CART vs. IRL, The Hatfields vs. the McCoys

 by Mark Cipolloni
February 6, 2001

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A lot of people bemoan the fact that Indy Car racing has been split up into two series, CART and the IRL.  I used to think that this was bad, but I'm starting to believe that history will show the split was the best thing that could have happened to Indy Car racing.  By now you're probably thinking I got out of bed this morning on the wrong side of bed, fell and hit my head. (The Genesis of the CART/IRL Split - Dan Gurney White Paper).

No, I didn't hit my head, but if CART and the IRL cooperate and play their cards right, they can grow this IRL vs. CART battle into the equivalent of Football's AFC vs. NFC with the Indy 500 as their Super Bowl.

"Oh yeah, you CART rich boy, you think you're better than me?"   "Ha, you IRL guys are always crying.  I'll see you at Indy.  I'll show you."

By default it's sort of turning out that way.  Slowly, more and more of CART's elite teams are looking at entering the Indy 500.  If the trend continues, in a few years you will have the best teams from CART and the best teams from the IRL filling the 33 car grid for the Indy 500.  Hard core IRL fans vehemently oppose CART and hard core CART fans vehemently oppose the IRL.  A meeting of the two sides at Indy every year, if marketed properly, can become an incredible rivalry that will grab the media's and the race fan's attention worldwide.

Probably the biggest reason not to merge the IRL and CART is the number of teams.  50% of the teams would go out of business overnight because the starting grid of every race is limited to around 30 cars. That means 50% of the drivers and 50% of the crew members are out of a job.  Ditto for the track owners.  Not a good idea. Previously I had proposed that the Indy Lights series merge with the IRL to become Indy Car racing's equivalent of NASCAR's Busch series, with Champ Cars being the premier series.  Since egos are not going to allow that to happen, let's keep the two sides separate, and create a little rivalry between CART and the IRL, something Indy Car racing so desperately needs. 

Some will quickly point out that the under funded IRL teams won't be able to compete against the stronger CART teams at Indy.  While that would be the case normally, and yes, the Ganassi Team did pretty much clean house at Indy last year, consider this:

The IRL teams are getting stronger each year.  In addition, the Indy 500 is run with their equipment, so they have an advantage in that they are more familiar with it. The IRL teams specialize in oval track racing, and while CART teams do race on both ovals and road courses, with Indy being an oval, the IRL teams again have a slight advantage because it is their specialty.  In a previous article, I proposed that CART adopt the IRL rules for their new Indy Lights cars.  I still hold that opinion, and with this proposal, that may make even more sense.

The Indy Lights series is suffering from low car count and fan apathy.  Toyota Atlantic drivers have proven they can make the step up to Champ cars directly, just as F3 drivers have shown they can step directly into F1 cars.  Perhaps the Indy Lights step up from Toyota Atlantic cars is not a big enough step.  Perhaps the Indy Lights cars should be IRL spec cars.  Perhaps Champ Car teams should merge with existing Indy Lights teams and campaign both a Champ Car program and an Indy Lights/IRL program, using the teams IRL spec cars to race at Indy each year.

This serves many purposes.  

  1. Indy Lights becomes stronger and the step up from Toyota Atlantics becomes a 'real' step up;

  2. The Champ car teams that would otherwise be buying IRL equipment for one race per year, as is happening now, can now campaign it all year;

  3. When CART teams go to the Indy 500 each year, they will go with equipment they are a little more familiar with;

  4. Indy Lights drivers and crew members will benefit from their close association with the Champ Car part of their team.  When Team Green brought Andretti on this year as a 3rd car in their stable, they discontinued their Lights program and made the crew members part of their Champ Car efforts, which leads us to #6;

  5. Champ car teams will have substitute drivers should one of their Champ Car drivers get injured.  Ditto for crew members;

  6. Some IRL teams may choose to enter some Indy Lights races on off-weekends, and vice-versa.  The cross-pollination would benefit both sides;

  7. The Indy 500 would award points for both series, so drivers who make the 'big' show, will be rewarded for their efforts vs. those that don't.  Right now CART teams entering the Indy 500 get no points for their efforts;

  8. G-Force and Dallara sell more cars, thereby lowering the cost per car to all the teams.  Why design and built a car special just for Indy Lights when you can use one you are already selling to the IRL teams?

