Review of The Indy Car Wars

Whitaker, Sigur E. The Indy Car Wars: The 30-year Fight for Control of American Open-Wheel Racing. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.  Pp. 223. Notes, References, Index. $35.00 softcover.

Reviewed by Rich Loosbrock

Greed and power play a key role in professional sports, but how often have they destroyed a league? While destroyed may be too strong of a word, American open-wheeled racing experienced something very close to it. From the late 1970s onward, open-wheeled racing was torn asunder as racing team owners struggled for control against track owners and the sport’s sanctioning body, with drivers often being tossed about on the stormy seas. In The Indy Car Wars: The 30-Year Fight for Control of American Open-Wheel Racing, Sigur Whitaker looks under the hood to untangle a complicated tale.

Indy Car Wars Cover

McFarland, 2015

Open-wheel racing in the United States faces some unusual and vexing problems. Part of the issue is one of balance: the circuit has one dominant event, the Indianapolis 500, that is truly an American treasure. The Memorial Day weekend event signals the start of summer and has traditionally attracted a large television audience. Many of these viewers then pay little attention to the rest of the racing slate. It means the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have an inordinate share of power in the sport. The sport also competes against stock car racing, NASCAR, for loyalties and sponsorship dollars. In recent decades, NASCAR has done a much better job in marketing drivers and creating fierce loyalties and robust rivalries. NASCAR’s popularity peaked in the early 2000s and had been in decline, but still enjoys a strong fan base and a large slate of well-attended and well-watched races.

But for decades the Indy car circuit was been torn by internal conflict. Sigur Whitaker is well positioned to write this book, as she has previously written two previous books related to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In The Indy Car Wars, she explains the conflict between the two primary entities involved with Champ Car racing, the open-wheel circuit. On one hand isthe United States Auto Club (USAC), a sanctioning body formed under the leadership of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman in the 1960s. On the other hand is Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), essentially a union of car owners formed in the late 1970s in search of a bigger share of the racing revenue pie. Racing costs skyrocketed in the 1970s and team owners demanded larger purses and a greater role in determining racing specifications.

What follows is a tale of stubborn opponents determined to control the circuit. Several prominent team owners formed CART in 1978 to counter the power of USAC, and one can see CART as something akin to a players’ union in other sports. CART’s formation created immediate friction, with USAC unwilling to cede any control to the teams. USAC used the Indianapolis 500 as the tool to undermine CART by changing the car regulations for the 1979 race, essentially trying to isolate the part of the field that were CART members. USAC actually banned six teams featuring the biggest names in the sport, such as the cars owned by Roger Penske and Pat Patrick. The two sides headed to court and the CART teams won an injunction to compete. The 1979 race was further marred by controversies over questionable modifications that affected engine manifold pressures. In the end, the problems were resolved and the race was won by rookie Rick Mears. But these were mere skirmishes in the coming war.

Whitaker explains in careful detail how the two bodies barely kept the enterprise together over the next fifteen years. There was great difficulty in creating a governing board on which both sides could agree. This is a tale of fierce competitors who viewed the other sides’ intentions in the darkest possible light. It is also about the companies that make the engines, chases, tires, and other parts for the cars who were often spooked by the prospect of the sport’s public turmoil. A frequent source of conflict concerns the technical details of the race cars, and for a relative mechanical novice as this reviewer it can be a challenge to understand. But to her credit, Whitaker makes it comprehensible.

USAC and CART barely kept the circuit together, but the lure of the Indy 500 often provided the necessary glue to patch over differences. But the irrepressible conflict came to a head in 1995 when the two sides reached an impasse. Tony George, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, became the central figure as USAC finally formed its own circuit, the Indy Racing League, and the majority of the slots in the Indy 500 were to be reserved for teams from the new league, thus forcing CART to hold a competing event in 1996.

The result was financial loss for all involved. Both circuits struggled for sponsorship, fans, and television viewers. The scorched-earth strategy of both sides even tarnished the venerable Indy 500, which continued to run but now lacked legendary names such as Andretti and Unser. With too many teams chasing too few dollars, a contraction was inevitable. The two sides finally reunified in 2008, but the destruction was widespread.

Whitaker spins a cautionary tale of pride, greed, and power that did all but destroy a sport. Many professional leagues and circuits in the United States and elsewhere have often teetered on the edge of similar precipices, but none have so willingly taken the plunge.

Reviewed by Rich Loosbrock, Professor of History, Adams State University

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