The ill-fated 1996 U.S. 500 and CART-IRL split: ‘I didn’t think we would get to that point’

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·22 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

(Editor’s note: NBC Sports is marking the 25-year anniversary of the eventful 1996 Indy 500 – the first conducted after the IRL-CART split – through an oral history series this week, continuing today with the memories of CART’s ill-fated U.S. 500. Monday: Team owner John Menard recalls an emotional and eventful May 1996. Tuesday: Buddy Lazier on his fairy tale comeback victory in the 1996 Indy 500. Tomorrow: A look at the aftermath.)

INDIANAPOLIS – A massive pileup before the green flag, a wild 500-mile ride from the rear to first place and delivering one of racing’s most memorable one-liners in victory lane.

There was a lot that happened to Jimmy Vasser on May 26, 1996 in the inaugural U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway.

But what stands out for the winner of the only race that went head to head with the Indy 500 was that any of it actually did happen.

“Other than the race, it obviously was a real strange day and a strange month of May to not be in Indy and to have Indy run with a different group,” Vasser, the 1996 CART champion and now a co-owner in the NTT IndyCar Series, recently told NBC Sports. “Personally, I thought it would never come to that. When I’d heard in ’94 that the IRL might be getting formed and there might be some split. And I just couldn’t believe it was coming to that. And there we were.”

105TH INDY 500 INFO: Start times, schedules, TV, stats, historical details about the 2021 race

STARTING LINEUP: The 33-car starting grid for the 2021 Indy 500

The dueling Indy 500-U.S. 500 was the culmination of years of infighting whose roots actually could be traced back decades. There already had been a major fissure in 1979 when Championship Auto Racing Teams was formed by powerful car owners Roger Penske, Dan Gurney and Pat Patrick. But despite pushback from the United States Auto Club to ban teams from the breakaway series from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, CART won legal relief to race in the Indianapolis 500.

An uneasy truce lingered as CART and the Indy 500 grew over the next 15 years, attracting millions in corporate sponsorship, a lineup of international stars and venues and massive crowds of more than 300,000 at Indianapolis 500. CART held a public offering

But the tension spiked again in the 1990s. Tony George, the grandson of Tony Hulman who bought the Brickyard in 1945 and rescued the track from ruin, was put in charge of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and butted heads with CART leadership about the series’ direction.

In 1994, George announced the formation of the Indy Racing League, a new circuit that would compete exclusively on ovals and intended to attract stars from U.S. grassroots series with a lower cost formula. In ’95, the IRL revealed its inaugural season would be the following year, and that 25 of the 33 spots in the 1996 Indy 500 would be held for teams that raced in its first two races at Orlando, Florida, and Phoenix (commonly referred to as “the 25/8 rule”).

US 500 Newman
Newman-Haas co-owner Paul Newman watches from the pits of driver Michael Andretti before the final practice session for the inaugural U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway (Allsport).

CART, which had all the powerhouse teams (Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Newman-Haas Racing, Team Rahal) and all-star drivers (Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Vasser and Alex Zanardi among them), stayed united in staying away from the IRL and the Indy 500. It began an unfortunate and confusing era in which IndyCar was divided into two warring factions.

“The Split” would last 12 seasons and leave many of IndyCar’s biggest stars locked out of the world’s biggest race during the prime of their careers.

“I didn’t think we would get to that point,” Vasser said. “And I didn’t think it would last that long, quite honestly.

“I just couldn’t believe this was really happening. You heard about it and certainly they’re going to figure this out. And they didn’t figure it out, and it happened. And then it took so long to put together.”

NBC Sports recently spoke with some CART principals and drivers involved in the feud and journalists who covered the acrimony. Here is what they recall of what precipitated “The Split” and the U.S. 500-Indy 500 battle that it created:

Andrew Craig, CEO and president of CART from 1994-2000: “The formation of CART was basically something which a group of team owners put together because of their grave dissatisfaction with the way the sport was run by the United States Auto Club. They felt that rules were not properly enforced. They felt the fact the sport was just badly managed. So they formed their own company. But because United States Auto Club was always aligned with Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there was always a bitterness that occurred and my understanding was that in 1991, Tony George approached IndyCar as it was called then and said we’d like to suggest a merger that we could buy the company and so forth and offered a sum of money, which I think was derisory. And basically the teams said go away. And it was at that moment, he decided he was going to go his own way and ultimately form his own series. So fast forward to 1994, I arrive in the company middle of April, and Tony George announces the IRL literally within days of my arrival. That was my arrival present.”

