In early 1996 the IRL held its first race in Orlando, Florida, proving naysayers who’d predicted the series would never turn a lap wrong. Making the most of his Papal power with an ultimatum of his own, George instituted the controversial 25/8 rule that year for Indy 500 qualifications, reserving 25 of the traditional 33 starting spots for IRL teams, in practice shutting out (all but a few) CART teams. As Hinton wrote, Tony George “didn’t want partners” and he didn’t want to deal with the corrupt CART Cardinals, either. They protested George’s Papal Bull by not participating in the Indy 500, instead doing the unthinkable and holding a competing race in Michigan called the “U.S. 500.” Clearly IndyCar’s Great Schism wasn’t going away anytime soon.
Photo from ap.org
The upstart U.S. 500 – the Avignon of motorsports – featured plenty of controversy of its own. A first lap, front row pileup led to a hasty decision to allow the affected drivers to restart the halted race in backup cars from their previous positions – with no penalty. Pole sitter Jimmy Vasser, who’d been involved in the opening lap melee, went on to win the race. The conflicting open wheel events that Memorial Day Weekend in 1996 set the tone for the entire split, as to many observers both sides appeared misguided, mad and wrong. In retrospect, that Sunday clearly was the nadir of the sport.
Photo from caranddriver.com
As in Church history some principles in the open wheel war changed their minds and dramatically switched sides. By 2002, former CART Cardinal Roger Penske had defected to the IRL and was back at the Indy 500. CART loyalist Chip Ganassi had won the 500 with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000 and became a full time member of George’s series in 2003. The hand writing was on the wall in Gasoline Alley. Trouble is, the owners of CART weren’t in Indy to read it. Left with the carcass of CART were the likes of Jimmy Vasser, Australian Kevin Kalkhoven and the unlikable air conditioning magnate Jerry Forsythe, who together with others would struggle in vain for the next four years to keep CART alive, merely prolonging the ordeal.
Photo from autosport.com
Both the IRL and IndyCar’s schism lasted thirteen years in total, obviously an ominous period of time. This, along with thirty years of the owners’ Babylonian Captivity, had taken a toll. In 2008, after lengthy negotiations and previous failed attempts George finally reached a deal to purchase and absorb what was left of the former CART series, creating a unified series called IndyCar. Once the Council of Indianapolis was underway it wouldn’t be long before a new Pope Martin would be elevated and the Schism would finally be brought to an acceptable and merciful end. While the corrosive split now appeared in the rear view mirror, as with the Church’s Great Schism much of IndyCar’s magic, appeal and luster had been squandered, lost – possibly forever.
Photo from caranddriver.com
As Hinton noted, in one sense George had won the open wheel war and emerged in command, just as he’d envisioned. In another sense he’d lost, as IndyCar had become what CART had been and he’d hated, swerving away from its oval racing American roots. To make matters worse, the series had been lapped by NASCAR during the war. George himself – now the undisputed Pope – lasted barely a year in the position, when his own sisters ousted him for his sins. This abruptly ended his free-spending and grandiose Pontificate and opened the door for the transitional Randy Bernard, the Pope Martin of IndyCar.
Photos from autosport.com and quizlet.com
Attendance, viewership, media coverage and public perception all suffered mightily during the split, along with the prestige of IndyCar and most troubling of all its Holiest of Holies, the Indianapolis 500. Divided down the middle, the two open wheel series not only bitterly opposed one another as did their adherents, but also lessened the overall standing of the entire institution in the public’s eyes, precisely as the Great Schism had done to the Church six hundred years earlier.
Chart from americanpopularculture.com
The Indy 500 was negatively affected over the years as it and its series faced stiff competition from CART then from Champ Car and finally, from apathy. Sadly during the protracted conflict both sides had faded in NASCAR’s dust. The media coverage of the series quickly had become divided and reduced during the schism, adding to the sickening spiral of decline in IndyCar. After bankruptcy, a name change and ultimately imminent failure, remaining CART true believers finally saw the error of their ways and sold out. The few dead-enders who hadn’t already come back to the IRL fold like Vasser and Kalkhoven either did so or simply refused and instead closed up shop, such as the peevish Forsythe.
On the bright side, the respective Great Schisms taught invaluable lessons, even if they weren’t immediately or in some cases ever put to use. One could argue that positive motivations drove all of the competing sides during both splits, with generally good people fighting for what they believed in and loved, although egos and base emotions certainly played their roles in these surprisingly similar sagas. One could also argue that human nature took over – as it always does – and egos and arrogance crept in where good intentions retreated or never existed. This sometimes happens even with good, high-minded people supporting diametrically opposed yet compelling causes.
Happily, these devastating divides finally ended after decades of acrimony and destruction and the respective institutions somehow survived and have moved forward. Like Church members in the fifteenth century when the great Schism was still recent, IndyCar fans today hopefully await the arrival of badly needed reforms. Sadly, such reformation wouldn’t come to the Church for over a century after the Schism’s end. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a fifteenth that long for IndyCar to see the light and complete its penance, so that a true American open wheel Renaissance may begin.