Commentary

American open-wheel racing held hostage: Year 13

It's too late to worry about how the American open-wheel split developed. Heading into a 13th season with no end in sight, it is about time to rank the 11 men most responsible for seeing to it that the split hasn't ended, writes John Oreovicz.

Updated: January 4, 2008, 4:21 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

Trying to figure out who started the American open-wheel racing war -- Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George or the collective group of CART team owners -- is like debating whether the chicken or the egg came first. With the calendar now reading 2008, it's also a pointless exercise.

However, as The Split (which is now defined as the Champ Car World Series versus the Indy Racing League) heads into its unlucky 13th year, perhaps it is worth debating just exactly who is responsible for prolonging the ridiculous power struggle that has crippled this form of motorsport. Even after all these years, there is certainly plenty of blame to spread around.

A litany of individuals -- most notably Mario Andretti -- and a handful of powerful international corporations ranging from Ford, Toyota and Honda to Bridgestone/Firestone have tried their utmost to put a stop to the madness that has driven fans, sponsors, manufacturers and finally drivers to NASCAR. Yet even with interest and participation in the IndyCar Series and the Champ Car World Series at or near an all-time low, leaders from both leagues blindly claim all is well.

Here's a New Year's message to George and to Champ Car leaders Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven: Things are not in any way near OK. When the Indianapolis 500 struggles every year to put together 33 entries -- much less 33 qualifiers -- and Champ Car currently stands without a single confirmed driver/team combination, it makes everyone involved in American open-wheel racing look like an idiot.

With that cheery introduction out of the way, here is this idiot's opinion about who needs to wake up and smell the ethanol fumes before it's too late to save a century-old form of auto racing. In honor of the historic number of rows that have comprised the Indianapolis 500 field for more than seven decades, the list is narrowed down to 11 individuals -- though rest assured, there are plenty more people who bear some responsibility for the continuing death spiral of American open-wheel racing.

If any or all of these men could suddenly find the courage and/or wisdom to try to bring Champ Car and the IRL together, rather than keeping them apart for their own selfish reasons, American open-wheel racing would have a much stronger chance of returning to the level of respectability it enjoyed for so many years.

So without any further ado, here are the culprits …

11. Kevin Kalkhoven
As the public leader of the Champ Car World Series, you might expect Kalkhoven to be a lot higher up this list. Yet the truth is Kalkhoven has been open to the concept of a partnership with the IRL. He has met on several occasions with George, and he has been more than willing to listen to concerned outside parties. But on the few occasions when the two groups were reportedly close to making significant progress toward a merger, talks broke down. And when there is a breakdown, fault cannot be directed completely toward one side.
[+] EnlargeAJ Foyt
Mark Scheuern/Icon SMIA.J. Foyt's name is practically synonymous with Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His name is also inexorably tied to the open-wheel split.

10. A.J. Foyt
As the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, this legendary racer will forever be intrinsically linked to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Foyt had an uncannily close relationship with longtime IMS owner Tony Hulman, and indeed, he is current IMS boss George's godfather. It's easy to forget that in the early days of the first American open-wheel split (USAC versus CART, circa 1978-81) Foyt started out on the CART side before returning to the USAC (nee IMS) fold. He was one of several "advisors" who encouraged George to start the IRL, and in that series' early days he was one of the few credible team owners. Although his team is nowhere near capable of winning a race these days, Foyt's presence continues to help the IRL with car count -- an increasingly important issue.

9. John Cooper
The mystery man of this list. A key United States Auto Club executive since the group's formation in 1956, Cooper was a contemporary of Hulman's. He was instrumental in creating -- and abolishing -- the short-lived Championship Racing League truce between USAC and CART in 1980-81. Cooper then worked for International Speedway Corporation (owned by NASCAR's France family) during 1987-1994 and served on that company's board of directors through 2003. He remains an advisory director for ISC and was perfectly placed to observe the closer-than-this relationship between NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway. When George was handed the reins of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1990, Cooper strongly urged him to take control of American open-wheel racing by any means necessary, and he remains a close friend and advisor to the Hulman-George family.

8. Bernie Ecclestone
In the early '90s when former Formula One champions Nigel Mansell and Emerson Fittipaldi were dominating CART, the Champ Car series began to rival (and even threaten) F1 on the world stage. Ecclestone's response was to help cajole George into starting up the IRL as an all-oval series while at the same time convincing him to spend an estimated $35 million on an infield road course at IMS, which would host the revived United States Grand Prix starting in 2000. We all know now how that turned out -- after taking George's money on an exponentially increasing basis for seven years, Ecclestone sold Indy's spot on the F1 calendar to the highest-bidding Middle Eastern government. If anything positive came out of Indy's F1 experiment, it was that George now recognizes the appeal that road racing holds for U.S. open-wheel fans -- road races now make up almost a third of the IndyCar schedule.

