American open-wheel racing held hostage: Year 13
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.
10. A.J. Foyt
A.J. Foyt's name is practically synonymous with Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His name is also inexorably tied to the open-wheel split. 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. More at ESPN.com