Bruce Martin, longtime journalist covering IndyCar for several national outlets (including NBCSports.com): “Tony went to talk to the CART board of directors in 1990 and wanted the Speedway to be in charge of marketing, competition and the owners would be in charge of other things. All the CART owners basically laughed him out of the room. And the fact they didn’t give Tony George any respect, a lot of people feel the day he left that meeting in Houston was really the beginning of the idea of ‘What if we just took it over ourselves?’ ”

Craig: “Now why did Tony do this? I think it was based on a view, which I think was false, that the teams, the racetracks, the sponsors really did not like IndyCar. That frankly was just not the case. It wasn’t the case at all. But whoever was telling Tony this, they persuaded him that really if Indianapolis Motor Speedway just took command of the whole thing, if the teams, sponsors, drivers all would rush to the speedway as their savior. And of course that’s just not what happened. The teams were very happy racing the series that they owned and without the USAC. The racetracks were deeply suspicious of the idea of the Speedway owning everything. Because if that happened, they saw themselves becoming into little satellites that would just float around the Indy 500 and the whole idea of a championship and each race being an important part of that championship would fade away. And the sponsors were a little bit suspicious of the market power that Indianapolis Motor Speedway had, which is significant. That market power might not work in their best interests.

<em>CART president and CEO Andrew Craig during a Jan. 18, 1996 news conference about the U.S. 500 (Jonathan Dani).</em>
CART president and CEO Andrew Craig during a Jan. 18, 1996 news conference about the U.S. 500 (Jonathan Dani).

“So our first reaction to this announcement was in June at the race in Detroit, we announced long-term contracts with the racetracks. So if proof were needed the tracks weren’t thrilled of the idea of the idea of a series run by the Speedway, that was it. We signed long-term contracts, and that was a very pivotal move from our point of view. During ’94 and ’95 there were various attempts at a reconciliation. The end of ’94, I thought we were going to achieve some form of reconciliation with the Speedway, but that didn’t occur. And then it was during ’95 that Tony George announced this famous 25/8 rule.

“And of course that was just complete anathema to our race teams. This was just completely unacceptable. I was in a slightly difficult position, because I certainly wasn’t going to start coercing the teams. They had to make that decision for themselves. It was an individual choice. And indeed a couple of teams did jump ship, which is fine. But the vast majority stayed on board and said, ‘No, we’re not going to let this happen. We’re not going to go to the Indy 500 on that basis.’ That was an individual decision, I was delighted by the decision obviously.”

Martin: “I think in a lot of ways the people in charge of the IRL underestimated CART in terms of their ability to stick together. These were previously guys who couldn’t agree on where to park motorhomes at street races. People used to complain that CART board meetings weren’t going over important stuff but all these rich guy problems. The thinking was those guys can’t agree on hospitality or motorhomes, how are they going to stick together, especially when Indy’s the big prize? Well, they did.

“I remember covering all that stuff the year before leading up to it, and it must have been what it felt like in Europe in 1938 or 1939 before World War II really starts. And it seemed like every time (the IRL) would announce something, CART would come back with a double-whammy. I went to the CART banquet after the 1995 season, and it wasn’t like you were at a championship celebration, it was like the team owners were preparing for war. They were getting a war chest together, because they were determined that Tony had to capitulate or they weren’t going to Indy.

“I think even at one point, CART floated the idea that what if your group is in charge of ovals, and we’re in charge of street and road courses, and then we have a combined championship. Well, that was under consideration, but then they started to schedule races against each other, and that’s when the gloves came off. I think Tony probably expected them to flinch. I remember him telling me one time, I really can’t understand why all those (CART) teams wouldn’t come over to Indy and pick off the spots that are available. They all argued the 25/8 rule was against the spirit of competition.”

John Oreovicz, longtime racing journalist and author of “Indy Split”: “The whole controversy was about the 25 spots in the Indy 500 that would be held for IRL people. So if the CART people had gone and dominated at Phoenix and Orlando as they likely would have, then you might have had 21 CART guys in those 25 slots, and the people the IRL were trying to protect would have had to do the work for the places left for them. So that’s a factor. Another is the IRL wanted its own unique chassis and engine formula, didn’t get positive response from existing manufacturers, so they pushed off their plans for their own cars for a year until 1997. And the CART owners, being the forward-thinking geniuses that they are, sold their older cars to (IRL) teams for pennies on the dollar. So they gave the IRL the equipment and the opening it needed to get started and play by the rules that it created for the ’96 Indy 500. There’s an argument that if the CART teams had gone on the offensive instead of the defensive that maybe it could have put a stop to this.”

