A History Of Racing’s Disastrous Implosion

Illustration for article titled Indy Split Is The Most Comprehensive History Of Racing's Most Disastrous Implosion We've Had Yet

Photo: Robert Laberge (Getty Images)

The Split. Every American open-wheel fan will cringe hearing those words, especially those who have been desperately praying for the redevelopment of IndyCar as it stands today. And now we have a comprehensive history of The Split, from start to finish, thanks to John Oreovicz’s new book Indy Split: The Big Money Battle That Nearly Destroyed Indy Racing.

Illustration for article titled Indy Split Is The Most Comprehensive History Of Racing's Most Disastrous Implosion We've Had Yet

Image: Amazon

Oreovicz, a longtime racing journalist, followed the split and its reverberations as it happened, so readers will benefit from an understanding of the history from someone who actually lived it. In this 398-page book, Oreovicz traces the history of American open-wheel racing from the establishment of the Indy 500 right through to 2020. Because of that, you’ll get a massive history that doesn’t feel overwhelming and yet includes the nuance you need to understand the various ruptures that have occurred throughout the years. Which is important. I’ve read books on The Split before that were mostly just a straight reporting of facts that made it very difficult to actually understand everything that happened during the decades-long battle for control of Indy car racing and the Indy 500. Oreovicz gives you that history from start to finish in flawless form—and in a way that would be easily digestible for even a fan unfamiliar with the story.

Basically, the story goes something like this. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 was a historically important event, but it was also super insulated from the racing world around it. It wasn’t part of a series, like the Monaco Grand Prix, so it didn’t benefit from a set of rules that governed a lot of other races. Which was part of its charm, since it encouraged innovation. But as time progressed, USAC—the sanctioning body of the 500—proved itself a poor promoter of the series. As more time passed and technological innovations saw turbocharged engines moving to the rear, USAC kept trying to find ways to equal the playing field by restricting boost or implementing other restrictions on the faster cars. Sometimes, the regulations changed on a daily basis, and the prize purses for the 500 weren’t worth all the effort.

So Dan Gurney wrote the White Paper, whose aim was to establish a kind of team-run organization that would develop the regulations that would govern the teams. Several team owners agreed with him, and they fractured off to become CART. USAC still controlled the Indy 500. USAC banned CART teams from the 500, then let them back in. There was a shaky truce for a while, but it didn’t last long. Soon, Tony George, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, announced his own race series—IRL—that would maintain the 500 but also only run oval events. CART prioritized road and street circuits. IRL stuck to more rudimentary technology. CART wanted to push boundaries. Both sides wanted to join forces, and then they wanted to fight. There’s a lot of nuance that goes on—and a whole lot of in-fighting—that I’ll let Oreovicz’s excellent history explain.

Even after IRL and CART, or Champ Car as it was known at the time, reunified, the IndyCar series was still on shaky ground. Oreovicz posits that things will only start to look up now that Roger Penske has bought the IndyCar series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, the final paragraph of Oreovicz’s narrative reads:

Forty years after he helped form Championship Auto Racing Teams, Roger Penske finally admitted and acknowledged that he is the right leader for Indy car racing. In reality, he always was.

That’s a sentiment you see echoed throughout the book: CART, even when admonished by the author, is generally set up as the hero, while Tony George and IRL are the villains. There’s a much stronger emphasis on what goes on in CART than with the IRL, to the point where I noted a few chapters that felt more strongly weighted to CART’s side but which left me wondering what was happening in IRL outside of Tony George’s press statements.

I don’t want to give the impression that the book is heavily biased, because it’s not, not really. But there is most definitely a bent toward CART that you’re going to pick up on. For example, at one point, Oreovicz writes that CART “strove to eliminate the perception that it would boycott the biggest event in championship racing” before quoting Pat Patrick as saying, “I’ll admit to being approached by a television network and another track to hold our own Memorial weekend race, and they are viable proposals, but we never indicated we’d pull out of Indianapolis.” It’s a moment of CART antagonism, but it gets a more polished spin in Indy Split. Both sides of the battle took to the media to air their passive aggressive concerns, and it’s pretty obvious that Patrick was doing exactly that in this case.

The main moment when the book begins to focus more on the IRL is after CART teams started defecting to the series—but even then, the focus was still lesser, because there was so much drama going on with CART.

In some ways, it just seems like there weren’t as many folks on the IRL side willing to talk. Oreovicz includes firsthand perspectives from several folks at the end of the book, including Jim McGee (chief mechanic at several CART teams), Mario Andretti (a CART-dominant racer), Dr. Stephen Olvey (CART’s traveling doctor), Arie Luyendyk (a racer in both CART and the IRL), Andrew Craig (CEO of CART), Chip Ganassi (CART team owner before swapping to IRL), and Dario Franchitti (who went from CART to the IRL).

The most interesting perspectives there came from the drivers who made the CART-IRL swap, since they talked about the experience of driving a similar but yet totally different car. But there were no perspectives from, say, Tony George, an IRL-only driver, an IRL team owner, or someone whose ties ultimately remained with USAC. It’s entirely possible those people didn’t want to speak on the record about The Split. But I wish we would have been told that, even in the introduction, because it comes across as a gaping omission on the author’s part as opposed to a matter of one side being more close-fisted than the other.

And there were some other, more minor concerns. Oreovicz does a great job narrativizing specific eras within the long history of American open-wheel racing, but there were times when he’d get ahead of himself by tracing one narrative path to its conclusion before circling back to the start of the dates he was talking about. For example, in one of the final chapters, he talks about the imminent 100th running of the Indy 500, builds up to the event, then talks about its conclusion before going back to 2014. It can take close reading to orient yourself on a few occasions.

There was a slightly unsettling contrast between the way Danica Patrick and Nigel Mansell were both presented. In Mansell’s case, it was a good thing that he brought hordes of media and fans with him and dominated media headlines. In Patrick’s, it was presented as a negative that overshadowed more important figures in the sport. And while that’s often the agreed-upon presentation, it’s something that I think requires a little deeper diving to understand in depth—especially when Oreovicz consistently refers to Patrick as “Danica” while her competitors are referred to by their last name, a phenomenon that’s the focus of many critical studies.

And there was the strange final chapter that reads as something of a love letter to Roger Penske. It’s introduced via Donald Trump’s speech as he awarded Penske with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is an interesting choice, considering the controversial nature of President Trump and his rhetoric. And it ends by positing that Penske should have been left in charge of IndyCar racing from the get-go, despite noting in the chapter before that Penske himself had proposed implementing guaranteed entries for the Indy 500, something that he had vehemently opposed during his CART tenure. It felt too laudatory for a man who has only been in charge for about a year and whose full impact on the sport is difficult to judge due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t disagree that Penske was a solid choice to run the series; I just don’t think we should be so quick to applaud his leadership skills before we’ve had a chance to evaluate them in the long run.

At the end of the day, Indy Split is currently the best book about The Split that exists on the market. It includes the history you need to know to fully understand what made the fracture so bitter and so damning for all of open-wheel racing. It continues past the reunification to highlight how the problems from the 1970s still echo today. It may weigh a little heavier on the CART side of the whole situation, but right now, you’re not going to find a better recounting of the history that changed American open-wheel racing forever.

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