Let me do my best attempt to analogize a certain staple of motorsports with an analogy to “stick and ball” sports.
The Baseball Split
Suppose that from the beginning of the World Series in 1903 that it had been played in the same stadium and on the same field, Doubleday Field at Cooperstown, New York. The field is rarely used for any other purpose than the World Series. Some AA and AAA baseball series also use it for their championships, but Cooperstown and Doubleday Field are synonymous with the World Series. When a player elates, “We’re going to Cooperstown!” everyone understands that he’s talking about the World Series.
But there’s a problem. Tony Allman, the business head of the family that has owned Cooperstown since 1946, doesn’t like the direction that Major League Baseball has been going. For one, the nature of the game elsewhere has departed from its roots and is leaning too much on mathematicians rather than grit and hard work. There’s also too much of an influx of foreign players and not enough chances for American players to make it up through the ranks. Notably, a star athlete named Michael Jordan reveals that he actually wanted to go into baseball, but the ladder system would not let him because he didn’t have enough sponsor backing or a wealthy family. He instead went into basketball and became a household name. His star power propelled the NBA from a humble regional sport into a national powerhouse. When the Allman family communicates these concerns to Major League Baseball and the owners of its franchises, they pretty much get shoved off and laughed at.
Finally, the Allman family has had enough. In 1995, Tony Allman announces that he is forming the Cooperstown Baseball League. This isn’t meant to be a developmental alternative like the AAF or XFL. No, the Cooperstown Baseball League aims to be the new pinnacle of American baseball, and its centerpiece event is the World Series, rightfully held where it belongs — in Cooperstown — just as it has been since 1903.
Now all the teams have to decide where they’re going. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is livid. Together with a large group of franchises, big names like the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves, Steinbrenner aims to maintain MLB as it otherwise was. He also offers the use of his relatively newly constructed Yankee Stadium as the new home of the “real” baseball championship, the America Series. As an act of defiance, the America Series will be held at the exact same time as the World Series, which Steinbrenner and his allies derisively call “the CBL series.” The CBL largely is seen as a league of inferior skill. More than half of its players in its first season are rookies to the “big leagues.”
Who’s winning this scenario? Basically no one. Hard-core fans have to pick sides; they literally cannot watch or attend both series at the same time. Families who had made a tradition of attending the World Series annually takes sides and split up. Casual fans can’t tell the difference between the series. Some of them gravitate to Cooperstown because they recognize the name and the stadium; others stop watching entirely. And if you’re a hard-core baseball fan, you might even already have an opinion about which side you would take in this scenario.
Suffice to say, the 1994 players’ strike would be far less damaging. This scenario is exceedingly unlikely for baseball, but it really did happen with the Indianapolis 500.
The CART/IRL Split
In 1996, the Hulman family, with its business head Tony George, started its own racing series called the Indy Racing League, the centerpiece of which was the Indy 500. Among the stated reasons for the move included open-wheel racing having departed from its roots and not having enough chances for American drivers to rise up the ranks. CART — the metaphorical equivalent of Major League Baseball — responded by holding its own race on the very same weekend at Michigan International Speedway, which was owned by team owner and automotive magnate Roger Penske and was only a 230-mile drive north of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Some issues in the baseball scenario are too difficult to analogize. For one, the CART series was called the PPG Indy Car World Series, whereas the new series with the Indy 500 was called the Indy Racing League. That would be like having the name “Cooperstown” on both sides. Secondly, the growing differences in terms of actual racing are far greater than could be described with baseball, even in terms of the abomination we call the designated hitter.
Most importantly, Indy Car races tended to be open enrollment affairs, unlike baseball playoffs. Anyone with a sponsor (or their own money) can buy a race car chassis, acquire an engine from the manufacturer, hire some qualified staff including a driver, and race. This is the way it had always been at the Indy 500. And whereas most races on the Indy Car calendar had car counts somewhere around 25, the Indy 500 traditionally has 33 starters. If 39 teams show up to qualify, six are going home before the race even starts. Every so often, one or more full-time teams end up failing to qualify. This very thing happened as recently as last year.
