CART & IRL - To Unify...Don’t Unify

 by Mark Cipolloni
June 2, 1999
There really is a way to get CART back to the Indy 500,
and it’s easier than you think!

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CART owners and management have been banging their heads against the wall for two years trying to convince Tony George to unify Indy Car racing into one series. It is quite evident that Tony does not want to make any compromises that would be necessary to bring CART and the IRL together under one roof. He believes that the IRL NASCAR-type formula works – all ovals, able to race on high banked tracks, less innovation, lower cost, no engine leases, and equipment available to everyone. More of an opportunity for the little guy. One only has to look at the full house at the Indianapolis Motor speedway on Sunday to see why he believes he is on the right path. As long as the IRL has some hope of survival, Tony George will stay the course he has set. One has to admire him for his tenacity.

Further complicating matters for a combined series are:

  1. CART teams are well funded, IRL teams for the most part, are not. In the long run would IRL teams be competitive enough to stay in existence against the money CART teams could throw at their cars in a unified series? No one wants to put him or herself out of a job. A unified series would probably result in higher costs for the already poorly funded IRL teams. Would this mean instant unemployment for many folks working in the IRL today? Ditto for the people who work directly for CART and the IRL. Would there be positions in a unified series for everyone? Probably not.

  2. A combined series would see almost 50 cars and drivers at each race battling for 28 or so open positions. A lot of them would not qualify and pack up and head home early. Without the exposure the race gives their sponsors, a few DNQ’s would quickly see them heading elsewhere with their marketing/advertising dollars.

  3. CART is now a public company. Who would own the new ‘combined’ Indy Car series?

  4. CART owners started CART. Would they be willing to give up control to say, Tony George, some independent party, or even dare I say, NASCAR? Probably not!

  5. All four CART engine manufacturers, Ford, Honda, Mercedes and Toyota are an immense help to the sport. They don’t want to give away their secrets by selling their engines to anyone. They favor the current CART formula of engine leases whereby the manufacturer seals the engine and does all the rebuilds. Would they be willing to change? Probably not!

  6. CART races in the USA, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Australia, and soon to be Germany or Mexico (or both). Tony George feels Indy Car racing is as American as apple pie and should stay that way. CART sponsors like the exposure they get from the overseas events and by racing overseas CART builds a fan base for its television broadcasts. Would CART be willing to eliminate those races? Would IRL teams be able to afford going to an overseas venue? Probably not!

  7. CART races on street and road courses as well as ovals. Many IRL teams and drivers are not accustomed to racing on streets and road courses. It would be understandable if they were a bit apprehensive about being competitive at such venues. In addition, the IRL transmissions, being a low cost unit, were not designed to withstand the abuse they would need to endure on a road or street course. Champ Car transmissions are exquisite pieces of engineering technology, but they cost a lot to purchase and maintain.

  8. CART has FedEx and the IRL has Pep Boys as series sponsors. Would one be willing to take a backseat to the other? Probably not!

  9. CART has a 21 race series (including Hawaii, and soon to be 22 with Germany or Mexico). Sure some are probably expendable, but 18 or so are very healthy. If one were to add in the IRL’s races, the combined series would be racing around 30 times per year. Add in testing time, holidays, vacations and the Indy 500 prep and practice time, and one could see how quickly the Indy Car calendar starts to resemble NASCAR, very full. Indy Cars cost too much for most teams to afford a 30-race schedule, and because they are higher-tech than NASCAR Winston Cup cars, they do require more off-season testing.

  10. CART has a lot of road racing fans. Do they want to see an all-oval series? And vice-versa for the hard-core oval fans. Would they want to see street racing events? Probably not!

When one closely examines the facts, one quickly comes to the conclusion that a unified Indy Car series, although desirable, would be next to impossible to achieve. So until CART and the IRL either run each other into the ground or one collapses, a unification is unlikely. To some, including most fans, that is a sad analogy. However, there is a solution for getting CART back to Indy, which is all most Indy Car fans want, and it doesn’t require either side to compromise. The answer was/is staring CART right in their face, it only requires them to open their eyes.

A Proposed Solution to Get CART Back to Indy

As long as both sides want to have their cake and eat it too, a CART-IRL unification is probably not going to happen, and neither side is hurting enough to compromise at this point, and probably won’t be in the foreseeable future. Since Tony George and the IRL have dropped the 25/8 rule they have openly stated that anyone can try to qualify for the Indy 500 as long as they bring a car that meets the IRL specifications. For CART teams that would mean purchasing and testing another type of car and engine, and try to cherry pick that one race every year. Many CART teams could not afford the added expense to do this, even though IRL cars do cost less.

