By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
January 23, 2008.
I was in my dorm room at Louisiana State University visiting speedtv.com to look up the motorsports news from the day. A Robin Miller headline immediately stopped my scrolling.
CHAMP CAR: Tony George Makes an Offer for Unity
Eyes widened, I clicked and read, finding numerous quotes that were smile-inducing.
“We’ve got to find a way to make a deal with Tony George,” said 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser.
“I was never consulted on anything that had to do with the Speedway but anything we can do to get this thing together is a no-brainer,” said car owner Derrick Walker.
It was at that moment I went searching for more information, more news sources and more places to find out what the heck was going on, hoping that a motorsports civil war that lasted almost my entire childhood (or longer depending on who you ask) would finally be put to rest.
In the 1970s, USAC ruled open wheel racing in America. They were the sanctioning body of the Indianapolis 500 and the rest of the championship schedule, which was almost all ovals except for the odd road race thrown in.
For USAC, the Indianapolis 500 was their bread and butter. The other races were pretty much an afterthought, which some car owners did not like and they felt they could do a better job of running the series.
After Dan Gurney penned his White Paper missive in 1978, the car owners started Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) to run a championship in 1979 sanctioned by the SCCA. Gordon Johncock won the first CART race at Phoenix.
Throughout its early years, CART went to newer venues in different markets that included Las Vegas, Long Beach, Portland, Cleveland, Toronto, the Meadowlands in New Jersey and Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Many road races flourished as well as oval races that were newly created like the Michigan 500 and the race at Nazareth Speedway.
As time went on the series grew and reached new heights, but for some there was discontent over CART’s direction. The heaviness of road racing compared to ovals on the schedule was an about-face on what many fans felt built IndyCar racing while more foreign drivers and fewer Americans was a worry for others.
When CART reached its pre-split peak in 1993-1995, several key things happened. Nigel Mansell came over as the 1992 Formula One champion to race for Newman/Haas Racing for the 1993 season. In 1994, Reynard joined Lola and Penske as chassis manufacturers, Honda joined as an engine manufacturer and Toyota announced they would join CART in 1996. In 1995, Mercedes took over badging the Ilmor engine and Firestone joined as a tire supplier.
Despite more manufacturer involvement, not all were happy.
In March 1994, Tony George, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, announced plans for a new racing series that would begin racing in 1996, aimed at bringing more American drivers and more ovals to open wheel racing while cutting costs. The announcement came as the CART teams were in Australia.
There were three chassis suppliers, three different engine manufacturers (four if you count Menard at Indianapolis) and two tire companies involved in CART in 1995 and the future seemed bright. There were new faces on the horizon like Greg Moore and a familiar face rejoined the series with Dan Gurney’s All American Racers being the Toyota factory team.
My father always used Valvoline motor oil when I was a kid. It always seemed to be on sale and was a dependable brand. That might be why I gravitated toward rooting for Al Unser Jr. whenever I watched IndyCar races in the early 1990s.
It might also explain why whenever I would re-watch old Indianapolis 500 tapes, I would mostly watch 1992 since he won that year. 1987 was also on that list since he had an onboard camera and had a great commercial with my favorite pizza brand as a kid, Domino’s Pizza.
During that time, The Indianapolis Star had a special May subscription that people around the country could purchase. The paper would be delivered a few days after printing and I was able to keep up with the various goings-on at the Speedway thanks to the staff writing at the track. It was always a joy to see the paper furled up in the mailbox just waiting to be read.
I remember watching CART races back then and seeing Unser Jr. win so many races in 1994 for Team Penske. Then 1995 came along and so did the month of May. Team Penske had trouble that year at Indianapolis and during Bump Day I realized that Unser Jr. wouldn’t be in the 500 that year and I was quite sad about that. I thought that the race wasn’t the same without Penske or Unser Jr. in it.
The first turn crash with Stan Fox and the ending with Scott Goodyear passing the pace car stick out in my mind as a kid watching from Luling, LA – and Jacques Villeneuve became the first Canadian to win the race.
At the time I was just hoping that maybe someday I would get to attend the race.
