Indy 500 echoes and the Victory Circle absences caused by the CART-IRL Split

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(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: John Menard recalls an emotional and eventful May 1996. Tuesday: Buddy Lazier on his fairy tale comeback victory in the 1996 Indy 500. Wednesday: The U.S. 500 at Michigan and what precipitated it. Today’s final installment: A look at the aftermath.)

INDIANAPOLIS – The overarching impact of the CART-IRL Split perhaps is best illuminated by the Victory Circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Or namely, who didn’t appear there.

Michael Andretti, Alex Zanardi, Greg Moore, Jimmy Vasser, Paul Tracy …

When the Indy Racing League was formed in 1996, the result was a de-facto exiling of the stars from Championship Auto Racing Teams.

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Essentially, there is a lost generation of IndyCar standouts who never tasted milk after winning the Indy 500. A few (Zanardi and Moore) never raced at the Brickyard, and many were robbed of several opportunities in the prime of their careers.

“It’s really unfortunate that some great, great talent never had that opportunity,” Andrew Craig, the CEO of CART from 1994-2000, told NBC Sports. We didn’t want this to happen. We never sat down and said, ‘OK, let’s go against the Indianapolis 500.’ It was a situation that was frankly forced upon us.”

After making four consecutive starts in the Indy 500 from 1992-95 (with a best finish of fourth), Jimmy Vasser won the U.S. 500, which CART counterprogrammed in a one-off against the Indy 500. It was the first of three 500-mile career victories for Vasser (who also won at Fontana in 1998 and ’02).

“Everyone liked to talk about, “Oh, The Split, do you feel like you got cheated?” And I didn’t, but I won three 500-milers in that time period,” Vasser, who got four more cracks at the Brickyard from 2000-03 (with a best of fourth), told NBC Sports. “Not just that one that day. During The Split I won three of the big ones, and they were all big-money races. I don’t feel like I got cheated, but certainly to win three 500-milers, and it’s, ‘Maybe I would have won one Indy 500.’

“It was tragic for some drivers that it makes a career or doesn’t. You did all this, but you never won Indy. I’ve always thought maybe I could have won. I got three wins and seconds and pole positions (in 500-mile races) and never one of them was Indianapolis. They were 500s and million-dollar purses, but not on the Borg-Warner, right?”

NBC Sports recently spoke with some current and former IndyCar drivers and journalists who covered the era. Here is what they recall of what precipitated “The Split” and the U.S. 500-Indy 500 battle that it created:

Jimmy Vasser: “Especially because we had what they called ‘The Package’ during that time, the Reynard-Honda-Firestone, I would have had definite good chances to win that race. I won three 500-milers during The Split. I think I would have definitely had a shot at winning (the Indy 500). Can’t cry over spilled milk! (laughs)

“People say, ‘Oh, you never won the 500,’ and I go, ‘Bullshit! I won with Tony Kanaan as an owner in 2013!’ Chip (Ganassi) won the 500 and Roger (Penske) won the 500. I won one, too. It just wasn’t behind the wheel. I jumped on the sidepod and rode into Victory Circle with Tony, and that thing where you never won the 500. I was kind of, ‘Yeah, I never did.’ But then everybody else on the team, that’s how they win. Just because you’re not behind the wheel doesn’t mean you didn’t win it because it’s a team sport. And it was a good feeling to really be part of that win.

“Michael Andretti probably feels the same (as a winning Indy 500 team owner). He should have won many times. Many, many times. That’s probably the biggest tragedy of it all that he never won one from behind the wheel, but as an owner he’s got a handful.”

Indy 500 CART IRL
In the first three years after the CART-IRL Split, Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser combined to win the PPG Cup series championship in CART for three consecutive seasons (Jamie Squire /Allsport).

Adrian Fernandez: “Yes, of course I wish I’d gotten more starts at Indy. Because if you look at my 2004 race, we were so competitive. Me and my teammate led like 95% of the laps, and we were so strong. And if it wasn’t raining, we had a shot at it. It was just a shame that we didn’t have more chances because I think my driving style really suited that track. We were very competitive, and it’s such a difficult race to win that not having enough chances to go for it, it was just a shame.

It is the greatest race in the world. It’s just mind-blowing to see the amount of people and the history of the place. It is a shame.”

Scott Pruett: “The biggest thing was I was so close to winning the Indy 500 back in ’95 in the closing stages, and I never went back. My career and where I was, never having that opportunity to win that coveted, absolutely premier race that you wanted to win, it was unfortunate. I’d have gotten at least four more tries.

“I look back and believe that was one of the greatest times in IndyCar. You had tire wars, you had chassis wars, you had engine wars. There was this energy continually through the ‘90s that I doubt we’ll ever see it again at that level, just because it just drove the speeds higher, and higher and higher. And the engine technologies and what we were doing with it. It was just an incredible moment through the ‘90s of IndyCar that was missed out on as well.”

