return to CART), the cars would continue to be known as IndyCars” Craig continues. “I opted to go back to the brand name “CART’ not because I thought it was a good name but because from research we knew that the name still resonated with fans and I needed to move quickly and decisively to make the name change. However, it was very confusing to the fans at the time. The teams were forced out by IMS putting in place a qualifying system that would have excluded most of our teams. It was the actions of IMS, not CART, that caused CART to set up its own race. Having been unsuccessful in attracting CART teams to the IRL, IMS then attempted to “strong arm” the CART teams by limiting their ability to take part in the Indy 500 unless they were in the IRL. This was unacceptable and CART went its own way.”
This meant the final word in the dispute, CART would not race at the 500-mile classic in at Indianapolis. “It was difficult but when you have no control over a situation it is important to focus on your job at hand.” says Jimmy Vasser who scored his first win and his championship title in the year to come. Roberto Guerrero, who continued with IRL, gives an account of similar experiences “Unfortunately, we, the drivers had very little say. You just had to go with whatever decision the team made. It was good to still be involved in the Indy 500 but unfortunately it lessened the interest in both series for the fans.”
On the business side, CART had the upper hand with all the established sponsorship, advertisement and media deals, but IRL had the wild card, Indianapolis, in their possession. Despite this, even one of CART’s largest sponsors, Philip Morris felt that it was worth siding with CART, but a replacement race for the Indianapolis 500 was imminent. “The vast majority of sponsors in CART remained with CART” says Craig. “It was not their job to get caught in the middle of the dispute and certainly they did not like the situation. However, like the race promoters, sponsors were suspicious of a series run by IMS. What became clear was that if CART was not able to run at the Indy 500 then we had to provide an alternative to the sponsors — hence the US 500. [The Vanderbilt Cup] was actually my idea. We needed “instant heritage” for the US 500 and the Vanderbilt Cup provided that. We needed a big oval and, at two miles, Michigan International Speedway was the best option. The track was owned by Roger Penske at that time and he was very supportive of what CART was doing. We did not look anywhere else.”
“I liked the money” chimes in Jimmy Vasser on the topic of the US 500, who also won the $100,000 Marlboro Pole Award ahead of the race. “ But other than that the US 500 was a failure. Never could rival Indy.” Roberto Guerrero’s opinion on the other side of the fence is not unlike Vasser’s “The Indy 500 was still the Indy 500 but it lost a lot of it’s ‘magic’”.
As May 26 dawned, motor sport history was about to be written, but not for the best of all reasons. IRL’s previous two races were marred by problems with second-hand cars and mostly less than top-of-the-line racing drivers fitted with Scott Brayton’s fatal crash during the Month of Mays. The promise of switching to normally aspirated vehicles the following year also tore the two series apart physically, while the highly popular field at the US 500 had a lot to prove over in Michigan. Things got a little bit blurry and lots of faces landed in palms in the skirmish approaching lap one.
“Adrian Fernandez simply crowded my right rear with plenty of room on his right towards [Bryan] Herta. Photos will show. He touched my right rear and it sent me into the wall” says pole-sitter and later winner Jimmy Vasser. That incident set off a chain reaction, wiping out one third of the field, causing a red flag and a massive delay until the restart. “It was a long race getting the back up car dialed in for the end. Very tiring day mentally.”
Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, an engaging race started to unfold, plagued by mechanical issues caused by the revved-up second-hand machinery. Pain-riddled Buddy Lazier took the checkered flag in P1, but further back in the field an incident involving Roberto Guerrero sent cars flying into the air and in the fence. “Unfortunately we had lost the radio and I thought I was competing against all the drivers around me, the aerodynamics got messed up and I lost the car, totally my fault, I felt very badly about Sampedri who unfortunately got hurt so badly.”
As the smoke and debris was cleared, there was no decisive winner declared. IRL would return the next year with much slower, lower-tech cars and with an apparent lack of sponsorhip still. The US 500 was moved to another time slot later in the year and Michigan International Speedway’s most revered event, the Marlboro 500 was moved to the California Speedway in Fontana. “It was clear was that Roger Penske [the owner of California Speedway as well] was not keen to continue with the US 500” says Craig. “I think that he felt that the US 500 impacted on MIS’s “own” race a few weeks later [i.e. the Marlboro 500]. I do not agree with this view. MIS’s problem was a lack of proper promotion of its own race not the US 500. CART’s intention was never to “break” the Indy 500. That was not going to happen. The US 500 was intended to help stop IMS breaking CART and in this respect it was a successful outcome. It kept the teams, the sponsors and the fans together at vital time for our survival.”
A landslide of events followed suit, starting with the floatation of CART at the New York Stock Exchange in the late 90s - as described by Craig: “The objectives of the IPO were to enable team owners to release the inherent value within their CART franchise and to provide CART with new capital to help build the sport. The IPO achieved both these objectives. I also felt that the IPO would change the governance within the company as it would eliminate the right of team owners to vote on all financial matters as under the old franchise system. This last point did not turn out as well as hoped because, although the teams had been greatly rewarded from the sale of stock, they found it hard to come to terms with the fact that they were no longer owners.”
In 2000, Chip Ganassi’s team returned to Indy, bringing superstars Jimmy Vasser and Juan Pablo Montoya with the latter one winning the race easily. By that time, though, Craig was out of CART to pursue other ventures. “At the time when I left CART, as a result of the IPO, we had acquired two other race series - Indy Lights and Toyota Atlantic - and there was $100 million in cash on the balance sheet - that’s far too much cash and reflected a lack of good investment opportunities. Quite what happened to the cash after I left is something that should be asked of the Board of Directors at the time. However, companies go bankrupt when they run out of money not because they have successfully executed an IPO that greatly enriched all involved and put CART on a far stronger financial footing.”
CART then went through a succession of CEOs, with at least three changes over a period of two years. Teams leaving CART as a sign (and cause) of a slow collapse of the parent organization resulted in a greatly decreased field, lack of sponsors and a completely overhauled series using the assets from the ashes of the glory days. A deal was finalized between CART (known as ChampCar by that time) and the IRL (now flying the IndyCar brand name) for a unified series. ChampCar went out with a bang for the final time in Long Beach, 2008 with Jimmy Vasser returning to an open-wheel racing seat for one last ride while being one of the owners of KV Racing. “I liked the international races” he remembers the final days. “I think they enhanced the relevancy [of the series] globally. The hardest part [of being a ChampCar team manager at the time] was not being able to long term plan. [Driving at the last race in Long Beach] was yet optimistic. I also had forgotten how badass ChampCar was. I’m not sure if [IndyCar] will return to the holy days of CART. But if it is to return it will take all persons pulling in the same direction.”
“Of course the split was debilitating and damaged the sport greatly” says Craig looking back “but in no way did it stop CART from continuing to provide some of the best racing available anywhere in motor sport. However, with that being said, there is no question that the return to one series as is the case today was the best long term outcome.”
May 26, 1996 was a historic moment in American motor sports as a result of the split. It appointed the flag bearer racing series for future racing drivers, teams, sponsors and the media for many years to come. The crucial race of that decisive day, though, was not run in Brooklyn, Michigan or Speedway, Indiana, but Charlotte, North Carolina. The new king of all-American racing stepped on the throne.