IndyCar racing is a competitive, fan-pleasing spectator sport. For decades, it has had only one major problem: IndyCar racing.
The product itself is excellent: tight, exciting races; a diverse series of interesting venues; talented, likeable, accessible drivers. But IndyCar -- or more accurately the Indy Racing League (IRL) as a management and sanctioning organization -- has operated for years like Game of Thrones, but without sex appeal, or thrones. The IRL has been in turmoil since its inception nearly 20 years ago. The civil wars, family squabbles and boardroom politics often overshadow the racing to such a degree that articles about IndyCar are more likely to focus on paddock/front office skullduggery than on Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves' efforts to win a fourth Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.
This is one of those articles: a casual fan's guide to the last two decades of IndyCar soap operatics. Think of it as one of those catch-up shows, like the ones Lost used to broadcast after a hiatus. It will explain why the Indianapolis 500 is not quite what it used to be, and what the sport's new regime is doing to bring it back. A more traditional preview of the drivers themselves will appear later in the week.
Cracks in the Brickyard
The 1990 Indianapolis 500 was one of the best ever. It was certainly the fastest: Arie Luyendyk won the race with an average speed of 185.981 miles per hour, a record which still stands. The grid was filled with racing legends: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Jr., Mario Andretti with sons Michael and Jeff, Bobby Rahal, Rick Mears and more. The finish was exciting, with Luyendyk overtaking Rahal late in the race. Even the Bump Day qualifier had star power and drama: Jeff Andretti narrowly missed becoming the fourth member of his family to qualify for the race, and racing legend Johnny Rutherford failed in a last-ditch effort to qualify.
Sure, the Indy 500 was not quite the behemoth it was in the late 1960s, when international Formula 1 racers often failed to qualify. But the event was still the reason the city of Indianapolis, as former resident Kurt Vonnegut famously said, "woke up only one day a year." The race was competitive, star-studded and drama-filled, a very relevant event on the American sports landscape.
But there was trouble brewing. NASCAR's popularity was increasing at an astonishing rate, though the CART open-wheel racing series (the cars that raced the Indy 500) could still match it for attendance and television ratings. Luyendyk was the second straight international driver to win the Indy 500, which would not help the event or CART compete for television dollars with the aggressively all-American NASCAR. Meanwhile, the death of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation CEO Joe Cloutier left 30-year-old Tony George, son of Company chairperson Mari Hulman George, in charge of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation. George's new role gave him sway with CART, and he had major plans for both the racing league and the Brickyard.
George felt, and many fans agreed at the time, that CART's focus on street races was taking it away from the sport's American roots, alienating fans and homegrown drivers; expensive technical innovations, meanwhile, increasingly favored the most powerful racing teams. George and the CART leadership regularly butted heads, and a schism quickly developed between America's premier open-wheel racing league and the director of America's most legendary racetrack.
In 1994, George resigned from CART and unveiled plans for the Indy Racing League. The concept: all oval tracks, all American locations and mostly American drivers. With Indy Racing League scheduled to launch in 1996, George played his ultimate trump card: the Indy 500 would feature 25 guaranteed slots for IRL drivers. CART drivers would have to qualify for the final eight slots.
All heck broke loose. CART scheduled a rival race on Memorial Day: the U.S. 500. The race was a disaster: fans, broadcasters and sponsors were confused by the schism and wary of the new race, which was marred by a first-lap crash. At the Brickyard, rookie Scott Brayton earned pole position, then died in a crash during a practice run in a backup car.
It was an awful weekend for open-wheel racing, but the worst was yet to come. The U.S. 500 was Fort Sumter. The civil war was underway.
War is Hell
Imagine an army defending a stronghold while a massive force gathers on the horizon. Now imagine that army splitting in two, leaving one battalion to defend the fortress while the other builds its own, just as the marauders begin their assault. Military disaster and slaughter, right? That's what happened to IRL and CART.
George and IRL had the Brickyard, the Indy 500 and a handful of legendary drivers. CART had top racing teams like Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, most of the great drivers and a circuit of regionally-important road races. Neither held rights to the name "IndyCar," a signifier which retained a lot of meaning for the casual race fan. CART and IRL battled for the name; a settlement prohibited its use until 2003, when IRL could claim it.
CART's attendance dwarfed IRL's for several years, but the Indy 500 brought prestige and television appeal. CART tried to become a public company in 1998, with disastrous results. Honda and Toyota used CART as a battleground for an engine spec turf war, raising expenses and giving them undue power over the league; George, for all his faults, was fastidious about engine specs and the resultant costs for IRL.
Confused sponsors, television networks, sports-page editors and fans turned to NASCAR. Meaningful sponsorships dried up; driver recognition plummeted. CART began to buckle. Ganassi and Penske joined IRL in 2000 and 2001. Honda and Toyota bailed on CART in 2002. CART soon filed for bankruptcy.
And yet, almost inexplicably, CART limped on for five more years.
