Thursday, February 28, 2008

Rotten apples (Part 2)

Interestingly while Formula 1 was going thru its own turmoil in the early 1980’s, a similar fate had occurred in American Open Wheel Racing, with the birth of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) which had broken away from the previous sanctioning body, the United States Auto Club (USAC) which had controlled Championship Car along with the “Crown Jewell, ” known as the Indianapolis 500 since the early 1950’s.

Tony Hulman, who bought the decrepit Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945 from Eddie Rickenbacker, rejuvenated the Speedway and saw it thru its glory days, prior to passing away just days after AJ Foyt set history by becoming the first four time Indy 500 winner in 1977.

Hulman’s grandson, Anton Hulman George, first tried his hand at becoming a racing driver, contesting the 1989 Indy Lights championship for AJ Foyt with Copenhagen sponsorship. George finished 12th overall, before being inserted as the President and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway upon Joe Cloutier’s death in 1989.

Tony then set about a course to totally transform the Speedway when it was announced that NASCAR would be holding its inaugural Brickyard 400 race in 1994. Subsequently George would build an infield road course to host the return of Formula 1 to the United States in 2000, which has now been replaced by the inaugural running of MOTO GP in 2008.

Tony was also determined to change the face of Open Wheel racing, as the IMS was only holding one event per year, the Indy 500 which was run in conjunction with the CART/PPG Championship,

Seeking a larger piece of the pie, in late 1991 George proposed to the 24 member board of CART a newly restructured alliance between CART and Indy, which would consolidate its board down to a total of seven members with Goodyear’s Leo Mehl as the new President. The CART board politely told George they’d have their current Chairman, A. William Stokkan get back to him. CART then proposed that George could have his way, but that he and Mehl would not be granted any voting rights. Thus Tony duly resigned from CART’s board and went back to Indiana determined to form his own racing series. In 1994 the Indy Racing League was created, spending two years forming the all Oval Track series,

In 1996 the inaugural race of the IRL was run at Disneyworld’s Florida facility, won by Buzz Calkins, with the Indy Racing League also sanctioning that year’s Indy 500, Recall this was the year of Tony George’s infamous 25-8 rule, which reserved the Speedway’s first 25 places for IRL contestants only, while CART interlopers had the option to fight for the remaining eight grid positions. CART elected to boycott that year’s Indy 500 and held its own race on the same day, the US 500, at Michigan International Speedway.

Thus began the war of words as CART touted that while Indy had the cars, they had all of the stars… Which unfortunately backfired on them, as their was a multi-car pile-up on the US 500’s very first lap, which saw a lengthy delay of the race in order to clean the track and reset the grid. The race was restarted an hour later and Jimmy Vasser won the race in his spare chassis for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

In 2000, Chip Ganassi broke ranks and became the first major CART team owner to participate in the Indianapolis 500, as Juan Pablo Montoya would win the event, while the first six places were filled by CART drivers. Ganassi’s success caused Roger Penske to finally decide his long awaited return was now necessary, although his car won the 2001 race, it wasn’t allowed to sport any “BAD HABIT” (Marlboro) decals, as it had been previously agreed to that Tobacco sponsorship could only be run in one major series per entrant. Thus with the insistence of millions of Marlboro dinero, The Captain, fired the next salvo in the CART-IRL Split by jumping ship and moving to the Indy Racing League for 2002 in order to run full Marlboro livery at that year’s “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Meanwhile, CART was in serious financial trouble after the final CART CEO Chris Pook burned thru a $100 million bank account to entice the remaining CART teams to stay loyal to the series. Yet, in 2003 Chip Ganassi and Andretti-Green Racing, along with two thirds of the remaining engine manufacturer’s announced their plans to abandon CART in favour of the IRL. CART then becoming insolvent, went into bankruptcy before being bought out by Kevin Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi.

In 2004, just weeks prior to the start of the newly renamed Champ Car World Series, Bobby Rahal and Adrian Fernandez announced that they’d also jump ship and join the IRL, thus leaving Champ Car with just three loyal teams; Forsythe, Newman/Haas and Walker Motorsports.

Two of the longest running teams participating in Champ Car have been Carl Haas & Paul Newman and Derrick Walker. Newman/Haas began their multi-championship operation in 1983, as PL Newman has always been vehemently opposed to Tony George’s rival Oval racing series.

Team owner Derrick Walker has a long and storied career in CART, first being involved with Roger Penske in Formula 1 while following John Watson to the team, ultimately rising to team manager for Penske prior to taking over the Porsche Indy Car effort in 1988 and finally starting his own team in 1991 with driver Willy T. Ribbs.

Gerald Forsythe has been a series regular since contesting CART in 1983 as Forsythe Racing with rookie driver Teo Fabi, before selling his team in 1985. Gerry returned to racing with Barry Green, forming Forsythe/Green Racing which graduated into CART in 1994 with a single car entry for Jacques Villeneuve. The following year the two went their separate ways, with Green forming what would become known as Team Kool Green before ultimately merging with Michael Andretti. Meanwhile Forsythe formed his own operation with Combustion Engineering/Indeck sponsorship for Teo Fabi.

I’ve mentioned the following teams: Forsythe, Fernandez, Ganassi, Newman/Haas, Penske, Rahal/Truesports and Walker since these teams along with Dale Coyne, Barry Green and Pat Patrick formed the nucleus of the CART/PPG World Series during its heydays. (1980-2000)

Meanwhile George’s original vision for his all Oval Track series was to have a lower costing series that would comprise of American drivers. Yet, this formula hasn’t worked as there’s been a steady influx of paying foreign drivers, while in 2005 George changed his business model by including temporary street circuits and permanent road courses into the mix as the IRL effectively became “CART-Lite.” And while Tony digs into his pockets every May to ensure a field of just 33 entries for his Family Jewell, the Indy 500, Champ Car has remained on life support as they constantly struggle to field 17 cars, have an abysmal television package and the reigning Champ Car Atlantics champion has forgone his $2 million sponsorship prize in favour of going to the Indy Pro Series with a multi-year contract from Andretti Green Racing…