“Indy Split: The Big Money Battle that Nearly Destroyed Indy Racing” reviewed

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Billed as the story of the “big money battle that nearly destroyed Indy racing”, John Oreovicz’s “Indy Split” aims to explains the story of the great US single seater schism.

As a long-time fans of American open-wheel racing, to say that I was excited to get stuck into ‘Indy Split’ is an understatement akin to mentioning that Priti Patel enjoys being a bit draconian.

After a very brief history of US single seater racing, Indy Split kicks into gear from the 1979 formation of CART, to the disastrous split from the start of the 1996 season, where the IRL had the Indianapolis 500 and CART (initially at least) had everything else, following the story through to reconciliation in 2008 and Roger Penske’s purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2020. Whilst the on-track action is frequently referenced, the bulk of the book covers the boardroom battles and off-track controversies that led to and perpetuated the split.

As an account of ‘what’ happened Indy Split can barely be faulted, but it does fall short in explaining the ‘why’. This is due to two main reasons; the narrative largely reports events as they happen, with only very brief asides into analysing the why, how and so-what of key moments, and crucially the two essential voices in the story – Tony George and Roger Penske don’t appear to have provided much, if any, input to Oreovicz.

Buddy Lazier, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1996
Buddy Lazier won the first post-split 500 in 1996
The tone of the book is also interesting – Oreovicz is evidently straining not to take sides (a theme carried on through the perspective pieces, by the likes of Dario Franchitti, at the end of the book), but in doing so, is wide of the mark in capturing some of the energy and excitement of the racing. Likewise the lens is very US centric, which provides interesting perspective – in the UK nineties CART racing was seen as something special; affordable, close and packed with talent, the US view was that it was wildly expensive ($10m per car per season), too many foreign drivers and technologically exotic.

This is certainly not the story of business master strategy – impulsive and rushed decisions, small moments with big consequences are the order of the day. What really comes through are some of the sliding doors moments – what would have happened had the CART teams not sold their 1995 equipment to the start-up IRL teams? Would Honda and Toyota stayed with CART if they’d sorted their engine regulations sooner?

Hanging over the whole piece is the enigma of Tony George. The pen portrait of his early days in the sport suggests someone whose only qualification to be anywhere near running Indy racing is family lineage. Yet at the same time, George has arguably done more than anyone else to drive and invest in single seater oval safety in the past two decades (although given the appalling safety record of the first generation IRL cars there was a lot of ground to recover).

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The underlying theme though is one of missed opportunities. In 1993 CART had the Formula 1 champion, surging global demand, huge race day audiences and enviable investment from manufacturers. Less than a decade later both CART (by then Champ Car) and IRL were hanging on by a thread. Both sides had their moments, and both made some monumental errors.

What remained of the IRL and ChampCar reunified in 2008
Until Penske switched into the series it wouldn’t be unfair to characterise the IRL as a low-quality crash-fest. Likewise CART had its cruelly tone deaf moments – racing on after spectator and driver fatalities at Michigan in 1998 and Fontana 1999 – whilst also managing to somehow burn through its $100m fighting fund in the space of a single season.

Indy Split comes full circle with 2008’s re-union through to Roger Penske taking control of the IMS and IndyCar racing. The timing of that decision is surely another area which deserved more explanation, however.

At the time of writing a the IndyCar standings are headed by a Spanish driver initially placed in the series by Honda, exactly the scenario the IRL was founded to oppose. Thus, after 30 years IndyCar is pretty much where it could well have been anyway except, sadly, far fewer people watch or care.

For the uninitiated ‘Indy Split’ is a must-read, for the hardcore fan, it is also essential, although I expect it will leave you with as many questions as answers.

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RaceFans rating

Rating four out of five

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Indy Split: The Big Money Battle that Nearly Destroyed Indy Racing

Author: John Oreovicz
Publisher: Octane Press
Published: 2021
Pages: 432
Price: $35.00
ISBN: 9781642340563

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  • 16 comments on ““Indy Split: The Big Money Battle that Nearly Destroyed Indy Racing” reviewed”

    1. I still remember sitting in the TV compound at Indy in 1996 & having this moment where I realised that Indycar racing was….. Well a 6 letter word starting with ‘F’ you can all probably guess.

      The stands weren’t full & while the crowd was still reacting with just as much energy as usual it just felt different & in a way where it was just obvious to anyone paying attention that it was a crowd that cared less about what they were watching because it was also blatantly obvious to anyone watching that the quality of the field wasn’t where it had been.