George tried to buy CART's liquidated assets to facilitate a merger. Some CART owners filed a counter-bid, and a judge ruled in their favor. The racing league was renamed Champ Car and accomplished little other than keeping American open-wheel racing weak, divided and unprofitable while denying George the satisfaction of winning (which may have been the strongest motivation to soldier on at that point).
CART finally breathed its last in 2007 and merged with IRL. IndyCar (the name again kosher) was finally one league, with the Indy 500 and the top open-wheel teams and drivers under George's banner, ready to take back some slivers of the market share lost to NASCAR after 11 years of grinding internal warfare.
Right on cue, the American economy tanked, making life brutal for expensive middle-tier sports operations.
Tony George is generally reviled by racing fans. Insiders paint a more complex picture. He was (and is) respected by many team owners, a wartime consigliere who truly loves and understands open-wheeled racing, even if he was willing to kill the patient to save it.
George acquired a mishmash of teams, drivers and courses, but the new IndyCar was not without assets: the Brickyard, of course, plus popular races like the Long Beach Grand Prix (a CART staple) and a young racing prospect with unlimited crossover appeal: Danica Patrick, who helpfully started the 2008 season with some excellent performances, including a win at the Japan 300. (Classic IndyCar bad timing: a historic victory occurs as far away from American soil as possible.)
IndyCar signed a television deal with Versus, the cable network on the verge of becoming NBC Sports Network, to broadcast it's smaller events. Versus was not ESPN, but the series had a regular home. The Target retail chain signed on as a major Ganassi sponsor, an important step for the beleaguered circuit.
But George faced dissension within his family: his three sisters, board members at Hulman and Company, convinced their mother to limit George's authority after a spending spree that included track modifications and the founding of his own racing team. George resigned suddenly just weeks after the 2009 Indianapolis 500.
Onto the scene came Randy Bernard, former CEO of Professional Bull Riders, hand-picked by the George sisters to replace their brother as the head of IRL. Bernard had zero background in auto racing -- he had spent 15 years consolidating sponsorship and television a sport, which (like open wheel racing) had slid to the edge of the national radar. Bernard planned to widen interest by increasing the number of engine providers, rebuilding the East Coast fanbase, increasing the television footprint and re-emphasizing road-style races which differentiate the circuit from NASCAR.
Bernard was a breath of fresh air: Twitter savvy, up-to-date on the mass media landscape, accessible to fans. His virtues would become his vices in less than three years.
The Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Racing expert Marshall Pruett of FoxSports.com characterized Bernard as the opposite of George in many ways: Bernard was loved by fans but hated in the trailers and paddocks, just as George was respected by insiders but loathed by fans. USA Today's Matt Ryan, meanwhile, called Bernard's style "dreamy but visionary." Bernard was a big picture, outside-the-box thinker. IndyCar needed that in 2010, but the series also needed a nuts and bolts manager who pays attention to details. Bernard was not a detail guy.
Bernard balanced crisis control on one hand with progress and expansion on the other. He lured Chevy to the league as a competitor for Honda, which had been the sole engine manufacturer for years. The inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix in 2011 fulfilled two goals: a footprint in a Northeast market and a road race with appeal to casual fans. He began the process of selecting a single manufacturer for car chassis, a move designed to increase competition and safety while keeping costs down. He established a season-ending championship race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Every step forward came with a step backward. Patrick announced her defection to NASCAR. Even as Versus became NBC Sports Network, the 13-year television deal proved to be a mixed blessing at best: the network struggled to find an audience and a place on the cable sports tier. The chassis selection process lingered, even though some insiders thought Dallara's victory was a done deal from the outset. An August race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (another critical East Coast foray) was marred by rain, but officials desperately tried to race on. Patrick spun out and caused a five-car pileup on the wet surface with five laps to go.
The championship race was a disaster and a tragedy: driver Dan Wheldon, that year's Indy 500 winner, died in a 15-car pileup on the 12th lap, and the race was cancelled. The Las Vegas track had just been repaved, and there were calls before the race to move the event: the new surface was not ready for IndyCar speeds. "Blaming Bernard for the aftermath, which none of the drivers I've spoken with have done, would be dickish, at best," Pruett said in his brilliant post-mortem of the Bernard regime. "But … after having their concerns about Las Vegas ignored prior to the event, losing Dan Wheldon was a deal breaker for more than a few drivers with Bernard."
IndyCar clearly needed a competition director, someone to fret about track conditions and engine specs while the former rodeo executive dealt with NBC and the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce. Whether because of ego or cost restrictions -- neither of which were good excuses -- Bernard never hired one.
Problems on the technical end (Bernard's weakness) severely undercut gains on the promotional end (Bernard's strength) last year. Lotus joined Honda and Chevy as an engine provider, but Lotus engineers got a late start on design and started the season well behind the other two manufacturers in development and testing. Five Lotus vehicles began the 2012 season. Only two were left by the Indy 500, and both were black-flagged from the track early in the race for failing to keep pace. Teams defected from Lotus, and IndyCar released the manufacturer from its contract at the end of the season.
While Lotus puttered, Honda received approval for a new type of turbocharger. Chevy was left out of the loop. Everyone from General Motors to Team Penske protested and threatened litigation in what came to be called Turbogate. The controversy loomed over the whole season.
