The Real Truth about Life, the Universe, and Everything

In the wake of the Indy 500, all the media pundits are once again rehashing the issues of the formation of the IRNLS. (I still refuse to refer to it as a "split", since nothing that CART regarded as important was ever split off from them except Indy, and that was never really theirs anyway.) Some of course trumpeted that Juan Montoya's convincing victory at Indy proved the superiority of the CART drivers and teams. Others pointed out that CART's biggest team had just acquiesced to run the IRNLS's marquee event, under the IRNLS's rules. Some saw the event as proof that a merger of the two sides was imminent, while an equal number pronounced it a guarantee that no reconciliation will ever occur. However, for a while now, I've felt that nearly all of these experts, self-appointed and otherwise, have missed the real point. Why exactly did the IRNLS form in the first place? What gave it the foothold in the market that it has now? (One can argue as to how successfully the IRNLS has penetrated the public consciousness, but it is inarguable that they have at a minimum succeeded in building up a core group of fans and a stable place among the racing audience.)

Some will have the reader believe that at the core, the CART/IRNLS was is a rules dispute. For sure, the IRNLS has made a significant departure from the formula that was in place going back to about 1970. And of course, CART's engine makers are not involved in the IRNLS at all. But it wasn't the rules revision that forced them out; they made that decision themselves before the new rules were drawn up. Don't forget that, in 1996 when CART's and IRNLS's engine rules were similar, Cosworth was willing to provide only "customer" engines to IRNLS teams, and Ilmor refused to provide any at all. (Rick Galles, who owned teams in both series at the time, got in hot water with Ilmor because he took some Ilmor engines from his CART team and used them at Indy.) And yes, chassis rule changes took place too in 1997, and CART's chassis makers were out. But remember the situation in CART then: Lola had collapsed, Penske had decided not to sell chassis to any other teams, and Swift was (and still is) unproven at best, leaving Reynard to dominate the CART series. And it was in that timeframe that CART's already-high chassis cost soared even more, with mandatory updates nearly every race, much like F1. The irony here is that some CART teams are now calling for chassis design control and cost measures much like the IRNLS's.

Other media pundits claim that the formation of the IRNLS was a money move by Tony George. Well duh. No matter how much we might sometimes want everyone to participate solely for the joy of the sport, the fact is that big-time auto racing takes money, and that people who invest a lot of money expect to make a profit. Neither TG nor CART's board is immune from that. But money is seldom the barrier that it is usually portrayed is; people who are smart and motivated can usually find a way to make money move the right way if that is what they really want. Still others make the whole thing out to be nothing more than a personal conflict between TG and Andrew Craig -- an intellectual cop-out that trivializes the issues and unfairly demeans both sides.

So what is the whole IRNLS/CART thing all about?

It's a culture war

Yes, you read that right. In the truest sense of the word, it's a culture war. Over the years since CART arose from the ashes of the USAC Gold Crown series in 1980, it has drifted off of its original message. For most of the 20th century, Indy car racing has had broad-based appeal to racing and sports fans in general, extensively in the U.S. and also abroad to a certain extent. Some of this was based on its ability to find room to include foreign participants while remaining essentially an American activity. Some readers may not be familiar with the term "egalitarianism". From the French word for "equal", egalitarianism refers to the removal of social class barriers and distinctions. It is a fundamental tenant of American social thinking, so much so that most Americans demand that it be present (at least to some extent) in the people and organizations that they interact with, even if they've never actually heard of the word.

Now to bore you with some philosophy...

What does this have to do with auto racing? Just this: in the U.S., the sports world is often viewed as a major social proving ground for the concept of egalitarianism. In sports, at least the theory goes, the most talented, capable, and motivated always rise to the top of their fields, and things such as background, ethnicity, or means are not supposed to be barriers. (It doesn't always come out that way in practice; we have the baseball Negro Leagues as a counter example, but that is at least the principle and most sports fans demand it to one extent or the other.) This is where CART got in trouble. It started with fluctuations in currency exchange rates in the early '80s that made it possible for foreign buyers, by converting their home currency to greatly devalued American dollars, to offer teams extraordinary sums of money to buy rides. Some of these drivers were good and the currency warp enabled them to get exposure that they might not otherwise have gotten. But, more than a few were "ride buyers" in the pejorative sense of the word; with their money they were able to crowd out more talented American drivers, and then the money they spent caused expenses to go up for teams, forcing yet more ride-buying. It became a high-dollar club and Americans didn't have the means to gain admission. I claim that this in turn led to a negative attitude towards American drivers in CART that persisted after the currency pendulum swung back the other way. Eventually it became a self-fulfilling prophecy: American drivers weren't hired because they didn't have the experience, and they couldn't get the experience because no one would hire them.