Weeks after the 1995 Indianapolis 500, IMS put out a statement saying that for the 1996 Indianapolis 500, 25 of the 33 starting spots would be reserved for full time Indy Racing League competitors. This would leave eight spots for non-IRL competitors to fight over.
CART responded in December 1995, announcing a competing race the same day as the Indianapolis 500: The U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway. It would start two hours later and air on ESPN.
The next year arrived with the start of the Indy Racing League and their opening race at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 1996. Buzz Calkins won, saying “I’m going to Indy!” in his post-race interview. No use going to Disney; he was already there.
I attended my first Indianapolis 500 in person at seven years old in 1996. I knew enough to satisfy my curiosity about what was going on but I didn’t know as much as my elders. I did know that the drivers I grew up watching wouldn’t be at Indianapolis. I didn’t get a chance to see Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Emerson Fittipaldi or Bobby Rahal.
Instead I saw Tony Stewart, Arie Luyendyk, Eddie Cheever, Roberto Guerrero and Eliseo Salazar, though a good family friend of ours Mr. Phil called him Salad-Bar. Scott Brayton qualified for the pole but perished in an accident on May 17th while going through Turn 2 in practice. Danny Ongais replaced Brayton and I knew who he was because Al Unser Sr. replaced him at Indianapolis in 1987 and then won.
Our seats that year were in the upper level of the main straight grandstands across from Lyn St. James’s pit. We had a clear view of the last corner incident.
Meanwhile, the U.S. 500 wasn’t exactly the race that CART was hoping it would be. Both races had a big wreck that day, for the IRL it was at the end and for CART it was at the beginning. Symbolic? You be the judge.
Jimmy Vasser would win the U.S. 500 after attrition took out many top runners early, most of them Ford competitors.
All the while I was wondering if and when I would get to see Unser Jr. run at Indianapolis. Meanwhile, his results didn’t get any better. He nearly won Road America in 1996 before his engine blew up at Canada Corner on the final lap. I cried that day, hell his last win was Vancouver the previous year and Road America was never kind to Unser Jr. or his championship bids and his off-track life wasn’t exactly in the best of shapes.
My family continued the tradition of going to Indianapolis. We were there for the first two days of 1997, in 1998 we sat almost directly across from Eddie Cheever’s pit and in 1999 we sat in Turn 1 for the first time.
I finally got to see Unser Jr. race at Indianapolis in 2000, sitting behind eventual winner Juan Montoya’s pit. Unser Jr. had some trouble that day and in 2001 he went out early after hitting the wall while avoiding Sam Hornish Jr.’s spinning car. Unser Jr. would race again in 2002-4 and 2006-7.
Michael Andretti came back to Indianapolis in 2001 and Team Penske became full time IRL competitors in 2002. All the while I watched both CART and the IRL but CART soon faded from my view in 2003 when I didn’t recognize many of the drivers that were competing at Long Beach. The split still dragged on and CART declared bankruptcy in 2003, emerging from bankruptcy court as Champ Car in 2004 and continued racing for a few more years.
After reading Miller’s article in January 2008, curiosity began to creep in. Will everyone finally be racing under one roof? Will top-tier open wheel racing in America finally be on the upswing after so many years of spinning its wheels? Can we finally get a real Bump Day again at Indianapolis?
Multiple times every day I would browse the SPEED Channel website and message board hoping to find one nugget of information here or there. It soon became my primary focus (after schoolwork) over the next couple of weeks.
Then Miller posted an article on February 7th to SPEEDTV’s website.
“SPEED has learned that Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe, the co-owners of Champ Car, have reached an agreement with IRL founder Tony George to race together this season,” the article read.
Champ Car teams would receive one new car, one used car and free engines to compete in the 2008 IndyCar season. Edmonton and Surfer’s Paradise (as an off season non-points race) would be added to the schedule with one hangup.
Long Beach and Motegi were scheduled to run on the same weekend, April 19/20. Since neither date could be moved, they ran both races as if they were separate series. Danica Patrick won the rain-delayed race at Motegi while Long Beach became the Champ Car finale with Will Power taking the checkered flag. Everyone was then together for the next race at Kansas Speedway.
This story was large enough to get Robin Miller on a SPEED Channel program from Daytona during Speedweeks.