Dallara, meanwhile, provided a DW12 chassis (named for Wheldon, who helped test the design before his death) that got high marks for safety but was more expensive than advertised. Smaller racing teams (non Ganassi-Penske-Andretti teams), often operating at a shoestring, were promised that the cost of spare parts would be capped at 125% of the cost of the Dallara chassis. Costs quickly soared beyond that, and the chassis itself was more expensive than advertised. Racing teams got financially squeezed on the other end when a scheduled race in China was cancelled.
The constant talk about lawsuits and equipment costs sapped enthusiasm for the races themselves. Already decried as "spec racing" by fans who prefer innovation to rigid rules, reports about expenses made IndyCar sound downright cheap. NASCAR made the news with compelling drivers and bitter rivalries. When IndyCar made the news, it sounded like your father-in-law calling from the auto dealership with a "guess how much they want to replace the throttle body" complaint.
As 2012 wore on, support for Bernard evaporated. Drivers still fumed about New Hampshire and Las Vegas. Penske and Chevy teams were stung by Turbogate. Smaller teams felt squeezed by operating costs. Who did we leave out? Why, Tony George! George still lurked on the fringes of his family's company, and rumors that he would re-seize control lingered in the background, though not as far in the background as the drivers and events often found themselves.
At least IndyCar still had the Indy 500. But days before the 2012 race, Bernard Tweeted: "it is true that an owner is calling others trying to get me fired. I have had several owners confirm this. disappointing." The man hired to focus attention away from the boardrooms and back onto the track went out of his way to focus attention on the boardrooms at the worst possible moment. IndyCar was no further along than it was at the end of the Civil War: fractured, bleeding money, racked by dissension and egos, almost stubbornly unwilling to showcase its greatest assets.
Dirty Laundry and a Clean Start
The coup d'etat against Bernard was somehow both rushed and drawn out. Days of rumors preceded the dismissal. Driver Graham Rahal called the skullduggery "embarrassing to the sport" on Twitter. Bernard stepped down in late October with no successor in place; his ouster looked like a panic move to outsiders, particularly race fans who liked the approachable executive.
Roger Penske, presumably one of Bernard's biggest detractors after Turbogate, condemned the change. "I'm very disappointed in this decision; the board continues to show poor judgment. There is no future plan," he said. Just as Bernard's Tweet partially eclipsed the Indy 500, the coup completely overshadowed Ryan Hunter-Reay's series championship, won in the kind of improbable circumstances (Will Power held the series lead until he spun out, untouched, in the championship race) that should have attracted casual fan attention.
Hulman and Company soon turned the reins over to Mark Miles, formerly of the ATP Tennis Tour and Indianapolis' successful Super Bowl bid. Miles' resume superficially resembles Bernard's -- the CEO of a different sports circuit, with zero racing background but a knack for negotiating with sponsors and networks.
But the differences are also striking. Miles immediately hired former IndyCar team owner Derrick Walker as President of Competition and Organization. Walker should contain any future Turbogate incidents, and he is also committed to making the races faster while maintaining both safety and cost consciousness. "It's a delicate balance between innovation, the speed and the cost of racing," Walker told ESPN last week. "Our goal should be to open up that door just enough to allow it to grow and improve and innovate but yet keep it in a measurable amount."
It's telling that the 1990 Indy 500 remains the fastest in history: the sport has spent two decades spinning its tires, trying to get out of its own way. It's also telling that speeds are up in recent years. Average winning speeds in 2011 and 2012 are the highest since 1990. Marco Andretti set some lap split records at 70-90 laps last season, Will Power ran a 229.808 mph practice lap on Saturday, the fastest since 2003.
Maybe IndyCar racing is finally reaching a straightaway.
And So it Goes
Miles has won over Penske and other influential forces. He has stated that his focus is on professionalizing the IndyCar front office and delegating authority, in addition to controlling costs and increasing television ratings. His greatest attribute may just be that he is the right person in the right place at the right time.
George won the war, though at an inestimable cost. Bernard could not win the peace, but he made some major contributions: an East Coast incursion that now includes Pocono Raceway; an all-new Triple Crown series; the children's movie "Turbo," about a snail who hopes to race in the Indy500, the result of Bernard's Hollywood connections and outside-the-box thinking. (Classic IndyCar timing: the movie will not come out until weeks after the race). Miles inherits prime ingredients from executives who weren't too keen on following recipes. He needs to clean and kitchen and bake, knowing the NASCAR's growth has finally ebbed and there is a market for a racing alternative.
Which brings us to Sunday. IndyCar has a CEO and a competition expert, a stable-if-unspectacular television contract and a core of established drivers, some of whom (Franchitti, Power) have a little star appeal. They have an established circuit of races and events all over the country, and one of the crown jewels of the American sports landscape at the center of their schedule. Perhaps the days of IndyCar being its own worst enemy are finally behind them. It has only taken 20 years, three CEOs and enough warring and backstabbing to fill a Shakespeare anthology.
Wake up, Indianapolis. The snail is finally inching toward the starting line.