- Ryan McGee, ESPN Senior Writer
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As the big hand hit the 7 p.m. mark along the East Coast on Sunday night, it rang in one hell of an hour in the world of American motorsports.
Somewhere in the Midwest, the top brass of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series were meeting behind closed doors, smoothing out the final jagged edges of a merger between the two series, essentially the absorption of what is left of CCWS by the IRL.
A decade ago, the idea of such a meeting would have created international headlines. The world's biggest race, the Indianapolis 500, would have been celebrated for finally shelving the egos, restoring the glory, and returning to its rightful place atop the racing world. America's best and brightest young stars would once again go to bed at night dreaming of their profile soldered to the side of the Borg-Warner Trophy.
But on this night, the news was met with one stinging reaction.
For during that same hour, the world's true biggest race was rushing to its conclusion, with two sons of the Indiana dirt battling it out toward the checkered flag. Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman grew up dreaming of Gasoline Alley and had paid good money to sit with their fathers in the grandstand to watch A.J., Mario and Rick Mears. But now, like every racer of their generation and beyond, they know that the sport's biggest prize now resides 1,000 miles away in Daytona Beach, Fla.
"You walk around this garage and it just blows your mind the faces that you see," Jeff Gordon said during Daytona Speedweeks, with a nod to Stewart, Newman and the four former Indy 500 champs in NASCAR rides. "If you had come to most of us as kids we would have told you that in 2008 we'd be running at Indianapolis, not Daytona. But the way the things happened, here we are."
Yes, here we are. Living in a world where American open wheel racing has gone from owning the radar to dreaming of a day when it can once again be on it.
The great speedway schism
For those of you can't remember, what happened was this:
In the early 1990s, the Indy 500 was king while CART, Championship Auto Racing Teams, was America's premier open-wheel sanctioning body, second only to Formula One in worldwide popularity. CART was run by a board of team owners, including living legends Roger Penske, Pat Patrick, Bobby Rahal and Paul Newman. Also on the board, but reduced to a figurehead position, was Tony George, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. George became fed up with what he deemed "philosophical differences" between himself and the sanctioning body, differences that he stated publicly were driving the sport away from its American-born, American-bred oval roots, though many believe his motives had much more to do with money and power than motorsports dogma.
"Regardless of what you believe, the system was broken," said John Bickford, Gordon's stepfather and longtime business manager. "Jeff and I went door to door to all of the CART teams in the early 1990s with his impeccable sprint car résumé and everyone's response was, 'How much money can you bring?' Well, we didn't have the money, so we had the doors slammed in our faces. Drivers with far less talent than Jeff were getting rides because they came with financial backing we simply couldn't compete with. So we went to NASCAR, where talent was still the most important factor in getting a ride. I'd say that's worked out, wouldn't you?"
In 1995, inspired in no small part by the fact that Gordon had slipped through the cracks, George announced that he was forming the Indy Racing League, his own more affordable open-wheel series, centered on the Indy 500 and designed to compete with and ultimately destroy CART.
The CART board didn't budge.
The result was devastating on both sides, splitting an already leaky pool of sponsors and equipment down the middle. CART initially took the biggest names -- including Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti -- while the IRL retained the biggest race -- the Indy 500 -- and arranged a ride for the driver widely considered to be the next Gordon, one Mr. Tony Stewart.
CART, eventually renamed Champ Car in 2004, staged its own Memorial Day race to compete with the Indy 500 head-to-head, titling it the U.S. 500 and dragging the once-prestigious Vanderbilt Cup out of mothballs, carried in the white-gloved hands of Mario Andretti. A star-studded field took the green flag at Michigan and then proceeded to wreck itself into an embarrassing oblivion.
At Indianapolis, a watered-down pack of near-misses and has-beens produced a very competitive race, but even the heartwarming story of injured journeyman Buddy Lazier's victory couldn't mask the thinned-out grandstands, thinner campgrounds and wobbly television ratings. A few weeks later, when the IRL arrived in Loudon, N.H., for its first post-Indy event, the league scrambled to fill the field with a handful of Sunday morning rookie tests, and the weekend's largest crowds were found standing in line to buy Ricky Craven souvenirs -- and Craven was running a Cup race a thousand miles away.
Meanwhile, the stock cars celebrated Memorial Day at Charlotte to a packed house and its first real dent in Indy's long-impenetrable television audience. "They can go on and do whatever they want to that race up there," sniped Ted Turner, owner of Coca-Cola 600 broadcaster TBS, which turned down a chance to air the U.S. 500. "America's real race is going to be in Charlotte and on our air."
For the next few years, both sides teased race fans about reconciliation. Every few months, particularly during the month of May, rumors would run rampant, but someone -- usually George or Patrick -- would always be kind enough to torpedo hope like a U-boat. At one point, a top-secret goodwill meeting took place between George and Penske, who invited NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr. to sit in. France listened to both sides, recognized the impasse, and offered a simple conclusion.
"He has the biggest race," France said as he pointed to George and then shifted his gaze to Penske, "and you're going to lose."
