CART/IRL split years ago.

Watching the Brickyard 400 today (Yay, Gordon! ) I got to thinking back to the CART/IRL split. I was never into Indy cars, and I remember when it happened there was talk about how NASCAR would just explode in popularity as they filled the void.

So my questions are: Why the split? Which faction initiated it, and where does each sanctioning body stand now in terms of worldwide following, prestige, etc?

(I put this here because I’m sure there will be a lot of opinions bandied about. That is, if anyone here even gives a shit about this topic)

Really short version: It was a personality-driven power contest and IRL won.

A little longer version: Tony George, the owner of the Indy Motor Speedway, wanted to control the entire open-wheel series, not just his own race. CART, the owners’ group that ran the rest of the series, wasn’t having any of that, although they managed to work it out for the Indy race for a few years. George set up his own league, IRL, with the Indy 500 as the primary attraction, and with different standards than CART, led mainly by Roger Penske, wanted. Rather than submit to George’s rules for a single race, in 1996 they formed their own series, gambling that the absence of Indy would be overcomeable with their better financing, their established presence at all the other races, and star power of their drivers.

Didn’t work that way. Indy became a frankly minor-league race run by a minor-league series, but it was still Indy. CART lost sponsors and drivers when they couldn’t sustain their attractiveness, and they started drifting to NASCAR and, yes, IRL. Sponsors wanted to be at Indy, where the glamor and TV ratings were, and after a few years the money and sponsors, those that were still in open-wheel racing as NASCAR assimilated fan after fan, were mostly in IRL. CART still exists, after bankruptcy and a couple of name changes, but not for much longer - most of the teams and owners, including Penske, are in IRL now, as are most of the traditional races. Once it disappears, which may be after this year, IRL will be the only major open-wheel series in the US - but its market share now belongs more to NASCAR, so Tony George’s victory is Pyrrhic.

Great answer, Elvis. I guess maybe there wasn’t too much to debate after all. Such is life as a Doper.

A little more about the differences…

IRL ran only oval tracks. CART included ovals, temporary street circuits, and road courses. As it was dying, it made a desperate attempt to internationalize itself and compete with F1, adding races in England, Germany, Mexico, and Japan. None really went over very well, at least not well enough to save CART. Taking an opposite approach, IRL madee a concerted effort to promote itself as “the AMERICAN racing series”… which lasted right up until Helio Castroneves et al came over and started beating the holy crap out of Billy Boat et al.

The car specs were also different beasts. IRL is much more regulated, and the cars are MUCH cheaper. I forget the numbers off the top of my head, but a Champ (CART) car is a very expensive piece of machinery - an Indy (IRL) Car is still expensive, but not in the same ballpark. IIRC, Indy Cars burn high grade gasoline, Champ cars burn methanol. Champ cars thus produce much more horsepower, and can go faster (Indy Cars are speed-regulated for safety).

IMHO, CART was the better series. More room for mechanical innovation on the cars and engines, more variety on courses.

Personally, I lost most interest when Greg Moore died, and I lost what I had left when Penske gave in and moved to IRL.

I was there, man.

No, really, I was. My father was doing market research for CART at the time. We all knew what would happen. It was all Tony George’s ego that did it. CART knew they were damned if they did… because Tony George ain’t that smart. And they were damned if they didn’t… but they’d have a fighting chance.

Frankly, if it wasn’t for the 500, CART would have won. But we all knew that. We all knew that, with the 500, CART would die, and IRL would win. But we also knew that it’d kill the sport anyhow. It was too similar to NASCAR, what IRL was doing. So…

Well, lemme put it this way. They’re both going to go to hell in time, and maybe we’ll get WRX in America. On the third hand, if CART had merged with F1, which they were considering, it might have worked. But F1 said no, as I recall. So… yeah. Life.

Here’s a site with a relatively unbiased history of the split.

The short version: NASCAR was growing in popularity. CART/Indycar was growing in popularity also, but nowhere near as fast as NASCAR. Tony George decided that Indycar should be more like NASCAR, and since he controled the Indy 500 he should get his way. He created the IRL and put in place restrictive rules that would force teams to compete in his series if they wanted to participate in the Indy 500. The CART teams responded by staying away from the Indy 500.

8 years later, both series are struggling, with CART (now OWRS) barely hanging in and the IRL only staying afloat due to major cash infusions from Toyota, Honda, and Tony George himself (he has spent something like $250M of his own money on the series). Many of the major teams have jumped to the IRL, primarily because Honda and Toyota want to be in the Indy 500 and pay the teams handsomely to race there.

Every couple of years there is talk of reunification, but Tony George always squashes it. Now that Honda and Toyota are starting to reduce their support for the IRL, the series will be in the same situation as CART in a few years. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Hard to believe isn’t it? Just 12 years ago Indycar Racing was such a successful formula that the reigning World Champion in Formula One chose to not try and defend his title and instead, to move over to the USA and attempt a title win in Indycar.