IRL CART U.S. 500
CART drivers pose with the Vanderbilt Cup the day before the inaugural U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway (David Taylor/Allsport).

Craig: “The question became: OK, if we’re not going to go to Indianapolis, what are we going to do? We’ve got sponsors saying they want something else on that weekend. We’ve got staff and people to pay. What can you do to help mitigate a big loss? Not going to the Speedway was a big loss. And then we came up with the idea that OK, we’ll stage an alternative race. And we came up with a plan.

“I talked to Roger Penske, then the owner of Michigan Speedway, a big 2-mile oval and very good track for the event. And he agreed to us paying him for the right to do it. By then, I’d been with the company a couple of years, and its financial situation was significantly improved, so we were able to offer a really attractive prize fund. I wanted for the winner to get $2 million to make this a really big race. The teams actually didn’t want that. They just wanted to get the thing done. We had a $1 million prize with the other money spent further down the field, which is fine. It was a fragile situation, and I didn’t want to disrupt the whole thing on that one issue. So that was it. So we announced our race at the end of ’95.

“But the problem was we didn’t have a TV company carrying the race. I guess the other networks thought if they want to get the Indy 500 rights, they’re not going to ingratiate themselves with the Speedway if they’re helping us. So that was a real issue. And to my surprise and delight, just before the Christmas break in 1995, who should call me but Steve Bornstein and Howard Katz from ESPN. They were our TV partners for all our other races. They’d been a little reluctant, but they called and said we’ll do it. So to my great pleasure, we had a broadcaster. That was certainly appreciated. Just without TV, the whole thing would have been a complete fiasco.”

IRL CART U.S. 500
The front row of Bryan Herta, Adrian Fernandez and Jimmy Vasser after May 11 qualifying for the U.S. 500 (David Taylor /Allsport).

The U.S. 500 was set for the same date as the Indy 500 and was intended to parallel the Greatest Spectacle in Racing with the same winner’s prize ($1 million) and a similar qualifying format with a $100,000 pole award that was held on a prior weekend to the main event. Throughout May 1996, the CART and IRL sides sniped while being separated by more than 200 miles.

Vasser: “Yeah, we were in the middle of it, right? We were the ones that weren’t in Indy. In my case, I was leading the championship, so people were always asking me about it. So it’s hard to just say ‘Oh, no comment.’ But I didn’t feel pissed. I wasn’t mad. We were just getting on with the job. We were racing CART, and with our team owners, we were lucky to have jobs. And this was the decision for the owners and the race teams. I worked for Chip (Ganassi), and we all wished we were at Indy, no doubt about it. It almost was like the schoolyard game, and the kids took the ball, and we didn’t get to play.”

<em>Adrian Fernandez before qualifying second for the U.S. 500 (Darrell Ingham/Allsport).</em>
Adrian Fernandez before qualifying second for the U.S. 500 (Darrell Ingham/Allsport).

Adrian Fernandez, an 11-time IndyCar winner: “Just mixed feelings. Because the U.S. 500 meant that we were separating ourselves from the Indy 500, and that was sad. It was sad to see the separation. I’d just became a team owner at that time when everything was happening, and I could see that nobody was pulling in the same direction. And it was just very sad to see that nobody thought that such a series with such success could separate the way that it happened. Really the U.S. 500 was like the beginning of something bad for IndyCar in that respect. I was not happy that we were so divided. I wanted to race, and it was good, but I really missed racing in the Indy 500.”

Scott Pruett, two-time CART winner: “It’s hard to believe that much time has gone by. It was a very interesting time. You really have to take a step back to ’95-96 because that was the transition point for that separation. It was incredibly unfortunate for all, especially as we can look back with a clear view. But at the time, the owners and Tony George, there was this tension and a lot of egos, and a lot of belief that each was strong enough to do what it wanted to do moving forward. And for us as a drivers and the mechanics and so on who were just employees contracted to these teams, we didn’t have a voice. We were in a position where we followed our contract with teams and sponsors, whether that was to continue going to the Indy 500, or whether it was the separation, which is the direction I ended up going with my team owner, Pat Patrick.

“You hear the rumors, but you didn’t know what was going on behind closed doors, nor did anyone want to share what was going on behind closed doors. We never knew. We only guessed at what took place. As we moved forward, we focused on that next opportunity as drivers getting that ability to continue to do what we love to do racing Indy cars. Looking back, and this is 20/20 hindsight of should have, could have, would have, I think we all can agree that I don’t think that (the IRL-CART split) was a very good decision with the direction that IndyCar was and where it ended up. Now they’re on such a great trajectory, it was just unfortunate we had to have that very big pothole in the road.”