Flirting with disaster
As usual, Bill Jr. was right well, sort of. Eventually Champ Car gave up trying to compete with Indy during Memorial Day weekend and opened the door for once-stalwart CART loyalists Penske, Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal to return to Indianapolis. Eventually, each of those teams became full-time IRL operations and not surprisingly began to dominate George's merry band of underfunded loyalists such as A.J. Foyt and Galles Racing.
But no matter who was in charge or how thin the ranks became on the Champ Car side, the animosity remained. Eventual leaders (and team owners) Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe have purposely crossed orbits with George on numerous occasions, including this week's latest round of talks, but like their predecessors, always managed to find some excuse to break them off. They've blamed George, logistics, economics and even a since-fired sportswriter from the Indianapolis Star.
Through it all, Champ Car and the IRL have played their own personal game of Stratego, a series of charges and withdrawals from various racetracks around the country. In 1995, it may have seemed like playing with house money. Now, George's pockets have proved deeper than those of Champ Car, and impending bankruptcy has forced the league to admit defeat. Just as France predicted, the side with the biggest card in the deck has won.
But after so many years of talking smack, hope and nonsense, the billionaire boys club left its core audience hanging and left the door cracked open way too long. And while the two bullies were busy wasting time fighting round after endless round over the girl, France snuck in and married her.
Run over by a taxi cab
Since 1996, NASCAR has scooped up new markets and new drivers disenfranchised by the open-wheel ego sniping. A rash of new tracks built for hosting both open wheel and stock cars -- California, Homestead-Miami, Texas, Gateway, Nashville, Kentucky, Kansas, Chicagoland -- have all settled into lives as NASCAR-first facilities.
The split even allowed stock cars to overrun the one place that they were never even allowed to visit: the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Though the track refuses to release specific attendance numbers, a simple eyeballing of Speedway, Ind., in May during the 500 and then again in August for the Allstate 400 reveals which series now owns the Brickyard. The one with the fenders.
"We host the Indy Cars," said one track president, "but we pay the bills with NASCAR."
Stewart delivered on his Indy promise, winning the '97 IRL title, and then promptly bolted for Joe Gibbs Racing. Three Indy 500 champions were in the field for Sunday's Daytona 500 (Juan Pablo Montoya, Sam Hornish, Dario Franchitti), including the defending league and 500 champion, while another missed the field (Jacques Villeneuve) and its arguably best-known star (Helio Castroneves) was sitting in Roger Penske's skybox watching Newman win.
Newman and Stewart weren't the only former USAC champs in the 500. Kasey Kahne and J.J. Yeley also bypassed the open-wheel world for stock cars, as have an ever-increasing number of mechanics, engineers, owners, and yes, sponsors.
"I think a lot of open-wheel owners were able to ignore NASCAR for so long because there was plenty of money to go around," admitted former CART and Sprint Cup owner Cal Wells. "But the split created a lot of confusion among consumers and that did not go unnoticed by sponsors. Eventually they had to go where the fans went, and the fans were going to stock car racing."
That drain on the open-wheel economy has slowly transformed the IRL into the monster that it once looked to destroy. A league dominated by foreign-born drivers, most backed by large checkbooks, running on an ever-increasing number of road courses and international tracks. Meanwhile, the Jeff Gordons of the world are once again falling through the cracks and headed down the stock car path.
"There was a spirit about those early days of the IRL," said Jim Guthrie, who won at Phoenix in 1997 in a car he bought with his own money after taking out a second mortgage on his house, winning rookie of the year and earning enough money not to lose his home. "A guy like me could earn his dues and earn a spot in the Indy 500. I couldn't do that now. Somewhere that spirit got lost."
Was it worth it?
Guthrie's talking about that spirit of survival of the fastest. The idea of bringing your car to Indianapolis in May, going as fast as you can go, and hopefully making the field of the 33 best drivers in the United States.
A dozen years after the Press Release Heard 'Round the Paddock, a proclamation that hoped to revitalize that spirit, where is American open-wheel racing? It's taking place in front of smaller audiences, attracting fewer drivers, and reduced to serve the humiliating role of being a minor league affiliate that feeds talent to Formula One and NASCAR, leagues it once dominated on American soil.
Had a merger taken place in the late 1990s, before Unser and Andretti were over the hill, before Rahal had retired, and before the Ryan Newmans of the world had already walked out the door, then, yes, it would have been headline news with much rejoicing throughout the motorsports community. What we've ended up with is a Band-Aid slapped onto a wound that's needed major surgery for more than decade.
Too little, too late.
"I think we are all better off if American open-wheel racing is healthy," added Champ Car, IRL and NASCAR veteran Robby Gordon, perhaps the last real crossover star of his generation. "But there's been so much mismanagement of the whole situation and it has gone on so long that I don't know if the damage can ever be totally fixed."
That's what civil war does. It destroys. The longer it goes on, the more irreparable the damage becomes. And 12 years is a mighty long time.
Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at email@example.com.