Tony George was keenly aware that this was a problem for the Indy 500 if the IRL was to be successful. The bigger and faster teams of CART could still show up and squash the teams of the IRL. Some IRL teams probably wouldn’t bother to exist if they knew that every CART team was going to show up. George’s solution was the 25/8 rule: 25 spots in the Indy 500 would be locked in for full-time IRL teams so long as they could meet an arbitrary minimum speed. Eight spots would be open for any other teams who wished to show up. This rule, more than anything, precipitated “The Split.”
In short, CART died, and the IRL shriveled. CART went bankrupt at the end of the 2003 season, was revived as the Champ Car World Series in 2004, and finally folded in 2008. Tony George and Champ Car agreed to “merge” the two series including all records. The war was over, but there were no real winners. Although the Indy 500 continues to gather sellout crowds, what is now called the NTT IndyCar Series is a small fraction of what American open-wheel racing once was, having lost to the rocketing popularity of NASCAR. And there is no more 25/8 rule…for now.
Now that the Indy 500 is largely healthy again, a new debate has arisen. In comments over the past month, major team owners including the aforementioned Roger Penske, the unofficial ringleader of the CART side back in 1996, are advocating for IndyCar once again to lock in spots at the Indy 500 for full-time teams. This year, the number of teams attempting to qualify for the 500 is believed to be about 39, which would mean six teams are going home. Last year, full-time driver James Hinchcliffe failed to qualify and had to watch from the sidelines. Do these team owners really want to go back to what nearly destroyed the sport some 23 years ago?
Times are different, yes. There is no competing American open-wheel series. Sponsorship money is tight due to economic conditions and heavier government restrictions on tobacco advertising. And there’s a Formula 1 team showing up at Indianapolis: McLaren. No, they don’t get to put the Formula 1 car on the track, but they do have good engineers, good funding, and two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso, who by winning the 500 would become only the second driver to achieve the Triple Crown of Motorsport.
Understandably, major team owners in IndyCar see the threat, both from other teams and from the economy, and they would love to be able to reassure their sponsors that they actually will get into the Indianapolis 500, the most financially profitable race of the year by a long shot if not the only profitable race. Ultimately, a new 25/8 rule — however the numbers might play out now — is bound to damage the Indy 500 as a business and as something incredibly special.
Destroying Something Special?
Thinking in terms of historicity, there can be no doubt that the Indianapolis 500 is more important than the IndyCar championship. Its first running was held in 1911. Only six years since then have not seen the 500, and those were due to World Wars I and II. Compare that to the founding of the IRL in 1996 and the founding of CART in 1979, USAC in 1955, and so on. Long before there was a concept of an overall American open-wheel championship, the Indy 500 has been around and well-known throughout the world. There’s a good reason why no one argues the IndyCar Series championship is one of the three pillars of the Triple Crown of Motorsport. Moreover, the 500 isn’t just about the race on Memorial Day Sunday; it’s also always been about everything leading up to it during the month of May. Qualifications actually mean something when everyone has to earn their spots.
The business argument is understandable, but a look at some recent history is worth noting. Full-time driver James Hinchcliffe failed to make the field last year. His sponsor, Arrow Electronics, received all kinds of media exposure from the shocking news, and Hinchcliffe handled it with the uttermost class. Did Arrow Electronics get up and leave? No — in fact, they doubled down on their sponsorship. They became the title sponsor of what is now Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and primary sponsor of the team’s second car. The business argument also fails to consider the potential sponsorship woes on “one-off” teams attempting the 500. Locking in spots for full-time teams means that part-time teams will have a much harder time acquiring their own sponsors, and that would likely mean diminishing car counts.
Although those who want to return to a form of the 25/8 rule have good intentions of preserving the IndyCar Series and the teams that keep it running, I believe that it would ultimately drag the Indy 500 down rather than lift the IndyCar Series up. Leave the 500 alone, and keep it special.