CART marketed the U.S. 500 as “The Stars and Cars” of IndyCar in an effort to blunt the aura and history of the Indy 500 by highlighting that its most well-known drivers and teams were in Michigan. Meanwhile, 17 rookies were starting the Indy 500 amid predictions of a wreckfest at the Brickyard.

But the outcomes couldn’t have been more different.

Aside from a violent wreck on the last lap (and lots of mechanical attrition), the Indy 500 was a relatively clean race with a fairy tale ending as Buddy Lazier won barely two months after breaking his back. That was juxtaposed with a nightmarish start in Michigan as 13 cars crashed while coming to the green before a crowd of 120,000. Vasser, the pole-sitter, collided with Fernandez on the front row of a three-abreast start (just like Indy). It took an hour to restart the race as CART allowed drivers to keep their original spots in backup cars.

It was the lowlight of a bizarre month that had started with snow flurries in on the May 10-11 qualifying weekend.

IRL CART U.S. 500
Jimmy Vasser hoists the Vanderbilt Cup after winning the 1996 U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway (Chris Wilkins/AFP via Getty Images).

Vasser: “It was freezing. But it was $100,000 just like Indy was for the pole. It was a big deal, and they packed that place. It was packed. I don’t know if they thought it was going to stay a big deal, the U.S. 500. But I guess at that point, nobody really knew.”

Craig (who has lived in Michigan since the mid-1990s): “(The qualifying weather) was miserable! It was quite depressing driving home that night, and it was snowing like crazy. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. But Michigan in May, that can happen. I went home that night feeling oh, I wish it wasn’t snowing. I didn’t go home saying, ‘Yeah, we’re ready to go!’ It was, ‘Oh, it’s snowing. What’s next?’

“As well as the money, we wanted this race to be a statement. So we acquired the rights for the family to the Vanderbilt Cup, which is this famous racing trophy from back in the 1920s. We re-created a replica of the Cup for the race, and it was just huge, massive. So we had that for the race. Everything was looking good. We get to race day. We’ve got television, we’ve got a great prize fund. The grandstands are pretty full. Life’s good. And then the race starts. Or doesn’t start. And I retreat to my motorhome (laughs).

Vasser: “Obviously, everyone remembers the start. It was a disaster. We were going to go three wide, which is easy to do. I’m on the pole, and so everybody kind of goes off of me, Fernandez really was crowding our car on my right rear. He hit me, and I came straight across the front of the field, and it was a disaster.”

Fernandez: “It’s one of those things. I was in the middle in the front row. Jimmy was on the inside on the pole, and Bryan (Herta) was on the outside. You don’t start the races three wide that often. That’s one thing. The other thing is that in Indianapolis, there is a lot of talk about the start and the spacing. Here it was not much about it. And I think the three of us were more looking ahead of us for the start because you’re just waiting for the green flag. I think we just got distracted a little bit, and that’s how we got together.

Vasser: “I don’t really recall much discussion about the start and how are we going to do this, it’s a big deal. We’re all professionals. We can go three wide in the race at much higher speeds. I don’t really recall much discussion about who needs to be where. I think (CART steward) Wally Dallenbach would just assume that we could handle it. And it happened.”

Craig: “It’s been suggested this was hubris on our side. And actually the thing that’s forgotten there is we’d done exactly the same thing the year before. And the reason we did it the year before is because (Michigan track president) Gene Haskett said hey this is attractive and an interesting thing, and this would help him sell tickets. So sure we’ll do it. And it was just fine the year before.

Vasser: “I don’t think it was because of the three-wide. There’s plenty of room. It’s actually a wider track than Indy. It just happened. I believe looking at it, that we all could have spaced out a little more, but I’m on the pole, and they’re supposed to go off of me, and Adrian had a lot more room to go to the right to be better spaced between myself and Herta, and he hit my right rear and came straight across. I don’t know if he was looking in his mirror. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t think it was the three wide that was the culprit of that. It was just an unfortunate occurrence.”

IRL CART U.S. 500
Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil chat during the delay after the crash before the start of the U.S. 500 (Chris Wilkins/AFP via Getty Images).

