Bicommentary:/B/I Split Decision: CART IRL Are Doing Just Fine
May 27, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Most of this great debate would focus on the IRL and CART split, the rivalry created when Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George discarded CART to start his own circuit. Of course, he took with him the grandest and historic race in all of motorsports, the Indy 500.
Frequently, there would be a great clamor from the masses for the two sides to get together. A joint front was needed to save open-wheel racing from going the way of the dinosaur and the Eidsel. It was also easy to find someone that had definitely chosen sides. You know, like the guys chanting "CART sucks" or the traditionalists who hoped that the IRL would never succeed because they couldn't stand George's greed.
I, for one, am sick of the debate. It is time for everybody to get over it, as the circuits aren't growing closer together but farther apart. The split is permanent. The IRL will be around as long as NASCAR, Formula One and the Indianapolis 500 races continue to pump tons of money into George's bank, while CART's foreign invasions seem to be bringing in enough money to keep that circuit racing.
For most of the drivers, the CART-IRL rivalry has been non-existent. And that's not a new thing, but something that most of the competitors have been saying since the second year of the split. Drivers just want to go race.
Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser, CART drivers that are racing in this year's Indy 500, have been warmly received by everybody in the IRL. Al Unser Jr. jumped circuits during the off-season and left no bad feelings behind. Nor was he shunned by the IRL community he joined. Chip Ganassi, the owner of Montoya's and Vasser's cars, followed the racing creed of doing good during Indy qualifying. He lent a car to Jimmy Kite, one that helped Kite qualify for the race.
Reigning IRL champion Greg Ray talked about the lack of any feud again after winning the pole for this year's Indy 500. "People keep bringing up this CART-IRL issue," Ray said. "And to me, that's not a big issue. As a driver or an athlete in any sport, you always want to measure yourself against the best, whether it's CART drivers or IRL drivers."
But the split being permanent is not a bad thing, the kiss of death that open-wheelers fear. In fact, with a little luck, some give and take, and a lot of hard work, the split could be just the thing to take both circuits to the next level.
Sure, it is easy to see why alarmists would be worried about the split. Television ratings dropped faster than a lead foot on a gas pedal. The IRL has held races in front of concession workers and drivers' relatives. Sponsors weren't exactly lining up to throw money at teams. Basically, there simply wasn't enough to go around. CART and IRL, the teams and the circuits, were fighting for the same fans, the same viewers, the same sponsors.
That doesn't bother me. In fact, that's called competition and it is what made the modern-day United States the best country in the history of our planet. Competition makes motorsports the great sport that it is.
The two series have definitely taken different roads. The IRL races on ovals, has fewer events, uses less costly equipment and is an easy entry into the big time for new drivers. CART uses sophisticated machines competing for the wine-and-cheese crowd, but it is developing an international flavor.
Both seem to have legitimate business plans, and both seem to be slowly but surely growing their own individual markets. Give the circuit another five years, and there is little doubt that the combined fan and sponsor base will be much larger than it was before the split.
The split can work. After all, motorsports is already the most fragmented of all sports. There are already so many niches in the marketplace that few can keep up with them. NASCAR, NHRA, SCCA each have at least half a dozen divisions.
And its worked in other sports. In football and basketball, the college and professional versions are each big successful businesses, each having its own style and substance. Actually, the IRL and CART could well develop into a situation like Major League Baseball, where the game is basically the same but the rules somewhat different.
If this development took place, it could actually be great for the sport. Baseball's biggest boost comes from the annual World Series, and that is exactly what the Indy 500 could be if George and the powers at CART let it. Drivers from the two circuits could come together for an event bigger than both, giving each the attention and exposure they both need.
Rivalries make for great sport, but there really hasn't been one in the CART-IRL battle because the teams never faced each other on the track. The business feud between the two makes for a lot of hot air, not great racing.
Let's let the circuits enjoy being split for most of the year and then get together for a real free-for-all race each May. Let's get the competition back on the track where it belongs.