After exhaustively cataloging decades of political infighting and intrigue that threatened the foundations of IndyCar and the Indy 500, author John Oreovicz arrived at an impasse.
It wasn’t unlike the same crossroads that sits at the center of “Indy Split,” his new book that chronicles the dramatic and compelling forces that ripped apart major-league open-wheel racing in a schism that pitted the Indy Racing League against the Championship Auto Racing Teams series.
“I had it almost done and I’m thinking, ‘Well, how the hell am I going to end this thing?’ and then Roger Penske gave it an ending,” Oreovicz told NBCSports.com in a recent interview. “And I think he gave IndyCar racing a new beginning.”
With the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on an upswing in their second year of ownership by Penske (the motorsports icon who purchased both in November 2019), the timing is felicitous for the release earlier this month of “Indy Split” (which is available now for purchase and shipping through Octane Press).
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This year marks the 25th anniversary of the inaugural IRL season and the infamous May 26, 1996 doubleheader of the Indy 500 and the U.S. 500 (the counterprogrammed CART race at Michigan International Speedway that endured the embarrassment of an aborted start because of a massive crash).
Over the course of charting the 74-year trajectory of Indianapolis Motor Speedway under family control (after Tony Hulman purchased the then-dilapidated track in 1945), Oreovicz highlights the underlying divisions and viewpoints that led to the divorce.
Having worked for nearly 30 years as a reporter and in media relations, the author relied on his own archives of primary source material but also conducted a few dozen interviews. “Indy Split” also includes the first-person perspectives of several principal characters on both sides of the story (some of whom crossed over), including Chip Ganassi, Mario Andretti, Dario Franchitti and former CART president Andrew Craig (longtime motorsports journalist Robin Miller wrote the book’s foreword).
Ganassi, who was the first of the CART team owners to return to the Indy 500 (winning in 2000 with Juan Pablo Montoya), memorably describes The Split in this passage: “Everybody knew that if we weren’t careful, we would be two factions who were like two bald men arguing over a comb. I don’t care what sport it is, you see the kind of damage these rifts cause. It took baseball ten years before they recovered from the 1994 strike. No sport can withstand a split, a strike, a work stoppage—whatever you want to call it. IndyCar racing was a Harvard Business Review case study of how to watch ice cream melt on your plate.”
Though the book is called “Indy Split” for the civil war between CART (and later Champ Car) vs. the IRL that lasted from 1996-2008, Oreovicz identifies that there actually were three key fissures in IndyCar history– and the first was what originally helped turn him into a fan.
After a family move to Indiana in the mid-1970s, Oreovicz became a 9-year-old subscriber to Road & Track, where he first read about the 1975 Indy 500. He was at IMS for the 1977 Bump Day when Janet Guthrie qualified for her first Indy 500.
Oreovicz became an annual infield regular at the Brickyard (which he attended on his own for the first time in 1983 after winning a pair of tickets as a JCPenney salesman).
“You drive down in the afternoon day before the race, pack your cooler, get your fried chicken and party all night long,” he said. “It was a rite of passage for college students, teenagers and high school students in Indianapolis and the Midwest in the ‘80s.”
But beyond the partying, he also became fascinated by the politics – particularly after the formation of CART in 1979.
“It wasn’t just the cars, drivers and personalities,” Oreovicz said. “There was a conflict that drew me in as a teenager. I was a fan throughout the ‘80s and covered it professionally since 1993. ‘The Split’ never went away. The ’79 Split never got resolved. It fired back up in 1996, and I had a front row seat to be part of it from then on.”
Oreovicz, who used an IMS media center internship in 1993 as the springboard to a sportswriting career that featured his work in several outlets (National Speed Sport News, Racer and ESPN.com), believes his book’s topic is the most important IndyCar story of the last 50 years.
“You can say A.J. (Foyt), Rick (Mears) and Big Al (Unser) won four Indy 500s, and Scott Dixon has won six championships,” he said. “But the key theme or storyline of the last 50 years has been this conflict and the inability of everybody to work together for the good of the sport. For me, it’s been such a huge part of my life, but for so many people, you see how big the Indy 500 is around the world, and you see the passion The Split brought on because people love the Indy 500 and IndyCar racing, but there are a lot of different visions for what IndyCar racing should be.
“Everyone wants to see the sport succeed, but it didn’t for a long time, which allowed NASCAR to pull ahead in the overall scheme of things in American motorsport. It’s an important topic. I looked at it as a great responsibility to try to cover it and do it in a fair way. It’s a lot like politics in there are two parties or philosophies. I know the way I covered it and viewpoint isn’t going to resonate with everybody, but I hope it comes off as a comprehensive and fair look at it all.”
Being objective is tricky in documenting a conflict that burns with the passionate viewpoints of hardliners on both sides. Oreovicz worked in 1997-98 for PacWest, a CART team, and expects some might accuse him of “being a CART guy. Well, no, I didn’t love CART.
“What I love is what CART the organization did to IndyCar racing,” he said. “Taking it from the late ‘70s where it was this backwater series with 10 oval races a year that nobody went to, that wasn’t on TV. And within 15 years, they turned it into a world-class series. It was almost as big as NASCAR in the USA. It was getting Formula One’s attention on the world stage.
“It became this fantastic amalgamation of American racing and international racing. It just hit a perfect note. And so what I loved about the CART series is having a different vision for IndyCar racing, and (IRL founder) Tony George’s vision was lower costs, oval tracks and American drivers with a sprint car background. … Ultimately, the 1996 Split came back to the fact that Tony George didn’t respect what CART did for IndyCar racing and the Indy 500. The CART owners did not respect Tony because he was the young punk kid coming in, and they took the Indy 500 for granted. It was this lack of respect from both sides that ended up in this standoff that lasted for 13 years.”
For those who want to label him as a CART apologist, Oreovicz (who resides in Indianapolis near the track) says “fair enough; I can live with that” as long as they respect his primary concern has been the health of IndyCar since its 2008 reunification.
“That’s an important point that IndyCar racing has trended positively over the last 10 years,” he said. “People think I’m an IndyCar hater, but this has been my mantra: Look, it’s growing. I’m not an IndyCar hater. I’m an IndyCar lover. I want the sport to grow. I want to see it succeed.”