  9. The Indy 500 'officially' becomes the Super Bowl of Indy Car racing, whereas now it's becoming that, but without the 'official' title and proper marketing as such;

  10. All the current IRL and CART team members, drivers, and track owners get to keep their jobs, many of which would be lost if a merger were to occur.

  11. And last, but possibly most importantly, neither CART nor the IRL has to give up the control they currently have.  CART can grow its series into an international powerhouse, and the IRL can grow its series into a the USA-based oval track open wheel powerhouse it wants to be.  Honda, Toyota and Ford can continue to design and build state-of-the-art Champ car engines that challenge their engineers, while Nissan and GM can continue to supply engines to the IRL under NASCAR-type technology and cost control rules.  In other words, perhaps a merger is not really needed.

Some will argue that CART's Champ Car engine manufacturers are being left out in this deal.  Yes and no.  They're being left out now anyway.  However, this is a legitimate concern, and one that would have to be dealt with.  One can make a strong argument that Toyota benefited in a very big way from Juan Montoya's win at Indy last year, even though he was driving an Oldsmobile powered car.  Juan was featured heavily in Toyota ads the rest of the year, and people directly associated Juan, the Indy 500, and Toyota without remembering that Olds powered his car at Indy.  So, without spending a dime to produce an IRL engine, Toyota reaped almost as much benefit as if they were in Juan's car at Indy.

Still not convinced?  Suppose the drivers wore their Champ Car engine manufacturers name on their uniform at Indy.  It's already been done.  Robby Gordon comes to mind a few years ago.  The drivers are photographed extensively at Indy during the three weeks they are there.  Many of the photos will show the Toyota name for example  - more exposure.  See the 2001 photos below if you don't believe us.  Oldsmobile's name may be on the car, but I didn't notice it on Juan's car last year, did you?

What name do you notice on each drivers uniform?  Toyota, right?

Still not convinced?  Ilmor is rebuilding and tuning the Olds engines for Penske this year at Indy.  So the Penske team will be running Olds engines built by Ilmor (or Mercedes since they own part of Ilmor).  If Mercedes can do it, is it inconceivable that Ford, Honda and Toyota can someday do it?  This may be stretching the limits a bit, but we are trying to make this thing work so everyone can be happy and Indy Car racing can have a Super Bowl race that both sides endorse.

Another obstacle to overcome is cost.  Current Indy Lights engines go 2,000 miles between rebuilds, whereas IRL engines are something close to 550 miles.  That's nearly 4 times the number of rebuilds.  However, why not use Don Panoz's new V-8 Zytek endurance engine for the Indy Lights races, and the Olds or Nissan engine for the Indy 500.  The new Zytek engine is designed to run in either a 3.5 or 4.0 liter configuration and, being an endurance engine,  will easily go 2,000 miles between rebuilds.  The transmission will need to be different too, because the IRL transmission is not really designed to withstand the stresses of road course racing, which the Lights series does run.  So perhaps, the entire rear engine and transmission assembly could be swapped in and out when using the car at the Indy 500 vs. as an Indy Lights car.  This would require some re-engineering of the cars, but somehow we suspect G-Force and/or Dallara are up to the task.

Perhaps one of NASCAR's biggest boosts in popularity came back in the 1970's when Cale Yarborough and the Allison's crashed each other out of the race on the last lap of the Daytona 500 and then got out of their cars and got into a boxing and wrestling match down on the third turn apron while millions watched on TV. People were talking about it for days.  Or perhaps you remember Richard Petty and David Pearson crashing into each other on the last lap of the Daytona 500 with Pearson just limping across the line for the win.  It's the great rivalry's in sports that people remember - Andretti vs. Foyt, Petty vs., Pearson, Army vs. Navy, the AFC vs. the NFC, the American League vs. the National League.  NASCAR is smart enough to recognize that a little rivalry makes people stand up and take sides. In some cases they go out of their way to foster that rivalry.  It gets sports fans interest.  Every thriving sport has it, especially soccer in Europe and elewhere.  The rivalry's are down right bitter, but the grandstands are packed and the TV ratings are through the roof. 

Indy Car racing needs a hard fought rivalry to spark a keen interest in a sport that so desperately needs it.  Sometimes I think CART and the IRL are almost too politically correct for their own good.  Can the IRL and CART wage a hotly contested Hatfields and McCoys type rivalry with the Indy 500 being their bragging rights?  We think so.  What do you think?

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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