One score and 3 years ago, Tony George brought forth, in this sport, a new Championship Series, conceived in the spirit of competition, and dedicated to the proposition that oval racing remain the cornerstone of American open wheel motorsport.
Yes. I just paraphrased The Gettysburg Address. But as we're all aware, the split in American open wheel racing in 1996 brought about a Civil War of sorts within a sport at arguably its peak in popularity and profitability. It forced a rift between teams, drivers, fans, sponsors, and anyone in between.
The story has been told time and again from every angle, and with the IndyCar Series approaching its 10 year anniversary of reunification, I thought it would be interesting to explore a perspective seldom considered: That of media within the sport.
To do this, I reached out to former ESPN writer and IndyCar pundit John Oreovicz and he was kind enough to write back for a discussion on The Split, what it was like to cover, and his thoughts on the state of the sport today.
“Until I got involved as a writer in 93 I was a hardcore fan. Robin and Gordon Kirby were my main media sources,” he told me via DM on Twitter.
My first question was about initial rumblings of a possible split. “I suppose it was thru Robin’s coverage of (Tony George)’s trip to the late 1991 CART board meeting.” He said. “When he announced the start of the IRL in March 1994 it was shock and disbelief. CART was (in retrospect) at its peak in 1993 during the Mansell championship year. Why would TG (screw) up an easy cash cow for IMS?
Worldwide interest in the Indy 500 was never greater. They had to expand the media center to accommodate all the international media Mansell brought and IMS was resentful because it didn’t fit their dream American dirt car storyline.”
Our discussion then moved over to email the next day, where Oreovicz elaborated on the story of the split's beginnings. “TG made a presentation to a CART board meeting in late 1991 in Houston in which he outlined his plan for IMS to again lead the sport. The CART owners blew him off and the legend goes that he made the decision on the plane back to Indy to start the IRL.” “...it was difficult to figure out whether he was bluffing. He was not. TG announced in July 1995 that the 75 percent of grid spots at all IRL races (including the Indy 500) would be reserved for IRL point leaders. That was the tipping point for CART. In the fall of 1995, CART began plans for the US 500 to be run at Michigan on the same day as the 1996 Indy 500.”
The split not only left an indelible mark on the competition side of the sport, but had a profound effect on media as I had suspected. “For most journalists, the split forced you to choose sides,” he said. “I covered Disney and Indy in 1996 for Autosport, but mostly concentrated on CART because it had 95 percent of the best teams, drivers and race venues,” adding that “Every step the IRL took toward reality made me sick to my stomach. People try to call me a "CART guy," but I never cared who was running the sport. I was drawn to CART not because I liked their management, but because I liked what the series developed into in the 1980s - sleek, technologically advanced cars, a great mix of American and international drivers, oval tracks and road racing venues. It was truly the best of all worlds, which is why in the first half of the 1990s it was a rival for NASCAR in the U.S. and Formula 1 internationally.”
He then stated, “I always attempted to cover what I wrote about fairly. It's impossible to tune out all bias, but I always try to give credit where it is due and assess blame in a fair way where appropriate. I hope that attitude is reflected in my coverage.”
Then, John lamented how The Split effected his personal life, “Ultimately, the biggest effect the split had on my coverage is my current state of unemployment...mismanagement allowed NASCAR to become the dominant (indeed, synonymous) form of racing in America and prevented Indy car racing from achieving the potential it started to demonstrate in the '80s and '90s before the formation of the IRL. It had a direct negative impact on people like me trying to derive a living from a sport that they love.”
As Sunday dinner passed, he ended our conversation with this, “The state of the sport is relatively stable, which is actually quite good in the current market conditions. IndyCar's attendance and TV ratings are growing slowly while F1 and NASCAR are in clear decline. The appointment of Mark Miles really seemed to settle things down on the political and marketing side, while Jay Frye has created the greatest level of trust and cooperation between the teams and the sanctioning body that I can remember. The biggest question mark is the next broadcast distribution contract.”
So what is the state of the sport today? While many agree it is healthier than during The Split, there's still a long way to go. With a diverse schedule, a (Slightly) growing fanbase, and hot young stars like Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden, time will tell if the pre-Split success of the sport will ever be obtained again. Many also agree that the 2019+ TV deal will have the biggest impact on future success, and being the first major American sport to go all-digital through a deal as rumored would be uncharted territory, for better or worse.
One thing I did notice in my talk with Mr. Oerovicz is his passion for racing, although subdued, is still very much alive. A historian with a wealth of knowledge, John showed me that even the most calloused still have a deep rooted love for the sport of IndyCar racing, and as long as that passion still flows, there's always a chance.
Thanks to John Oreovicz