In the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, CART Indy-car racing was the most popular auto racing series in the country.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president/CEO Tony George wanted CART to go in a different direction, one that downplayed foreign drivers in favor of more American-born racing talent, as well as decreasing the number of road/street course races in favor of more oval tracks like IMS.
Andrew Craig—CART's chief executive during the split era—says IndyCar is still recovering from the split of 25 years ago.
The split between the upstart Indy Racing League (IRL) and the established Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) that began in 1996 and remained a deep chasm until reunification in 2008 nearly destroyed Indy car racing in the United States.
In the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, CART racing was the most popular auto racing series in the country. But Indianapolis Motor Speedway president/CEO Tony George wanted CART to go in a different direction, one that downplayed foreign drivers in favor of more American-born racing talent, as well as decreasing the number of road/street course races in favor of more oval tracks like IMS, the most famous race track in the world and host of the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500.
CART officials and team owners balked at George’s insistence, ultimately leading to their ousting of him from the organization’s board of directors. That move led George to create the IRL and, coupled with his edict that only eight spots would be open for CART teams to qualify for the 1996 Indy 500, forced a CART boycott of teams competing in the 500 for several years.
The contentious battle between the two warring series led to NASCAR rising to prominence and eventually to become the most popular motorsports series in the U.S.
No one was more involved in negotiations with the IRL than the man who was president of CART at the time, Andrew Craig. He had only been on the job about a week when in 1994, and while CART was racing halfway around the world at Surfer’s Paradise, Australia, that George revealed his initial plans for the IRL and how it would impact and change the Indianapolis 500, beginning with the 1996 season.
Craig, along with numerous key owners in CART including Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Pat Patrick and others, tried for more than a year to sway—or at the very least, compromise —with George. But George wouldn’t budge. He felt his way was the best way for open-wheel racing in the U.S. and that if CART didn’t like it, it was either his way or the highway.
As history went on to be written, George’s vision turned into a nightmare for open-wheel racing in the U.S., all but destroying it. The reunification of the two series in 2008 came late, but it was better late than never. Still, Indy car racing continues to be a shadow of its former pre-IRL self, remaining a distant second to NASCAR in terms of popularity and TV ratings—albeit IndyCar’s numbers have started to increase the last several years, and offer the promise of continued growth now that Penske has assumed control of IMS and the NTT IndyCar Series.
“A lot, obviously, has changed, but in many ways, nothing has changed,” Craig told Autoweek. “Motor racing continues to be strong, is under new leadership, which I think is very positive. At the same time, the racing remains with the very same high quality it was 25 years ago. So, from an operational point and new organizational and ownership point, things have changed dramatically from that time, but the consistent component from my time to the present day is the racing and the drivers and the teams remain in the very highest standards.”
George failed in a bid to buy CART in 1991. “It was turned down quite decisively,” Craig said. “I think that’s when the idea of the IRL was born. I think also my appointment wasn’t well-received, because I think Tony wanted his man in there, which wasn’t going to happen.
“The actual announcement of the IRL was something completely beyond my control. But by the end of 1994, my first year, I did indeed have several talks with Tony and by that stage, it was very clear that the idea of his series had not been well-received.
“The last thing the tracks wanted was to become part of a series with the Indy 500 because they knew exactly what would happen, they would become satellites built around and everything would be built around this one event each year, the Indy 500.
“That’s why 14 of the race tracks signed long-term contracts with us. They didn’t want that. They still had very bad memories, many of them, of when the United States Auto Club ran the series (and which led to the split between USAC and the creation of CART in 1979). … They certainly didn’t want to go back to that.”
George’s insistence that the series be made up of almost entirely American-born drivers also did not sit well with CART’s team owners and sponsors.
“The Indianapolis 500 is steeped in tradition and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Craig said. “It's a fabulous, traditional American event. There's no question about that. As for the oval reason (George’s desire to make it an all-oval series), while very important, the reality was other forms of racing came along and certainly had a valid place in the series.
“And I think one of the things our fans really liked about IndyCar was this combination, it was ovals, road courses, street races, and you needed a really well-rounded driver to be successful in all those different environments. I thought at the time that actually a mixture was good. I think there were a couple oval factions that maybe (George) wasn't getting the best advice sometimes.
“As far as American drivers, I think it was a valid point there, certainly having American talent in an American series was very, very important. There were more drivers coming into the series from abroad. However, I'd have to say this, domestic drivers worked really hard to have the finances necessary to help them develop their careers and that's fundamentally part of the model, basically, the drivers brings sponsors with them.
“But this idea of rich foreign drivers were stealing American drives, I think that was misstated. This was the world’s biggest economy here. What it was was dedicated, committed drivers going out and finding sponsors and helping teams to be economically viable. It wasn't they were stealing rides, it’s just they were good at raising money. That’s the honest truth. With that said, of course, we would have liked to and wanted to have more American talent in the series.”