Craig: “As to what caused the accident, I really don’t know, quite frankly. At the time it was very hard to know who’d done what to whom, but it was a typical example of concertina, basically, where one car succeeded in picking up another car, which picked up another car and so forth. I was standing on the pit lane at that moment and decided to go back to my motorhome and watch the ensuing events on television.”

Fernandez: “And it was just a shame. More a shame for me was I the only driver that could not restart the race. And I was so mad with (car owner) Steve Horne and my team. My spare car was getting prepared for the next race, and they took everything from that, so I was so mad with him. I was the only driver (who didn’t restart). And we were so competitive.”

Craig: “Just disappointment. Because it just changed the conversation. The story was we crashed at the beginning and the IRL also had a very serious crash at the end of their race. That became the story. A tale of two crashes. That was very unfortunate. There’s no question we put a great team of drivers and race teams on the racetrack and then just had this really unfortunate incident.”

Vasser: I don’t remember sitting around crying in our beer over it, but it was a bit of an embarrassment. There’s no doubt about it. It’s just unfortunate that it happened. But you push on. We got the race in, and we won the race. Chip was happy, so when Chip’s happy, everybody’s happy!

“Not everybody had their backup ready, but my boys certainly were ready and did a great job of getting it out there. It wasn’t perfect. I think I went down a lap at one point because the car wasn’t great. We battled our way back. There might have been some attrition. It was a pretty wild day to say the least.”

IRL CART U.S. 500
The U.S. 500 essentially was restarted single file for the inaugural U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway (Darrell Ingham/Allsport).

After winning the race, Vasser climbed from his No. 12 Reynard-Honda and famously shouted, “Who needs milk?”, a reference to the winner’s tradition in Indianapolis.

IRL CART U.S. 500
Jimmy Vasser runs to the pit lane after his pole-sitting car was wrecked at the start of the U.S. 500 (Chris Wilkins/AFP via Getty Images).

Vasser: So here’s the thing: It was really just a tongue-in-cheek joke to my mechanics. Because make no mistake, we all wanted to be in Indy. It wasn’t any kind of a political statement. It was kind of more of a joke and try to uplift the guys. I think there was a boom mic there, and it somehow got picked up on TV.

“There was a bottle of milk at the gate at the shop when we got back. So some tough words. We had to take that one on the chin. And I think when we went back (to Indy) in 2000, there were some hecklers in the grandstands yelling at me, “Who needs milk, Vasser!” I think I might have made the joke a few times that my doctor told me I was lactose intolerant. I knew the hecklers were going to come at me on that.

“Yeah, I didn’t set that up. It was tongue in cheek to the guys on the team. “Hey, who needs milk, we won today” kind of a thing. Obviously we all wished we were at Indy, no doubt about it.”

In the 1997 season, the U.S. 500 title was moved to July as Michigan returned to having one annual CART race. The series raced at Gateway International Raceway the day before the 1997 Indy 500 but never went head to head with Indianapolis Motor Speedway again.

Craig: “There were a number of things in play there. The first is that Roger Penske was not keen to do it again. We had another regular-season race at Michigan, and he felt – I don’t agree – that we took audience away from his other race for which he was paying. So that was his view. So I didn’t have that venue available to me. We still felt we should race on the Indy 500 weekend but given all the rancor and the controversy, we decided to just race on the Saturday before. The teams and sponsors said, ‘Look, we’ve got to race somewhere that weekend.’ Gateway was becoming available and we went to Gateway.

“Nobody wanted to do this. Our teams wanted to be at Indianapolis, but they were denied that opportunity. And we had no alternative but to respond to that. And we did. We couldn’t sit at home and say oh, we couldn’t possibly do anything against the Speedway. Come on. They were trying to put us out of business.”

Pruett: “We all have our different views of what we believe. Obviously, there were a lot of egos involved and without seeing what the big picture was. Because in ’95, there were 400,000 people at the Indy 500. It was absolutely incredible. It was the largest single-day attendance of any event in the world. It was crazy how many people were there.

“Moving from 1996 forward, it was a steady sort of train wreck sliding down the hill where both sides tried to figure out how to survive and struggled to survive. And then they just kind of bumped along at the bottom until they were able to come back to terms to come back together.”

IRL CART U.S. 500
Jimmy Vasser celebrates with his team after winning the U.S. 500 by more than 10 seconds over Mauricio Gugelmin, the only two cars on the lead lap at the fnish of 500 miles (Matt Campbell/AFP via Getty Images).

The ill-fated 1996 U.S. 500 and CART-IRL split: ‘I didn’t think we would get to that point’ originally appeared on NBCSports.com