      I never like to say things like this but you had guys in that field that had no business been in an Indycar & were clearly way out of their depth. You had teams & mechanics in gasoline alley that weren’t prepared for that race & who had no experience running cars at the level the CART spec cars the IRL ran in 1996 were at.

      Looking back some of the issue Tony George was raising were valid yet his actions in forming the IRL were so obviously nothing more than a power grab as his actions over the initial few years showed where he did just about everything possible to bury CART rather than working alongside CART. And then CART was so dysfunctional that they didn’t really do much other than make a series of poor decisions that helped lead to their own decline.

      Indycar now is growing which is great. But it is nowhere near where it was on any level & that makes me sad given how completely unnecessary the split that led to the downfall was. What they had was magic which i’m not sure they will ever be able to get back.

      1. @gt-racer Tony George? Power hungry? I would never have guessed? ;-)

    2. It was all about greed and Tony George wanting to control the Indy 500, as the speedway was owned by the family. Tony wanted mainly ovals and control of his prized possesion. CART had the “cars and stars” and was becoming very big globally, a threat that had Bernie Ecclestone worried. If the two parties somehow could have worked out their differences before the split who knows where IndyCar would have been today? It was a disasterous time and has taken years to overcome. Fortunately, IndyCar has the most exciting racing in the world and has overcome that dark period.

    3. I remember a headline article in a car magazine (must’ve been the Polish edition of Auto Bild) in 1995 entitled “IndyCar – better than F1?” – by which time I already was a huge IndyCar fan.
      The hype was getting really big as the series was simply better at that point than the post-Imola Formula 1, which lost most of its extreme-sport appeal via:
      – The most iconic drivers being gone: Senna, Prost, Mansell (only present with his cameo appearances in ’94 and ’95) and little to replace them
      – Controversial ’94 championship with a disastrous finale, Schumacher having no rivals in ’95, Damon Hill not embodying a worthy F1 champion in ’96, the ’97 season being just terrible (I’ll get back to this)
      – Great tracks getting dumbed down with chicanes etc.
      – The iconic Marlboro McLarens no longer being at the top
      – The high-nosed era cars that took over in 1995 didn’t look cool at all
      – With the rise of advanced aerodynamics the problem with the ability to overtake became evident in 1997, which showcased one of the most luckluster championships and some of the worst F1 races ever: Schumacher and Villeneuve although fighting for the championship didn’t share a podium a single time the whole season (!), nor did they ever even fight each other on track until the embarassment of the season’s finale at Jerez. The 1997 Monza GP set an F1 record for 37 consecutive laps without a single overtaking manouver (!).
      – The reduction of the cars width from 200cm to 180cm in 1998 made F1 cars look like a joke

      Meanwhile in IndyCar you had:
      – brutal looking cars that were at that point as fast as F1 cars, but had a much more extreme vibe
      – competetive championships with many race winners
      – a richer field of drivers reinforced by the fact that every driver had a car in his own unique livery due to having individual sponsors
      – amazing racing, especially on fantastic street tracks that made Monaco look like a futile parade
      – Marlboro painted cars (in the form of Penske) fighting for wins, which made the series look very familiar for new fans, especially coming from F1, and simply feel “right”
      – the 1996 IndyCar champion switching to F1 and starting his 1st ever F1 race from a pole position, and later fighting for the gold til the last race – which added much value and prestige to CART
      – the 1996 season finale’s highlight from Laguna Seca (Zanardi’s pass at Corkscrew) was one of the greatest sport’s highlights of the year

      I didn’t really catch what happend with the split of the series. For a majority of fans worldwide the series suddenly changed it’s name from IndyCar to CART and Indianapolis 500 was no longer on the schedule and that was it.
      At least in Europe most of us watched IndyCar/CART on Eurosport not even understanding what IRL was until the Chip Ganassi team went to compete at Indy 500 with Juan-Pablo Montoya as a one-off in 1999 and won it.

      Then around 2000 one couldn’t help but notice that race attendances at ChampCar races were getting lower and lower and I didn’t really understand why, because the racing was still fantastic. Somehow the marketing was no longer there, and some important teams and drivers defecting to the IRL didn’t help either. Obviously, IRL took a lot of investors and sponsors away, while the biggest beneficiary of that was Nascar, which was on a rise.
      Also, the intial name choice of “CART” (Championship Auto Racing Teams) was terribly confusing – I can’t even count how often I had to explain to somebody that it had nothing to do with go-karts/karting.

