Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Asterisk Era*

We all know the story. The glittering CART series running their final season as a unified series before splitting into two open-wheel categories: Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the Indy Racing League (IRL).

The Indy Racing League was the brain child of Tony George, former President and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and son of Mari Hulman George. His idea was to cut costs and eliminate the possibility of competitive advantages gained through “rigged” engine deals, like the Mercedes-Ilmor engine that led to Team Penske’s domination of the 1994 CART Season (but that's only part of the story).

In 1996, a dream for Tony George and many in the racing world was realized, as the IRL launched in Orlando, Florida at the Walt Disney World Speedway. Buzz Calkins would go onto win the race, one of three races on the season. Watching the broadcast gives people at home a sense of optimism and pleasure, as these weren’t drivers well-known throughout America (apart from maybe guys like 1990 Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk), but these were drivers that were given the chance to do what they possibly never would get the chance to do in CART: race in a top-tier open-wheel series. CART was the exclusive group of jocks to the IRL’s bandits of loners. And yet, there was something about watching the race that made me personally want to reach for my dreams.

While CART remained exciting as ever while also possessing the big teams, big names, big money, and big venues, they lacked two things: 1) the IRL delivered sheer excitement through wheel-to-wheel racing at high speed venues. 2) the IRL had the Indianapolis 500. While CART downplayed the importance of the Indianapolis 500 after The Split (including the creation of a new race on Memorial Day weekend at Michigan International Speedway called the US 500), it was clear after only a couple years that despite missing the big names, the Indianapolis 500 was still the pinnacle of American open wheel racing no matter who raced in it.

Over time, IRL and CART continually pulled fans from each series to the point where both series’ were hurting. In 2002, the balance of the scales tipped. Team Penske, arguably the greatest team in the history of American open-wheel racing, left CART for the IRL. The following year, Chip Ganassi Racing (who ran teams in CART and IRL in 2002) and Michael Andretti (who formed Andretti Green Racing with Kim Green) left CART for the IRL starting in 2003. The momentum clearly was now on the oval-only IRL series. CART would be renamed into Champ Car in 2004, and would file for bankruptcy in 2007. IRL would budge and adopt road courses from the 2005 season and onwards. Champ Car would merge with IRL in 2008 to form a unified IndyCar Series once again.

But during those initial years of the IRL, how much weight can we put into the results? Like I said, it was extraordinary to see guys like Davey Hamilton, Tony Stewart, Paul Durant, Scott Harrington, and a countless field of “no-name drivers” who didn’t lack talent, but did lack the street cred, money, or skills (or a combination of all three) to land a ride into CART.

For this reason, I ALWAYS chuckle when I hear Buddy Lazier get mentioned amongst guys like Al Unser and AJ Foyt as an Indianapolis 500 winner. Unser and Foyt had to beat legendary drivers and teams to reach the pinnacle. Buddy Lazier had to outmatch David Kurdave and Alessandro Zampedri. Sure, every Indianapolis 500 field has some “weak-links”, but the 1996-1999 fields were especially thin in big-name talent.

Buddy celebrates his win at the 1996 Indianapolis 500 (Photo: IndyCar Media)

Just let us compare the field quality from the 1996 US 500 and the 1996 Indianapolis 500:

Position
1996 US 500
1996 Indianapolis 500
1
Jimmy Vasser (W) (C)
Buddy Lazier (W) (C)
2
Mauricio Gugelmin (W)
Davy Jones
3
Roberto Moreno (W)
Richie Hearn (W)
4
Andre Ribeiro (W)
Alessandro Zampedri
5
Mark Blundell (W)
Roberto Guerrero (W)
6
Eddie Lawson
Eliseo Salazar (W)
7
Paul Tracy (W) (C)
Danny Ongais (W)
8
Al Unser Jr. (W) (C)
Hideshi Matsuda
9
Gil de Ferran (W) (C)
Robbie Buhl (W)
10
Emerson Fittipaldi (W) (C)
Scott Sharp (W) (C)
11
Parker Johnstone
Eddie Cheever Jr. (W)
12
Christian Fittipaldi (W)
Davey Hamilton
13
Greg Moore (W)
Michel Jourdain Jr. (W)
14
Hiro Matsushita
Lyn St. James
15
Bryan Herta (W)
Scott Harrington
16
Stefan Johansson
Arie Luyendyk (W)
17
Alex Zanardi (W) (C)
Buzz Calkins (W) (C)
18
Jeff Krosnoff
Jim Guthrie
19
Bobby Rahal (W) (C)
Mark Dismore (W)
20
Robby Gordon (W)
Mike Groff
21
Gary Bettenhausen (W)
Fermin Velez
22
Juan Manuel Fangio II
Joe Gosek
23
Michael Andretti (W) (C)
Brad Murphey
24
Raul Boesel (W)
Tony Stewart (W) (C)
25
Fredrik Ekblom
Racin Gardner
26
Scott Pruett (W)
Marco Greco
27
Adrian Fernandez (W)
Stephane Gregoire
28

Johnny Parsons
29

Johnny O’Connell
30

Michele Alboreto
31

John Paul Jr. (W)
32

Paul Durant
33

Johnny Unser


It is clear to see which field is higher quality, especially given that many of the wins that drivers earned from the 1996 Indianapolis 500 field happened in the weak years of the early IRL Series.
Furthering this line of “weakness,” Target Chip Ganassi Racing entered the 2000 Indianapolis 500 with their CART drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmy Vasser. Despite the defending IRL Champion Greg Ray claiming the pole. Juan Pablo Montoya, who drove at Indianapolis for the first time just a couple months prior, dominated the race, leading over three-fourths of the laps on his way to his first Indianapolis 500 victory. It wasn’t even close. The fact that a rookie driver could roll up with a team who had just purchased the chassis and could literally and figuratively kick the piss out of the entire IRL-contingent either says something of how good Montoya or Ganassi were, or how the IRL teams couldn’t hold a candle to the pedigree and talent of the CART teams even on their own turf. I’ll call it a mix of both.

After Ganassi did it, every CART team wanted a crack at Indy. Team Penske wanted in on the fun at the Indianapolis 500, which was taken off of the CART schedule after the split. Entering Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran in 2001, the team again proved the superiority of CART teams, with Helio taking his first Indianapolis 500 win. By 2002, Team Penske switched to the IRL and was fully invested in the series. They would become the benchmark to beat even to this day.

Jimmy Vasser driving for the then still CART team Chip Ganassi
Racing in the 2001 Indianapolis 500 (Photo: IndyCar Media)

With all that said, my goal is not to diminish the accomplishments of drivers in the asterisk era of the IRL. There are many proud stories and moments for so many people who may have never gotten the chance to race in the glamorized CART Series. But I can’t sit here and say that Buddy Lazier’s name belongs in the same sentence as actual racing legends like Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti. I keep picking on Buddy Lazier, and let me be clear, Buddy is a good driver. But we should stop acting like he's IndyCar royalty. That’s just my two cents on The Split.

I can make the same argument on the 2003 CART Season and the 2004-2007 Champ Car seasons, but I'll save that for another day. 

Let me know what you think!


-Matthew Hickey

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