In addition, as good as the CART teams are, and even if they could afford to, if they were to only race once per year with IRL equipment they would be at a severe disadvantage and they know it. That is why most CART teams haven’t tried, and after Robbie Gordon and John Menard tried this year and failed to get their car up to speed (Gordon ended up qualifying Greg Ray’s backup car), it is unlikely any would risk possible embarrassment in the future. To be competitive you must race the equipment throughout the season and learn how to set it up and maintain it.

CART has two ladder series, neither of which are thriving, but both of which have rules similar to the IRL in that costs are contained and equipment is pretty much equal for everyone. Many folks have stated that the Indy Lights and Formula Atlantic series are somewhat redundant in that drivers have shown they could move up to Champ Cars directly from either one.

Many NASCAR teams also have Busch Grand National teams. The Busch and Truck series are a good training ground for the upper-level Winston Cup series. Keep that thought for a moment as you read on.

As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat them, join them. Here is what I propose:

  1. CART should keep their current turbocharged, higher-tech formula and not compromise any of their current philosophies or structure. It is a formula that works and works well.

  2. Change the rules and specifications for the Indy Lights series to be identical, word-for word, with the IRL series.

  3. CART teams can either start their own Indy Lights program, or gobble up an existing one. In essence any CART team that so desires, would have an Indy Lights team as a training ground for up and coming drivers, mechanics, engineers, etc. There would also be a more pronounced step in their ladder series from Formula Atlantic to Indy Lights, and not so pronounced a step up to Champ cars, so when a driver moves up to Champ Cars, they are better prepared. But most importantly they would now have personnel who know how to setup IRL-type cars, and come May of each year they would have the equipment necessary to enter their Champ Car drivers in the Indianapolis 500.

  4. CART would award points from the Indy 500 toward the FedEx PPG Cup championship, equal to all their other events. However, since some CART teams might not be able to afford an Indy Lights team and the expense of the Indy 500, the CART championship would be decided by the best 19 of 20 races. In essence, each driver would drop their worst points gathering event, and if the Indy 500 was one event they missed, it would not severely hamper their standing in the final CART Championship points tally.

  5. This would require that CART move the annual Gateway race on Memorial Day weekend to another weekend, so as not to conflict with the Indy 500 weekend.

  6. Existing CART sponsors would probably relish the exposure that comes with the Indy 500 and be willing to cough up some extra dollars. Not only would they get exposure from the Indy 500, their Indy Light cars would have the same paint scheme as their Champ Cars so fans would see their company name or logo that much more. We already see how well this has worked in NASCAR where sponsors participate in Winston Cup and either the Busch or Truck series.

  7. At some of CART’s oval races, current Champ Car drivers can also participate in the weekends Indy Lights race so come May, they too are familiar with the cars, how they handle and how to set them up. Occasionally having some ‘big’ names participate in Indy Light s would be a big shot in the arm for that series. It works in NASCAR. How many fans go to the Busch races to see Mark Martin race? Nuff said.

  8. CART and the IRL would, however, agree on two things. 1) Neither would schedule their events on the same weekend. This would ensure that fans could attend a race without fear of missing another one, and drivers who may want to drive in both series could do so if they could find a ride. Also, ABC/ESPN would not have to concern themselves with race conflicts. 2) Neither series would say anything negative about the other series, so to the average fan, it would look like the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s have at least made some peace, and once a year at Indy, everyone could be one happy family. The Indy 500 would be restored to its former glory and people would no longer be able to say winning the Indy 500 was a fluke.

What the Naysayers Will Say

Of course with every new idea there are always the naysayers who are quick to chime in. Here is some of what the naysayers will ask and what CART’s response should be:

  1. Q. Since IRL cars have many of the same dimensions as Champ Cars, won’t the fans be confused? A. IRL cars, being normally aspirated, sound much different than a Champ Car turbocharged engine and they have a Formula One type air intake behind the drivers head to funnel air into the engines. In addition, IRL rules call for a 180-degree engine crankshaft starting next year so they should sound a lot better than they do now.