How things have changed.

Personally, I’ve always felt that Indycar racing was a poor man’s version of Formula One insofar as it was a mixture of technological racing with one hand tied behinds it’s back, for want of a better description. That is, the desire to “put on a good show” al la NASCAR while also avoiding F1’s astronomical budgets.

In many respects, it was a formula which was always destined to struggle insofar as it was philosophically unsure as to which position it wished to take.

That being said? Is Formula One any better a show now with Michael Schumacher winning 11 of the 12 races thus far this year? Hmmmm… I kinda doubt it. A cynic could argue (with some justification) that all forms of motor racing are hamstrung in some way or another nowadays. I can’t think of one formula anywhere which doesn’t have rules of some sort designed to slow the cars down.

BBF, funny you mention slowing the cars down. NASCAR does it a Talledega and Daytona, but now they’re literally slowing them down at all tracks with a new aero package that will increase wind resistance.

Can someone explain the difference between NASCAR and IRL/CART?

For the casual fan, the main difference is the appearance of the cars: full-fendered, front-engine “stock” sedan bodies in NASCAR, open-wheeled mid-engine cars in CART/IRL. All three series have highly restrictive formulae that dictate in great detail what is allowed, or not, on cars used in the series: overall size, min/max weight, engine displacement and position in the car, size and placement of aerodynamic aids, tire width, and so on. The great differences in the formulae for NASCAR vs. CART/IRL relect the histories of the sanctioning organizations: NASCAR has its roots in low-budget Saturday-night racing of modified street sedans on dirt ovals, whereas CART/IRL are rooted more, but not exclusively, in “pure” racing cars raced on paved ovals or road courses. The general intention of having such restrictive formulae is to decrease costs (which, nevertheless, remain extremely high) and increase competition.

And there’s even more to it.

Racing - any kind - is expensive. George did have some good ideas in that he said he wanted to make it more affordable for little teams and ensure parity in the field by enforcing tougher rules about standardized equipment, with the goal that even if you didn’t have the money of Honda or Toyota or Ford, you could still compete. And although enormously popular at the time, there was a lack of American talent for audiences to get behind- many of the drivers were foreign, and NASCAR’s up and coming popularity I’m sure threw doubts in George’s mind. So his idea of trying to attract more American talent was also laudable, at the base of it.

But he went about it all wrong. His proposal to make open wheel racing more affordable and more American was seen as an attempt to distract people from what many perceived was the real reason for his proposal: his disagreements with many of the engine developers and team owners. Fans felt that he wanted to run his race his way without having to listen to engine manufacturers and team owners, whose opinions increasingly were directing the progression of racing. It became a widely-held notion that George hated big teams, big engine manufacturers, and foreigners (which was partially true - he certainly hated Roger Penske).

As said before, Tony George wanted to control the entire league by virtue of the racetrack he owned, meaning that if you wanted to race at Indy, you’d have to take part in every other race out there. He made things even worse by saying he’d guarantee spots at Indy for drivers in this league.

A little history: traditionally, the Indianapolis 500 allows 33 drivers to compete in it. There’s time trials the entire month, and qualifying really starts to concentrate the week before the race. The fastest 33 qualifiers got to race, leading to a rather exciting “bump day” when everyone would have a go at getting their fastest times in. If you were 33rd, and a faster driver came along, you were out.

George’s new plan changed all that - he’d reserve spaces at Indy for the drivers in his league, with only a handful left over for drivers who weren’t a part of the IRL. Meaning that you didn’t have to be the fastest anymore - you could be the slowest driver out there and still have a spot, so long as you were an IRL member. What’s more, your slow ass could conceivably bump out a much faster, racier driver who wasn’t a member. Under this model, qualifying really only determines who starts where rather than who starts at all.

The CART drivers took this as an affront, because it’s pretty much anathema to what it means to race. And so the split.

So it’s been pretty horrific to be an open wheel fan lately - attendance is down across the board, CART’s pretty much done, and IRL isn’t doing well either. This from a league that used to be much bigger than NASCAR. As the years have gone by, George’s gotten back everything he hated before - large engine manufacturers, rising costs, increasing numbers of foreign drivers, big teams, and Roger Penske. And this is pretty much the only thing that makes CART fans smile anymore.

Good overall explanation. I just have one small nitpick. I don’t have the numbers for this year, but in 2003 NASCAR’s Dodge Weekly Series (the Saturday night racing you refer to) raced at 58 asphalt tracks and 16 dirt tracks. It’s much more of an asphalt series than a dirt series.

Cartoonist Peter Bagge’s take on the 2000 Indy 500 as a complete neophyte, with some humorous and informative comments on the split and the differences between CART/IRL and NASCAR:
Part 1
Part 2

I recommend it highly, like all of Bagge’s work.