7. Chip Ganassi
Ganassi was the first member of a strongly unified group of CART team owners to break ranks and return to the Indianapolis 500. After Juan Pablo Montoya simply obliterated the inferior IRL competition to win the 2000 edition of the Memorial Day Classic, it wasn't a surprise that Ganassi Racing soon became a full-time IndyCar Series entrant; he pulled out of Champ Car racing altogether after the 2002 season. Ganassi's switch opened the floodgates, and The Chipster's team was soon trailed out of CART by Penske Racing, Team Green, Team Rahal and Fernandez Racing.
[+] EnlargeBobby Rahal
Joe Robbins/US PresswireBobby Rahal was as deeply imbedded in CART -- now the Champ Car World Series -- as any driver or owner, but made the switch to the Indy Racing League in 2004.

6. Bobby Rahal
Rahal won the 1986 Indy 500 when the race was a part of the CART championship, and he was one of the most successful drivers of the CART era with 24 race wins and three season championships from 1986 to 1992. After transitioning into team ownership during the last seven years of his driving career, Rahal was a key policy-shaper for CART -- he even briefly served as the series' interim CEO in 2000. That's what made it such a shock when his team made an 11th-hour switch to the IRL less than a month before the start of the 2004 season -- a move that, in conjunction with Fernandez Racing's similarly-timed about-face, seemed designed to put the Champ Car World Series out of business as it emerged from CART's bankruptcy.

5. Bill France Jr.
Up until the mid-'90s, CART's open-wheel racing matched 90 percent of NASCAR's sponsorship and television ratings. Now Champ Car and the IRL combined are lucky to approach 10 percent of the stock car juggernaut. And you can be certain that the late, lamented NASCAR boss Bill France Jr. played a big role in open-wheel racing's rapid decline. After decades of resisting France's overtures, the Hulman-George family relented and created a NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There is little doubt that France convinced George that his family and IMS should rule over open-wheel racing the way the Frances (and their Daytona-based empire) have lorded over stock car racing for more than 50 years. Although the Brickyard 400 has rarely been an artistic success as an auto race, it is immensely popular with fans. And those hundreds of thousands of additional annual IMS ticket sales basically paid for the IRL.

4. Gerald Forsythe
Forsythe speaks softly (if at all) but wields considerable clout. In fact, he is the real power -- and money -- behind Champ Car. The suburban Chicago businessman is believed to be a key player responsible for CART's controversial initial public offering in the late 1990s. When his fellow team owners such as Ganassi, Roger Penske and Barry Green sold their shares and moved to the IRL, Forsythe snapped them up -- at a personal loss totaling tens of millions of dollars. Forsythe remains staunchly opposed to creating a working relationship with George and the IndyCar Series.

3. Roger Penske
With 14 Indianapolis 500 wins since 1972, Penske is so closely linked to IMS that it was not a matter of if, but when, he would transfer his open-wheel operation to the IRL. The move came in 2002, and when it happened, it created a domino effect that resulted in two engine suppliers (Toyota and Honda) and three of CART's remaining top teams following suit within two years. Many observes believe that Penske is the real power behind the IRL. Although "The Captain" has obliquely talked for the last two years about the need for American open-wheel racing to function as a single unified series, leaders from Champ Car and the IndyCar Series have not taken action as of yet. How long will Penske continue to allow the value of his inevitable future Indianapolis 500 victories to diminish?

2. Michael Andretti
No driver was more closely linked to CART during the glory years of the 1980s and '90s than Michael Andretti. That is why it was so shocking when he bought into Team Green at the end of 2002 and took the renamed Andretti Green Racing into the IRL. In fact, Andretti was one of the most vocal critics of George and the IndyCar Series for many years. But a man's tune can obviously be changed when the check features enough zeroes before the decimal point. These days, Andretti is loath to even acknowledge his CART career, which resulted in 42 race wins between 1986 and 2002 and a series championship. The sheer transparency of his astounding turnabout made Andretti a hated man among Champ Car fans. It has also resulted in a significant and enduring falling out with his father, the legendary Mario Andretti.

1. Tony George
When you get down to it, one man started the current American open-wheel racing split, and that same one man has the ability to instantly end it. That man is George. Legend has it that when his proposal at an October 1991 CART board meeting to overhaul open-wheel racing was rudely received, George made the decision on the flight home to go to war with the team owners. The Indy Racing League was duly announced in March 1994 and has operated in direct competition with CART/Champ Car since January 1996. Given the fact that the battle is now entering its 13th year, George's decision could arguably be seen as a billion-dollar blunder, such is the extent of open-wheel racing's decline in that period. Now the damage is emphatically done; even if the two feuding groups suddenly and magically reached an agreement to work together, it will take years or even decades for Indy-style racing to rebuild its credibility and fan base. Over the years, George and his family have done many wonderful things for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the city of Indianapolis. But until he discovers a new spirit of cooperation and humility, it's probably too late to alter the legacy he will leave on American open-wheel racing -- the sport his grandfather had a significant role in building into a world-class product.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.