To aggravate the situation, around 1990 CART seemed to fall in with some media consultants who must have steered the organization in a direction that made the situation worse. Under this direction CART played up the celebrity and star power of their participants to the extent that it overshadowed the racing. Puff pieces, wife shots, and celebrity cameos took the place of racing on televised events, and publicity mavens got drivers featured in pop-culture outlets like People magazine. Whether this shift was planned or accidental, it was another big mistake on CART's part. Because, oddly, one of the few institutions in America that seems to be able to escape the strictures of egalitarianism -- in fact, its fans seem to demand it that way -- is the glamour part of the entertainment industry (movies and TV). This is probably inevitable since the essence of glamour is to hold up to us an image of physical beauty to which we can pretend, if not actually achieve (at least not without expensive surgery). However, most of America doesn't work that way. The ethic of the sports world, unlike that of the glamour world, is seen as the standard that we should, even must, live up to. Only if we can be as good in our own way as our sports heroes will we succeed as a nation. This ethic demands performance and results and leaves no room for those who pretend to inherent superiority. (It has other problems; after all, sports isn't real life and so the process can get distorted. But the ideal is there and is often expressed in American sports literature.)

CART, without seeming to realize it, became an elitist organization. It became a country club for the glamorous and beautiful of the auto racing world, one to which pretentious breeding and old money were prerequisites. And the ugly American was excluded. Not literally, of course, but that's the way it worked out and CART did almost nothing to prevent it. In fact, nearly every move they made in the early '90s seemed calculated to reinforce that image. The plethora of exotic European and Latin surnames, along with the preponderance of European-style street races, just added to the problem. (Prior to the IRNLS's formation, CART was well on the way to eliminating ovals from its schedule; they ran only three oval races in 1995.) Not coincidentally, growth in European and Latin audiences during this period coincided with a decline in the American audience. Europe has had a long tradition of being willing to tolerate elitism in their societies, so the new direction probably didn't seem strange to them. But one of America's founding principles is to get rid of anything that they perceived as elitist, and so over time, CART put the American Indy car fans (and participants) off. In the early '90s, those fans and participants discovered NASCAR, a culture more in line with their own principles. I don't need to elaborate on what happened next.

Tony George: Distant Descendent of Thomas Jefferson?

Although the IRNLS never came right out and said it, one of its primary goals was to overthrow this culture. The IRNLS's changes, from the all-ovals schedule to the equal-access equipment rules and cost lowering measures, were calculated to break up the old-boy clubs and provide access those were talented but not previously sufficiently privileged. The results have shaken the racing world. This bunch of not-ready-for-prime-time racers haven't always been socially acceptable or politically correct, but they have restored an honesty, a freshness, and an overall elan that hasn't been present in Indy car racing for decades. (In fact, as things stand today, it can be argued that the IRNLS has in fact beaten NASCAR at its own game in this regard.) The anti-Americanism that had become ingrown in CART has been beaten back, and although preventing an anti-foreigner attitude from developing has been an uphill battle, the series has a good record as being a venue where participants from all corners of the Earth can compete on more or less equal terms. In fact, arguably it is the only such racing series in the world today.

And this is the principle of egalitarianism, expressed in the form of a racing series. Opportunity is there for those that seek it. And more important than the fame, more important than the status or the money or the size of the posse or the figures of the groupies, is the racing. And that's as it should be. As I've written before, no matter how international the participants are, the form of racing itself is utterly American, and no apologies are made for that. And this includes more than just the decision of what types of courses to run on; the entire culture of the series has been constructed to be an American institution -- which it will be someday, just as surely as baseball, chocolate-chip cookies, and (yes) pizza and beer are today.

Maybe that's why I like it so much.