John Oreovicz, longtime racing journalist and author of “Indy Split”: “You just think about the late ‘90s in CART. The most remarkable thing I can say is Greg Moore and Alex Zanardi never raced in the Indy 500. Those guys were the future of IndyCar racing in the late 1990s. You think about Greg Moore in a Penske car at the Indy 500. Mauricio Gugelmin was one of the best superspeedway drivers and would have been fantastic at the Speedway in the late ‘90s. Mark Blundell won the 1997 California 500. Bryan Herta, his career was on a real upswing.”

While The Split hampered the Indy 500 careers of many drivers, it also prevented several others from even having the chance. After burning up the USAC dirt racing scene while spending his teenage years in Indiana, Jeff Gordon was unable to attract any interest in the early 1990s from CART teams (which demanded he bring sponsorship) and switched paths to NASCAR. It was a roadmap that fellow superstars Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart followed and one of the notable ways in which NASCAR indirectly benefited from The Split (a relationship that was somewhat symbiotic with the Cup Series’ popular Brickyard 400, which helped drive revenue for IndyCar’s parent company).

Jimmie Johnson: “I know somewhere right around the mid-1990s is when I was told by the folks at Chevrolet that they were not going to be in IndyCar racing. And if I wanted to have a future in motorsport, I needed to move to North Carolina and figure out stock cars and how to drive stock cars. So when I look back on that year and really kind of ’95 as well, that was a transition year for me. Granted I was still racing off road and not in a position to drive on the blacktop yet. But I was trying to find opportunities with teams and with the manufacturer that had done so much for me, and all of that was changing. So that was kind of a critical point in time for me when I look back on my journey in motorsport, and I thought I was heading toward open wheel. And off to stock cars I went.

IndyCar Jimmie Johnson Indy
Jimmie Johnson’s rookie season in IndyCar might have occurred much earlier if not for the CART-IRL Split (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

“(IndyCar) was really the direction things were tracking. Chevrolet had me in conversations with Trans-Am teams, with Indy Lights teams, and things were really ramping up and heading in that direction. So it’s hard to say if it would have worked out and if I would have ever made it, but all things were definitely focused on open wheel through the mid-90s in my career path.”

Tony Stewart: “That was probably one of the hardest decisions of my professional career was having to make that decision. I was fortunate in ’95 to win the USAC Triple Crown and I had been working with the Ranier family to have an opportunity to go NASCAR racing. They had been working with me for over a year and a half at that point to go the NASCAR route, and then Tony George developed the IRL and I got a chance to test with A.J. (Foyt), and it truly was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make.

“At that particular time, we didn’t know what the future and how successful the IRL was going to be, and obviously NASCAR at that time was not at its peak yet but nearing its peak and was extremely successful. It really was a matter of just knowing that for sure we knew exactly where NASCAR was at that time. We weren’t exactly sure what the future was going to hold for IndyCar racing on the IRL side, and that was one of the toughest decisions of my life to not follow my dreams of being an IndyCar driver. But I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to race 26 races in IndyCar. Even though it wasn’t what defined my career, I’m glad to say that it was a part of my career.”

Bruce Martin, longtime journalist who has covered IndyCar for several national media outlets (including NBCSports.com): “Tony Stewart was the poster boy of the IRL and won the championship in 1997, but the odd thing is, he never really dominated the IRL. He won two to three times. He didn’t become the Tony Stewart that we know until he got to NASCAR. But if there was one thing the IRL did accomplish, it gave Tony Stewart his launching pad.”

CAR-INDY500-STEWART
Tony Stewart made five starts in the Indy 500, two after moving full time to NASCAR in 1999 (Matt Campbell/AFP via Getty Images).

The Split also wreaked havoc on the ladder series, which took years to stabilize into the current and clear-cut Road to Indy system.

IndyCar team owner Michael Shank: “I was doing Toyota Atlantic then, and (The Split) ruined us. People don’t ever talk about that. Yeah, it was hugely impactful for IndyCar, but the ladder series at the time were Toyota Atlantic, Indy Lights, Formula 2000, but they weren’t all connected. It hurt teams like mine when that happened. By the time I got to 2002, the Atlantic grid had been decimated just because there was no direction. We lost our North Star. It really hurt teams like mine. We had to make a decision after 2002 where the hell to go, and thank God Jim France put his arm around me (to encourage his transition into becoming an IMSA sports cars team owner) or I wouldn’t be standing here today. Seriously.”

James Hinchcliffe: “The Split was as challenging for the junior ranks as the two mains shows because as a young kid, you’re trying to think of which path to go down, where is the competition strongest, where is the best opportunity to advance. Today we have a very clear ladder system and set of steps. That didn’t exist in either of two verticals you could go down. Every offseason, my dad and I would sit there and think what do we want to do next year, where do we want to race, where will we be seen, what’s the best value for partners. It was very, very challenging. At the start of The Split, one series had the momentum and strength, and over the course of that 10-year period, it did transition back the other way, and trying to predict where to be when was incredibly difficult. After ’08 when everything came back together, it was so much nicer and cleaner and the sport’s way better off for it now.”