  2. Q. IRL cars are more expensive than the existing Indy Lights formula. How will existing Indy Lights teams afford to make the change and how will Champ Car teams find the extra money to have an Indy Lights team too? A. Not all Champ Car teams will be able to afford it the first year or two. Ditto for some existing Indy Lights teams. However, the IRL formula is pretty economical and as suggested above, many current sponsors would probably relish the opportunity for increased exposure and agree to increase levels of funding.

  3. Q. How could the CART teams that are involved in both the Champ Car and Indy Lights series afford to run 20 or more Champ Car races and a possible equal number of Lights races? A. First of all, the Lights schedule would be shorter than the Champ Car schedule, possibly to the tune of only 12 to 14 races per year. Second, we might see some consolidation in the Indy Lights series where a Champ Car team may buy out a less financed Indy Lights team that can’t go it alone. All in all you are probably looking at budgets for Indy Lights teams approaching that of some current IRL teams. Third, we may see some new sponsor dollars pumped into CART once they see the opportunity to be in the Indy 500.

  4. Q. For Light teams that are owned by a Champ Car team, what happens to the ‘regular’ Indy Lights drivers when their Champ Car counterpart wants to race in that weekends Indy Lights race? Won’t they be without a ride that weekend? A. Possibly, but more likely what we will see is an extra car added for those events. In addition, CART might impose say a race limit, whereby Champ Car drivers who are active in the Champ Car series would only be allowed to race in 3 or 4 Lights races per year (plus the Indy 500). This would enable them to be familiar enough with the equipment come May of each year where they would be going head-to-head with the IRL regulars on their home turf.

  5. Q. Won’t the current CART Champ Car engine manufactures object to a team running an engine different from theirs, especially in the Indy 500? A. They may, and rightfully so, since they too would want the exposure that comes with the Indy 500. However. they don’t now when some current Champ Car teams run Buick engines in the Lights cars they run.

    Robbie Gordon uses Toyota engines in CART this year, but used an Aurora at Indy. Rather than complain vehemently, Toyota took advantage of the situation by having their name on Robbie’s uniform, and equipment. With a little ingenuity, CART engine manufacturers could find a way to get exposure at Indy even though one of their regular Champ Car drivers was using a different engine in the race. For example, Ford could run commercials during the Indy 500-race broadcast about Michael Andretti using Ford engines on the Champ Car circuit. Most TV viewers would not even realize he was racing with a different engine for that one race. Mercedes could have hospitality events at Indy, with their cars on display and their Champ Car drivers signing autographs. There are many other ways, it just requires them to think outside the box.

  6. Q. If this proposal were ever to pan out, a lot more than 33 drivers will be attempting to qualify for the Indy 500. Won’t a lot of folks not qualify? A. Possibly, but that scenario can happen today. There is no limit to how many cars can enter the Indy 500.

  7. Q. Will the current IRL transmissions be reliable enough for the road race events? A. Not the current ones, but next year the IRL will be using a new and approved transmission, one that with a little work, should endure the stress requirements of road courses. If not, CART could always use a different transmission and revert to the IRL transmission for the Indy 500 only.

  8. Q. Since they will be running identical equipment, could IRL teams participate in some Indy Lights races, and vice-versa? A. Yes, and wouldn’t it be terrific if some current IRL drivers took the opportunity to drive on street and road courses on occasion as a means of training, should they someday they want to move up to the Champ Car series? And would it not be good to see some Indy Lights drivers tackle the high-banked IRL tracks on occasion?

So there you have it folks, CART can get back to the Indy 500, and both CART and the IRL would not have to compromise any of their existing philosophies, drop any of their existing races, or go through all the hassles of unification. CART can move forward with the proposed 1.8 liter highly turbocharged engine formula for Champ cars, one that they have been procrastinating on for so long in hopes of a reunification with the IRL. In addition, CART can continue to satisfy both oval and road racing fans, and continue to grow their series both nationally and internationally. CART can maintain their high-tech, state-of-the-art, faster, more powerful formula for the Champ Car series, and the IRL can do likewise with their series. But come May of each year, Indy car fans can watch the best drivers from both the IRL and CART compete for the granddaddy of all races, the Indy 500. It may be in IRL-spec cars with IRL approved engines, but to most fans and Champ Car drivers it would not matter, the Indy 500 is too special to miss. And just think, open-wheel fans would still get to enjoy 30 plus races each year, something that would not be possible in a unified series.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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