      1. Comment of the week mate … thanks for the insight :)

        1. CART was an amazing series at at an all-time high in terms of cars and drivers and mix of street, road and oval tracks before Tony George ruined it. It rivaled F1. I still haven’t gone back to IndyCar. Only in the last couple of years have I even watched any of their races. And it is still it the same. It is such a shame that he used his control of Indianapolis to ruin one of the great racing series.

      2. Also, the intial name choice of “CART” (Championship Auto Racing Teams) was terribly confusing – I can’t even count how often I had to explain to somebody that it had nothing to do with go-karts/karting.

        It actually makes perfect sense when you look at how and why the series was formed.

        The “Championship” portion refers to the racing series which CART was attempting to replace. United States Auto Club ran the “Championship Cars” series – these were the cars that ran at the Indy 500 and were used at all sorts of other tracks for the rest of the series. USAC devolved the series into racing almost exclusively on paved ovals, of which the Indy 500 was the central and most important part. The other races were not considered important and were not well promoted. That business model worked well for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it did not work for the racing teams themselves.

        Hey, this sounds almost familiar. Somewhat like history repeated itself…

        “Auto Racing Teams” referred to the fact that the team owners were also the governing body of the series. Hence, “Championship Auto Racing Teams” or CART.

        1. Mike I agree that it makes sense, but it is still confusing for the uninitiated!

      3. You correctly refer to IndyCar throughout your post but do not mention that the Canadian CART races (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver) were sponsored by the Molson brewery and were always called the Molson Indy (which obviously added to the confusion over the two series).

        I also remember all the hype leading up to the 2002 Molson Indy Montreal because it was the first time CART would race on a Formula 1 circuit in the same season providing a direct comparison between the two series. No one thought the CART cars would be as fast, being over 25% heavier than F1 cars, but how much slower would they be?
        In the end, pole sitter da Matta (1:18.959) was outside the 107%; Montoya had pole with 1:12.836 (and Webber qualified 21st in his Minardi with 1:15.508).

      4. Good comment, except that it was CART not IndyCar and didn’t suddenly change its name.

        For a majority of fans worldwide the series suddenly changed it’s name from IndyCar to CART

        CART was an awesome series and is still (by me anyway) missed.

        Reply moderated
    4. I have often wondered where open wheel racing would have been if CART had continued as the interest in the sport from industry, sponsors and yes fans was much higher. INDYCAR has dropped open wheel racing in North America substantially to the point they have to run double races to make up for lack of races and paying stars like James Hinchliffe $150,000 a year (that’s not per race that’s for a whole season and before he was fired by Schmit Peterson Motorsports). Meanwhile, NASCAR took over and ran away as the “premier” North America series. Sad how a greedy Family (George Family) and specifically one greedy and egotistical person (see Tony George) can destroy open wheel racing to the point I don’t think it will ever truly recover. Even my own interest in open wheel racing in NA dropped as the second rate series took over based on support money. Sad, all very sad.

    5. Tony George was the worst thing to happen to the CART/Indy Car series of racing. This was sad. Working things out could happen then, but Tony George tried to use the one ace in his pocket – the Indy 500. That was all he had.

      He started this new series which drove this split open. That ruined both CART and the new Indy Racing League. Took a number of years turn racing into shambles. In time George was out of running the Indy Racing League, CART was bankrupted. Eventually Champ Car and Indy Racing League merged in 2008. IndyCar name was used again after the merger.

      Maybe over the last five years or so IndyCar has been starting to expand with fans once again. What has been lost over twenty years thanks to Tony George?

    6. There’s an excellent 4 part documentary on YouTube called The Indycar Split by nascarman history.

      If you’re interested in the split and the personalities behind it you won’t go wrong spending an hour or so watching it.

      1. Just watched the documentary; it’s great! Well worth a watch. I’d also like to comment that IndyCar (or whatever) certainly has had way more woman drivers than some other series which shall remain unnamed.

        Reply moderated
      2. Thanks @mattj, that sounds interesting; this review really made me pretty nostalgic and sad about what might have been (and clearly, not the only one here who feels like that!).

        1. There’s some really interesting stuff in there, including the benign hand of the FIA lurking in the background!!

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