By George, Tony’s Back

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Photo from twitter.com

The return of a familiar face at IMS raises hopes for a brighter future for IndyCar.

News broke Sunday at the breathtakingly boring Brickyard 400 that Tony George has been elected as the new Chairman of the Board at both Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its parent corporation Hulman & Co. George, who founded the Indy Racing League in 1995 and presided over reunification after the end of the split in 2008, is back after a four year hiatus. Start your engines – and your whining – race fans.

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Photo from caranddriver.com

Establishment IndyCar hack Brant James described George’s return to his former positions as “unnerving” in his piece for USA Today, referring to him as “a polarizing figure.” We disagree and call it an extremely encouraging move in the right direction by the board. Continue reading

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Celebrating Our Second Anniversary

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IRR celebrates two years of providing unique, unabashed views, racing news and laughs covering IndyCar racing.  It’s been a lot of fun emphasizing the foul-ups, foolishness and frivolity of the sport we love, as well as its riveting beauty. In essence, IRR is to IndyCar coverage what Ted Cruz was to the RNC convention in Cleveland.

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The hardest working racing site on the web, we’ve churned out over three hundred and thirty articles and posts over the last two years. The best part? It’s all free. Reviewing races and adding some humor to a serious and highly dangerous sport is our mission. We’re delighted to report it’s an ongoing one.

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It’s been quite a ride, from skewering the untalented though beautiful Danica Patrick and needling her less than entertaining NASCAR series to championing young American IndyCar stars to leading the charge for Mark Miles’ dismissal. Continue reading

IndyCar’s Great Schism: A Brief Comparative History of the Split, Part 2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

IndyCar’s Great Schism: A Brief Comparative History of the Split, Part 1

In the vast annals of history there have been many highs and lows, glorious as well as regrettable chapters throughout the millennia. Many embarrassing episodes struck civilization, as is to be expected of even long standing institutions of mere mortal men. The chronicles of the Catholic Church make up a significant part of the history of western civilization, stretching back thousands of years. While IndyCar’s history doesn’t encompass a fifteenth of that of the Church nor is it nearly as important in the grand order of things, it does share a similarly destructive controversy with the Church that rocked both institutions to their very foundations – the Great Schism.

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Like the Catholic Church’s Great Schism, IndyCar’s split is now a largely forgotten footnote that represents an embarrassing era in history. These divides weakened and changed both the Church and IndyCar irreversibly.  Like the crisis in the church, IndyCar’s split was in part a power struggle and a battle for control, yet these conflicts went beyond that. As with the Papacy in the Middle Ages, suddenly there were two competing camps vying for control of IndyCar racing which resulted in a bitter and protracted fight, confusion amongst followers, and a period of dangerous decline. Unfortunately all of this was to the vast benefit of critics, unbelievers and rivals.

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During the fourteenth century, the Papacy had grown weak, falling under the control of French Kings and based in Avignon, France rather than Rome. The period was known as the Babylonian Captivity in the Catholic Church, and ended poorly with Pope Gregory XI’s momentous return to Rome in 1377, only to die the next year. Amidst high hopes the Cardinals elected a new Italian Pope, but their relations with the new Urban VI rapidly deteriorated for a variety of petty political reasons. The Cardinals moved against Urban deposing him and swiftly electing a second, more compliant Pope in 1378. Clement VII belonged to or was connected with the most powerful families of Europe and would remain completely loyal to the French monarchy while residing in Avignon, France.

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Images from greatschism.org

The Great Schism cleaved the Church, which now stood divided with two heads. England and France, already locked in the Hundred Years’ War, chose opposite sides and France’s Clement became known as the anti-Pope. The embarrassing split lasted for decades until the abdication of the then three Popes and the election of Pope Martin V in 1417. Pope Martin – who did little in the way of reform – ironically assumed the Pontificate exactly one hundred years before Luther’s Protestant Reformation would bring about truly needed reforms.

Almost exactly six centuries later, IndyCar team owners seized control of the sport that long time Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman had headed until his death in 1977. Hulman had been the Pope of IndyCar racing, having resurrected the Speedway after World War II and making Indianapolis into the Rome of motor racing. Like several medieval papacies, the Speedway and IndyCar had become a family affair run for many decades by a single powerful Hulman (and later Hulman-George) clan. Upon Hulman’s demise, IndyCar drifted rudderlessly at sea as people awaited the choice of the next Pontiff.

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Image from bala-lake-railway.co.uk

Announcing the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams or CART in 1978, owners led by Dan Gurney, Pat Patrick and Roger Penske – the French Cardinals of IndyCar – boldly determined to chart IndyCar’s new course themselves. According to Ed Hinton at espn.com on deadline day for entry in the 1979 Indy 500, CART lawyers delivered paperwork for over forty entrants along with a list of demands that the Speedway must meet if they were to participate, meaning if there were to be a race at all.

The ultimatum had been given. The Speedway rejected the demands and told CART owners they were unwelcome at the 500 that year. CART sued IMS and won the right to race at Indy anyway, thereafter filling the vacuum left by Hulman’s death and controlling IndyCar in much the same way the French monarchy controlled the Church in the late Middle Ages.

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Photo from spokeo.com

Profits-focused, CART set about radically changing IndyCar, emulating Formula 1 with more road and street circuits and foreign born ride-buying drivers.  Like the Papacy during the Babylonian Captivity – with outside influences playing an increasingly large role in important official matters and governance of the series by committee – IndyCar eventually became diluted, showy and misguided under CART’s dubious stewardship.

Again according to Hinton, once Hulman’s grandson Tony George assumed control of the Speedway at age thirty in accordance with family tradition, the legitimate competing Pope set about regaining control of IndyCar racing for his family. Butting heads with the CART owners, who routinely rejected his ideas like a single series boss and who tended to view him as a “punk” and mere “track promoter,” George resigned from CART’s board and in 1994 announced the formation of the Indy Racing League.

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Photo from ap.org

George’s IRL was to be an all oval series that showcased American talent like Indiana born Tony Stewart and built around the St. Peter’s Basilica of racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With two opposite worldviews in place – one based on profit and emulating F-1, the other based on tradition and oval racing – IndyCar’s Great Schism became a full blown battle for American open wheel supremacy. The conflict had been brewing since the owner’s Babylonian Captivity beginning in the late 1970s, and it now became an all out war for the soul of the sport.