Jimmie Johnson: “I just remember being confused and not following it close enough and to really know all the nuances of it. To not have everybody at the 500 was just weird. You’ve got a split field and the alliance of people on the IRL side vs. the CART side. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really weird and not the way the biggest form of motorsport has interacted or behaved in all the years that I’ve looked up to it.’ ”

Scott Pruett: “I remember absolutely clearly when you look at the demographics and TV package and everything at that time, it was fairly neck and neck between IndyCar and NASCAR. Unfortunately for all involved, that separation put a pretty hard black eye on both sides and ultimately NASCAR came out the winner because it just took off. Because it just became so confusing to the fans. Are you IndyCar? Are you CART? Are you go go-karts? No, it’s C-A-R-T, Championship Auto Racing Teams. Well, is that IndyCar? Well, they are kind of like IndyCar so we can’t say IndyCar. Even trying to explain it to fans on who we were and what we were doing was difficult.

“It was incredibly confusing and as drivers we had to explain this to the fans and to the people we’re talking to, and we couldn’t hardly explain it because it was difficult. And without sitting here going back through the numbers, I think you could look at what happened to IndyCar in 96-97 and what happened in NASCAR over that next 5-10 year period, I think it would show that there was huge growth in NASCAR.”

“I can’t remember a better day when the groups came back together and started rebuilding what now is IndyCar.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who raced in Champ Car (the successor to CART) before he began racing IndyCar shortly before the series merged in 2008: “It was just a sigh of relief. Finally, we’re back together. Finally, we’re one again. You don’t know how frustrating in general it was just to tell people I race Indy cars, well like Indy cars but not Indy cars. I race the one that look like Indy cars, but they go left and right. The other ones is called IndyCar but go mostly left but now starting to go right. So finally we were together as one back to where we should be, and all be called IndyCar drivers racing Indy cars on a gamut of racetracks across the world. Beautiful time in the sport to be back together and since then it’s just been steady progress year after year after year. You’ve seen the growth, the drivers it’s attracted, the teams. I’m so happy for the sport and the direction it’s headed.”

Though The Split effectively ended in 2008, many since have pointed at Roger Penske’s purchase of IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway as an even more important milestone for the series, which has a cadre of emerging young stars.

John Oreovicz: “The IndyCar Series and the 500 as a whole have been on a slow upward trend for the last 10 years. And you can’t say that for NASCAR. And you can’t say that for Formula One. In some ways IndyCar racing got its problems out of the way in the ‘90s and wasn’t as badly affected by modern events. They were already rebuilding their fan base where NASCAR and Formula One are just trying to start now. I think the timeline could have moved up a lot more with Penske at the controls for the last 13 years.”

Adrian Fernandez: “Roger knows how to do it. Roger is so professional. He’s done everything so well through his years. Anything he touches, he does it really well. Everybody has respect for Roger. It does bring a lot of trust and when you want to join the series now, knowing that Roger is on top of it, it does give you as an owner, a sponsor, a driver, a lot of confidence. We had this COVID situation that everyone is dealing with in the world, but the way he’s looking forward is going to start growing InyCar where it used to be. And the key is we have to make these drivers heroes like it used to be. When I went into IndyCar for my first time in 1992, nobody knew me. I did Indy Lights, not many people knew me, but as soon as I hit the Indy cars, I became known just instantly because I was racing against Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr., Danny Sullivan. So racing with these heroes and legends, you were known instantly. And that’s what we need to do now. Make these drivers more known. Know them better. That’s what makes the series more popular.”

Scott Pruett: “There’s so much great energy right now. Roger Penske buying Indianapolis. You couldn’t put a story together that was better than that. He is a phenomenal guy and his vision and what he will do is absolutely incredible. You look at the teams and look at the new talent coming in and the energy in the sport and what is taking place now is absolutely at the point where the sky is the limit. You look at the growth, the involvement and all the excitement, even with the challenge of COVID, there’s so much great talent coming on, so many great teams, the competition is phenomenal. The future looks incredibly bright.”

Jimmy Vasser: “It’s just finally now seeming like IndyCar’s got the momentum and the feel of what it used to be. Now it seems like the actual race cars are sexy and fast and the competition is better than it’s ever been. The level of the talent and the competition is better than maybe it was even then. It really now feels like IndyCar racing is at the level that it used to be or even higher.

Andrew Craig: “I think the lesson today is if you look at Roger Penske’s acquisition of the speedway and everything that went with that, I think that’s been a very positive thing. Bringing the series back together, which happened before Roger acquired the Speedway of course, but bringing that back together. The fact is that today the series and the Indianapolis 500 are in the best possible hands they could be.”

Vasser: “I can’t glean any positives (from The Split). The lessons learned? That’s a question for those that might have their fingerprints on all that. I can’t see any positives, quite honestly. It’s a smudge mark, a big smudge mark on the history of IndyCar racing.”

CART MARLBORO 500
Jimmy Vasser, Greg Moore and Alex Zanardi hold aloft their trophies on the podium after the CART Marlboro 500 at California Speedway (Jamie Squire /Allsport).

Indy 500 echoes and the Victory Circle absences caused by the CART-IRL Split originally appeared on NBCSports.com