Reading during the coming days, there were various dribs and drabs about who had what cars in their shops and what drivers were being signed. Then the announcement finally came officially on February 22nd as Miller wrote:
“Tony George, Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe officially agreed Friday to bury the hatchet instead of each other.”
The most memorable quote came from none other than team owner and famed actor, Paul Newman.
“I feel like I died and went to heaven. This is the best news I’ve heard in a long time,” said Newman.
That Sunday’s episode of Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain was dedicated mostly to the reunification with Robin Miller co-hosting and George, Kalkhoven and Mario Andretti were among the guests.
A press conference the following Wednesday at Homestead-Miami Speedway with George, Kalkhoven and Brian Barnhart revealed more details about how the Long Beach and Motegi weekend would work and there were many great quotes.
“This is all about looking forward,” said George.
“At the risk of taking a glance back, it was just last fall on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death that I was thinking to myself that it really had been 30 years since the sport of open-wheel racing had been truly unified. There were periods of years over the last 30 years where we worked more closely together and better together, but by and large, there were periods of years where we weren’t so good at that.
“But this day is really all about the fans. The fans who supported open-wheel racing, in general, who supported Champ Car, who supported IndyCar through the years. There are some that have supported them individually, and there are some that have supported them collectively. To all those, we appreciate your support.”
Kalkhoven added: “I’m also hoping that the IRL fans will extend their hand to the Champ Car fans and allow this to proceed in an amicable, smooth and exciting manner forward.”
“I think that the winners today are the fans, the teams, the drivers, and indeed the potential that we have to be able to grow the sport over the next few years.”
Before that race, the former Champ car drivers and teams (and a couple of IndyCar teams) got a two day test to learn Homestead and how to set up the IR-05 for ovals in addition to allowing drivers to get comfortable driving on a high speed oval.
I remember watching the live timing screen and seeing how the new drivers were coming up to speed. I noted the disparity between the IndyCar and Champ Car teams as the IndyCar teams had tested there earlier in the month. Most drivers got through the test unscathed but Graham Rahal did not. He hit the wall in Turn 2 and his team did not have enough spare parts to rebuild the car for the race later on that week.
There was a three mph difference between the fastest IndyCar driver (Dan Wheldon) and the fastest former Champ Car driver (Oriol Servia). In terms of time, it was almost four tenths of a second as Wheldon went around the 1.5-mile oval in 25.062 seconds (213.312 mph) while Servia went 25.436 seconds (210.175 mph).
Homestead marked the first time in 12 years that everybody was under one roof. I watched the race on the big screen TV in the common room of my dorm at the Engineering Residential College at LSU. Only one former Champ Car team had any significant damage from that race with HVM Racing’s EJ Viso hitting the wall late in the race. With nowhere to go, Tony Kanaan slid into Viso’s car and gave the right front tire a degree of camber normally seen on a car that would’ve raced in The Fast and the Furious.
Scott Dixon would win, but the former Champ Car teams were able to raise their flags slightly as Graham Rahal would win on his IndyCar debut the next week on the streets of St. Petersburg.
While at LSU that spring, I asked my Dad about going to the national Formula SAE competition in Michigan in May. As a mechanical engineering student, I wanted to be involved with the team and have that as my capstone project as a senior.
Dad proposed another idea: Indianapolis 500 second weekend qualifying. That was an easy decision and a friend of his joined us for a fun weekend at the Speedway. That year had 37 cars at the track. One car found its maker against the outside wall with Phil Giebler in the cockpit, the Rubicon Racing car never made a full qualifying attempt with mechanical trouble and Roger Yasukawa was too slow.
One former Champ Car team had an interesting struggle at Indianapolis: PCM Racing. Mario Dominguez was driving and the team were quite underfunded. The team skipped Homestead, St. Petersburg and Kansas before attempting to make the 500.
The team struggled to get the car up to speed. Dominguez had wall contact on Saturday that necessitated more repairs and the final hour of Bump Day was where their dreams would either be made or crushed.
In the final qualifying attempt of the month, Dominguez was fast enough on his first lap to bump his way into the field, but Dominguez hit the wall coming out of Turn 1 on Lap 2.