Throughout the interview with Craig, who remains a consultant to a number of companies and organizations both in and out of sports today, as well as governmental entities, while he could have pointed fingers or assessed blame, rather he was both fair and transparent in his thoughts about the split.
But it’s also noteworthy that now, even 25 years later, a number of individuals who were in the middle of both sides of the row, including Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, A.J. Foyt and Tony George, all turned down requests to speak to Autoweek about the split.
This weekend will not only mark the 25th anniversary of the Indy 500 being run without any CART drivers, it will also mark the inaugural running of the U.S. 500, which was billed as an alternative to the Indy 500, run on the same day but 230 miles northeast at Michigan International Speedway.
“Once (IMS) announced the 25/8 rule, (not racing in the 500) was the only thing we could do,” Craig said, referring to the IRL mandating 25 guaranteed spots to cars in its series, leaving only eight “open” positions for other teams such as those from CART. But all CART team owners remained united and none would cross over back to the Indy 500 until 2001.
“They held together, they didn’t really want to go,” Craig said of CART teams going to Indy. “But then, having made that decision, we had sponsors that were disappointed. If not (run) at Indianapolis, then what?
“(Sponsors) asked teams to find something else that they could do on that weekend, and that’s where the idea that we had to race on that weekend came from. We had to provide a viable alternative.
“When the whole idea (of the U.S. 500) started to emerge. There were a lot of fans who were saying that this is the right thing to do, so we had to find a venue. Roger Penske agreed that he would make MIS available and we would self-promote the event. It was a real struggle, quite understandably. There was no one who wanted to run a broadcast against the Indy 500. It was starting to look like a complete disaster. We had reached December 1995 and we still didn’t have a broadcaster. I talked with everybody out there.
“And then, just before the holiday break, I had a call from ESPN. Although they were extremely reluctant at the beginning, they stepped up. And that was a terrific, terrific gesture on their part because, frankly, I don’t think we could have run the U.S. 500 without their help, I don’t think we could have gone ahead. They really saved the day by stepping up.
“We had a top prize of $1 million dollars, we reinstated the Vanderbilt Cup … and that frankly changed the narrative.”
Once the U.S. 500 and Indy 500 took their respective checkered flags (Buddy Lazier, won at Indianapolis, and Jimmy Vasser won the U.S. 500 in Michigan), there was a brief period where many on both sides took a step back and a deep breath, with some hoping what happened would be a one-off situation and that a reunification might be on the table.
Wrong. Tony George stuck to his guns, while Craig and CART team owners and race promoters stuck to theirs. Adios to reunification.
“I think at that point, the parties were probably as far apart as at any time,” Craig said. “There was no movement on either side. Basically, we were viable, we were making money, we were able to run the series, of course a lot of pressure from fans on teams and tracks. That was probably the moment when the parties were farthest apart.”
The two sides would remain far apart for more than a decade until reuniting prior to the 2008 season, although some CART teams did cross the picket line, so to speak, to compete in the Indy 500 as early as 2001 when IRL loosened up restrictions—not to mention bowed to pressure from fans and sponsors who demanded to see the best drivers in the world in the biggest and best race in the world once again.
One of the most difficult questions posed to Craig was if CART owners had either convinced George to not go forward with the IRL, or at the very least agreed to some middle ground or compromised on more American drivers or more oval tracks in the series, would open-wheel racing have continued to grow as it had been doing in the 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s before the split.
“That’s a valid question,” Craig said. “Forget about me in the circle for a moment and it was obviously very damaging, there’s no question about that. But I think at the time I arrived at CART, there was real potential there. We did grow that series dramatically under the most difficult circumstances.
“If we had all been on the same side, I think it would have progressed nicely. We were starting to grow our international TV coverage and (1993 CART champ and former F1 star Nigel) Mansell of course was a big help in getting that going, we managed to have more overseas races, we managed to command higher sanctioning fees, which frankly were not where they should have been.
“I think it was a very, very viable series and certainly if it had all stayed together, of course, we would have grown and become much, much stronger.”
Even though he stepped aside as CART president/CEO in 2000, Craig, who still splits time living in both the U.S. and Switzerland, remains a fan of IndyCar racing. He attended the 2019 Indy 500 and may attend the upcoming doubleheader weekend next month at Belle Isle in Detroit. He remains bullish on IndyCar getting stronger and bigger in the future.
“I think there is no reason at all why IndyCar cannot continue to grow and prosper,” Craig said. “I think it’s very healthy. I also think you’re going to see a lot more crossover from Formula 1 to IndyCar. There are a significant number of drivers who are really good race-car drivers who’ve come from Formula 1 to IndyCar and have been impressed with the level of competition, the level of engineering and the level of series.
“I think that as time goes by, it might be driving it the other way, too, as Jacques Villeneuve did (going from CART to F1). I think IndyCar is very well positioned to be seen in the future as certainly top global motor racing.”
Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski