Twenty years ago this week National Speed Sport News reported a plan for IMS and USAC to start a new Indy Car series because Tony George did not like being snubbed and marginalized by cart repeatedly in the early 1990s and was unhappy with the direction cart was steering the sport. History was altered forever. When the IRL eventually came to fruition it was positioned as a complementary series to cart, running ovals and offering opportunities to Americans who would not have otherwise gotten opportunities.
In theory it was a great idea. In practice it got very messy. Those of us who were adults and fans at that time have a viewpoint reflective of actual experience and a low tolerance for aberrant behavior. cart in the early and middle 1990s had lost a lot fans over their direction. Much of the schedule was yawn-worthy and despite the presence of some world class names in the sport the overall direction forced many fans to become essentially Indy-only fans. This trend combined with the ascendancy of NASCAR helped make a strong case for a series like the IRL. Usually the loudest yelpers about the ‘evil’ that is Indy and IMS were either not yet born at that time or were still prepubescent. Emotionally many still are.
I am often chided as a ‘gomer,’ a ‘bootlicker,’ a ‘place fan’ and all sorts of colorful epithets by a small handful of virulent formula racing enthusiasts with a predisposition for hatred of all things Hulman tinged with consistent refusal to acknowledge the overall importance to the sport of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Honestly, however, I did not pay much attention to the first IRL race ever at Walt Disney World, did not watch live and had to rely on my VHS taped copy later. Spoiler alerts also did not matter, and my reaction upon hearing the winner was ‘Buzz WHO?’
My epiphany was not that the IRL was great but that cart stupidly perceived it as a threat, let their arrogance guide their business practices and ultimately sent the entire sport into a malaise that exists today. It is exacerbated in 2014 by a headlong rush into attempting to recreate what they believed they had. By the time the 1996 Indianapolis 500 arrived I, like many others, enjoyed my conflicted allegiance. No one I knew stopped being fans of cart or its events, but most of us felt we could live with the politics and enjoy two distinct series with differing philosophies. If it were only that simple.
Many felt pressured to choose a side and take a stand. It has always been difficult to understand why, but when ego overcomes rational thought stupid things can happen. That is about the time the epithets began being hurled. It was still very easy to enjoy both series but after cart intentionally backed IndyCar into the 25/8 corner and scheduled the ill-fated US 500 on the same day as the 500 most were forced to a side. What might have happened had cart participated in and dominated the first three IRL events? More than likely the IRL would have had a three race history. Instead the most confrontational possible acts were executed whenever possible. Forced to choose a side, many of us chose the institution that always made the sport possible.
It was fitting on that race weekend in late May of 1996 that the ‘stars and cars’ could not even make the green flag without having half their field crash. As I sat in the stands at Indy watching a compelling race with hungry competitors and a popular winner the realization that karma is real made me smile. History has proven over and over that without Indy in May it is not possible for those who actively work to marginalize it to succeed. One by one they returned on terms they did not dictate. Some who did not continue attempting to subvert the sport, most recently actively working to have IndyCar replaced at Long Beach by Formula One. Sooner or later that herd will be thinned by time or death. A last gasp is taking shape at Indy this year with folks like Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Montoya strapping back in years later.
These fellow racing enthusiasts are not without valid points. Would it not be great had IMS and IndyCar employed competent management in the modern era? Still, Indy makes the stars and not the other way around. I look at this strange anniversary more with sadness than anything else. None of the more tawdry things that happened (and continue to happen) really needed to. It appears based on schedule, direction and decision making that current leadership is still willing to convince themselves that making the same mistakes repeatedly will lead to different outcomes. Those who expect this approach to lead to a dramatic uptick are probably going to have to wait a couple of more decades.