It has surfaced during the week that rival American motorsport series, Champ Car and IRL, are close to reaching a formal reconciliation and merging together. This may not seem immediately significant to the Formula One world but it most certainly is. Before the IRL was created in the mid nineties, the American CART Championship was stronger than any other racing category outside of F1. It was becoming so popular that it even threatened to steal large chunks of Formula Ones core audience.
The series was becoming increasingly competitive and international. In 1993 CART racing could boast a field that included four ex World Champions, and the series was so strong that even Ayrton Senna wanted to have a go.
Not only was it close to Formula One in terms of competition, but the racing in CART was often more exciting and provided more variety with a mix of road and oval circuits. The sport copped a massive boost in 1993 when Nigel Mansell decided not to defend his F1 title and join the American scene instead.
CART gained an international audience and looked set to take on the world.
However it was the very things that made it popular that turned a few people away from it, Tony George in particular.
Tony George is not a man to be messed with. He owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and with it the Indy 500. He is by far and away the most powerful man in American motorsport.
He was unhappy with CART in the 1990’s because he felt the series had abandoned its origins. Very few of the competitive drivers were American and the sport was gradually being dominated by teams with big money. Not only that, but CART was moving away from the traditional oval circuits and was including more and more street courses on its calendar.
Bernie Ecclestone seized upon this discontent and encouraged George to start his own championship, and the process which killed off the American threat to F1.
Tony George created the Indy Racing League in 1996, a rival series to CART that was cheaper and designed to encourage more American participation. He had apparently been planning it since 1991 when his proposals to overhaul motorsport in the USA were poorly received. The championship would race only on oval circuits and would be so cost effective that no team would gain a significant advantage through big spending.
George wanted to take American open wheel racing back to its roots. However, that meant reducing it to a joke. The IRL was simply ridiculous and the first championship consisted of only three races. Not only that, but just half of the 36 drivers who competed in the first season appeared at each event.
It was abysmal and was rightly derided throughout the motorsport world.
As a series it had no credibility whatsoever. The first championship title was embarrassingly shared between two drivers, Scott Sharp and Buzz Calkins. Neither has ever made an impact in any other form of motorsport. In fact, Scott Sharp is best remembered for making an impact on the outside wall at the very first corner of the 2001 Indy 500. Buzz Calkins is best remembered for not being remembered at all.
The series would never have got off the ground if it was not for one critical factor, the Indianapolis 500. It is one of the world’s greatest motor races and one the biggest sporting events in America. With Tony George at the helm the Indy 500 became an event exclusively for IRL teams, and was the only thing that kept the championship alive.
It would be like the owners of Wimbledon creating a separate tennis organisation. Their rebel series of tournaments might not attract the best players, but they would survive simply due to the prestige and marketability of Wimbledon.
The IRL was a complete joke, but kept its head above water thanks to the Indianapolis 500.
The second IRL season was just as ridiculous as the first. The idea was to make the Indy 500 the final race of the championship, but this meant the rest of the season had to be held during the American winter. This idea was scrapped at the start of 1997, but the winter races had already been run so they simply extended the season until the end of the calendar year. This meant the second IRL championship ended up lasting seventeen months, and only seven drivers appeared at each race. It was a farce.
Other than losing the biggest race of the year, the impact on CART was not felt right away. The championship even started expanding into Europe. However, the lure of the Indy 500 was too big for some teams and in 2000 Chip Ganassi fielded two IRL cars for the big race. One of them was for Juan Pablo Montoya who dominated the event, making a mockery of the regular IRL teams. It highlighted just how amateur their series really was.
Penske did the same thing as Chip Ganassi in 2001, and a year later both teams joined the IRL championship full time.
It was a massive boost to the IRL because it meant two of the five biggest teams in CART had defected. Another two followed in 2004 leaving CART with just the dominant Newman/Haas team who have won every championship since.
By owning the Indianapolis 500, Tony George was holding CART to ransom. They could not survive without it, but he could not survive with it alone.
The divide was really starting to hurt both sides of American racing as they stole potential revenue from each other. Neither could claim to be the premier open wheel series in America and as a result many sponsors, broadcasters, and casual fans lost interest in both of them. This downward spiral culminated in 2003 when CART went bankrupt.
That presented the first opportunity for reconciliation. Tony George offered to buy the bankrupt series but he did not offer to pay any of CART’s debtors. As a result his bid was not successful and the championship was bought by a consortium of the team owners who renamed it Champ Car.
Champ Car has never recovered, and the IRL has never really blossomed. Whilst they fought with each other, NASCAR emerged as a massive force is now one of the most popular sports in the USA.
Interestingly, NASCAR is now what CART used to be. This year it will feature a former F1 World Champion in addition to Juan Pablo Montoya. Between them, Jacques Villeneuve and Montoya have 18 Grand Prix victories and they were two of the men who fought hard with Michael Schumacher during his peak.
By comparison the only F1 talent that Champ Car will have in 2008 is Justin Wilson. He lasted only one season at the sports top level and scored a solitary point during his time with Jaguar.
NASCAR has now run American open wheel racing into the ground, and the only thing that can save the decline is a merger between the two rival series.
This week, it appeared that such a merger may be on the cards.
Details of a possible deal are sketchy but Tony George has supposedly offered all the Champ Car teams free cars, engines, and plenty of cash to compete in the IRL. He will also alter the IRL schedule so that it takes on the most popular Champ Car venues. It is the closest yet the two series have come to merging, which would finally put an end to 13 years of madness.
Unification is only possible because the IRL has now become the very thing it was created to avoid. It now features an international field, is dominated by the teams who spend the most, and features road courses as well as ovals. The IRL has not been true to its principles which show how much of an asinine proposition it was in the first place.
If the new merged series does get sorted out it will mean that F1 could face a new threat to its popularity from America in a few years.
Anyone will tell you that competition is a great way to improve the product, so that can only be good news for all of us.