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.

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Paging Dr. Miles: IndyCar’s Health Status, Stat

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Sorry about the long wait and hope you found the waiting room and reams of bureaucratic paperwork not too disagreeable. Now that you’ve showed up and filled out the requisite forms, your doctor appointment will be in two months. We’re kidding, it’s just that IndyCar and healthcare both get our hearts to racing and we dislike seeing either in decline. The three metrics of IndyCar’s health we’ll examine under the microscope today are attendance, viewership and sponsorship. So remove your shirt and breathe deeply.

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To our semi-trained eyes, attendance was generally down this year at many IndyCar events with some hopeful exceptions like Indianapolis. It’s a difficult subject to find much information on believe you me, as few tracks give much of an indication attendance-wise. So we’re left with aerials on tv, media speculation and bloggers’ grousing. Yippie!

Attendance it seems is more closely guarded than the most sensitive state secrets in this Snowden era of laxity and leaking. A lot of open aluminum showed up on broadcasts however, and attendance is down all across motorsports. Interestingly major league baseball and even both kinds of football have seen fewer fanatics at the gates this year.

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Photo from deadspin.com

Viewership on television for 2014 was reportedly up over 30% on NBCSN & double digits for ABC races this year over last year. Of course those figures can be misleading because last year’s numbers were fairly horrible. On a related note, we’re told this is the season of recovery for the U.S. economy – for the sixth year in a row now. Yeah, right. Still it’s a tentatively positive sign so we’ll take it and hope that it bodes well for the future of IndyCar.

As fans, let’s all make a pledge to go to at least one IndyCar race next year, shall we? Provided of course any of us can still afford it by then. For any of you forward looking individuals considering scouting some European locations, we make an excellent tour guide service during the off season.

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Sponsorship ideally includes profitability but it’s much more than that, entailing marketing, exposure, cross-promotions and the like. Essentially it’s all about money. A classic scene from Casino comes to mind, where Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone discuss “sponsorship” just prior to an intensely intimate moment on the couch. You know, right before everything in Vegas turns tits up.

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Photo from imdb.com

A focus of sponsorship should be the long term health of the client, in this case our beloved artistry on wheels. IndyCar’s sponsorship overall still seems middling, even though they’ve brought in a platoon of new folks for the express purpose of improving and a big name title sponsor like Verizon. It just feels a little trailer-ish, you know?

2014 may be paying off for the series itself, but it’s not so rosy everywhere in IndyCarLand. While IMS and IndyCar reported profits for this year and a few races had title sponsors, many teams continue to seek adequate funding. The teams are without question the lifeblood of the sport. We’ve pointed out the loss of some pretty big sponsors by certain teams recently like Red Bull and National Guard, as well as the addition of some new ones including Novonordisk and UFD.

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Photo from onthego.to

Sports Business Daily quoted Mark Miles as saying IMS and IndyCar “had a very good year” in 2014 for the first time in a while. Perhaps they sold a lot of baking soda at Clabber Girl, because the above metrics weren’t that much better than last year’s, truth be told. Miles credited consolidation, the abbreviated schedule and new strategies for the success. Well and good for IMS and the series, but what about the effects on individual teams? After all, without strong thriving teams and the 500 IMS is simply a glorified motorbike track that like so many other venues hosts one so-so N@$C@R race a year.