That hit led to a sequence of events that culminated in PCM Racing disbanding, but their story was one of struggle and a team that wouldn’t give up despite being thrown in on the deep end.
Scott Dixon would win the Indianapolis 500 that year en route to winning the series championship. The highest finishing former Champ Car team was KV Racing, with Servia in 11th and Will Power in 13th.
So where are we now?
Unification came during the largest economic downturn in recent memory. Sponsorship money would come and (mostly) go, many race teams would shut down overall (Newman/Haas in 2011, Forsythe after Long Beach 2008) or shutter their open wheel involvement (Both Walker Racing, Rocketsports) soon after the merger.
The championship’s talent pool has gradually risen. After unification, there were many field-fillers and also-ran drivers that were competing but a look at the roster from 2008 alongside 2018 shows a large difference from top to bottom.
The Mazda Road to Indy was created in 2010 to set into motion a driver development system for rear-engined formula car drivers, similar to how USAC midgets and sprint cars were the ladder fifty years ago.
The feeder series ladder system is starting to pay dividends. After a slow start, gradually more and more drivers are starting to gain rides in IndyCar racing. In 2018, the previous four Indy Lights champions have rides (three of them full time rides) and the 2011 champion won the IndyCar championship in 2017 (Josef Newgarden).
Many new races made appearances on the calendar while others faded off. Nashville, Kentucky, Kansas and Chicagoland would fade away after long runs. Baltimore and Edmonton lasted a few seasons while Loudon and New Orleans had weather (and other) issues.
The television package went from ABC/ESPN to ABC/Versus in 2009 and then Versus became NBC Sports in January 2012. Despite low ratings that weren’t helped by being on a mostly obscure high tier cable channel, IndyCar has remained on the channel throughout the time and has expanded their online video presence with streaming of nearly every minute of on track activity and ratings that have risen in the past few seasons.
The series has taken a massive step in the digital world by putting their races on YouTube a few days after the checkered flag falls. They also have taken the time to post classic races to YouTube as well. The feeder series also have their own YouTube channels with races posted to them.
With a new car in 2012, aero kits in 2015 and another new bodywork design in 2018, IndyCar races are set to look very different with much less downforce than previous cars.
There are still challenges, however. The TV audience is still small, prize money is not at a high enough level and technical competition is limited to engines instead of chassis and tires. Teams are slowly being allowed to make their own parts in some areas, but bodywork remains off limits.
The fan community is wide, ranging from die-hard supporters to fringe negative split remnants from both sides that do more to drive a wedge than help.
However, IndyCar racing is some of the most competitive, intense and eye-catching racing anywhere with a talent pool as deep as any top tier racing series on the planet.
With a schedule featuring short ovals, large ovals, street circuits and natural terrain road courses, a driver must be good at all four disciplines to capture the series title.
But there are many questions that remain unanswered.
CART had massive crowds at events in the ‘90s with their promotion of events outside of Indianapolis. Today outside of Indianapolis we have great crowds at Mid-Ohio, Road America, Gateway and Long Beach, but some venues don’t have as much of a crowd gathered for them.
Can the series combine an importance for Indianapolis with CART’s emphasis on events outside of Indianapolis?
A variety of manufacturers outside of engines could reduce entry costs by introducing competition and seeing which manufacturer can produce the best product at the lowest price.
Can growth be managed to a point where we can see competing chassis manufacturers and tire manufacturers over the next few seasons and can development be allowed but managed?
Some junior drivers are unable to advance their careers because of a lack of funding despite coming close to winning championships in the Mazda Road to Indy. Pato O’Ward and Anthony Martin in their respective 2016 and 2017 Pro Mazda seasons come to mind.
Can the Mazda Road to Indy be strengthened to a point where operating costs decrease and sponsorships increase to allow for more scholarships to the second place finishers in the championships?
Will out-of-the-box promotional ideas be considered? Can we see a new IndyCar-exclusive video game?
Nobody knows the answers to all of these questions but one has a definite answer.
Is IndyCar racing in a better position now than it was at reunification?
Note: YouTube videos courtesy of champcar4ever, Charles Intestine, luke stevens, Candy Tyrrell, Tyrone Wood and stefmeister2008.