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Flat Spot On – ‘Indy Split’ Hits Home

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, December 12 2021

Tony George took a ride around Indianapolis Motor Speedway with A.J. Foyt a couple years ago. The two of them were at the heart of ‘the split’.

Journalists often find themselves on the front lines of history. When books appear as a result, they are usually snapshots of a relatively short frame of time, especially in the current milieu of social media-driven reporting. Given the convoluted and long-running story that was the war to control Indy car racing, John Oreovicz is to be congratulated for getting the full story—much of which he professionally witnessed—into one engaging, well-paced book.

“Indy Split” is somewhat overdue, given the number of journalists who followed the story and the roughly 13 years since the hostilities ended. Perhaps it was easier to write now that the ship has been righted and unification is actually working in terms of political stability under the IndyCar banner.

The story that spanned from the 1970s to the aughts might lend itself to sensationalism in the retelling or to a sprawling extravaganza. Shakespearean in terms of high drama and personal setbacks, the story is Edgar Allen Poe-etic as well given the House of Usher elements in the Hulman-George family. But by holding to the story line of established facts, Oreovicz chose an informed journalist approach that is smoothly written, long on details and well-honed by comments from participants.

There’s plenty to chew on for the diehard fan on either side of the battle between CART owners versus the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Tony George. There may not be much in terms of a 30,000-foot view of how history evolves, but the book’s highly detailed account includes the principal antagonists, other track owners, event promoters, sanctioning body executives, officials and drivers as well as race outcomes, cars, engines, rules and safety. Above all, the political conflicts among those who had different visions for Indy car racing in America are laid bare.

In the knowing voice of a racing expert, Oreovicz highlights legitimate conflicts and concerns, but buttonholes self-serving power plays. The reader can almost smell the constant rain of quixotic hypocrisy that pops up, which says a lot about the situation and the passionately held beliefs of the characters involved on both sides as well as those caught in the middle.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the 500 were too powerful to permanently split Indy car racing.

Are there heroes in this tale? That’s in the eye of the beholder and there are more than a few candidates. Is A.J. Foyt a hero for his consistent and initially stand-alone choice to side with the Indy Racing League? Or perhaps Mario Andretti, who continued his amazing, long-running driving career in CART and then arduously sought unification. 

The viewpoint is largely left to the reader about Tony George, the principal character who believed his family’s Speedway deserved to be at the political center of Indy car racing in addition to being the origin of Indy-type racing. In the end, he “won” the political struggle that oftentimes hobbled both sides, because the Speedway and its history proved to be bigger than the sport and his family was willing to make the multi-million investment to regain control from the team owners in CART. The war wouldn’t have happened without George actively seeking to fulfill his vision for the Speedway, which included opening it up to other types of racing.

Many fans continue to disdain him on both counts. In the end, the current IndyCar looks like CART in the 1990s in terms of schedule, participants, revived crowds at Indy and the effort to catch up with NASCAR. So, what was gained? 

CART lived, and died, on the premise that it could generate the cash flow to sustain its fabulous—but always expensive—show without necessarily including the Indy 500 in its portfolio or keeping the focus on North American racing. That strategy failed. By cutting the relative cost of Indy-type racing and regaining full control of the Speedway’s destiny after rebuilding it in many key areas, the Hulman-George family put itself in position to decide who would control the sport in the future. A sale eventually went to Roger Penske, where his son Greg is the heir apparent, and few disagree with that outcome.

If “Indy Split” deftly follows the trail from beginning to end, the lumber is sometimes sawed at the expense of the forest view. The day-to-day account of the rivalry between Honda and Toyota, for example, tells how each abandoned CART in favor of the Indy 500 and George’s Indy Racing League. But these decisions must have been made at the executive level of the two Japanese companies, where those in charge of budgets no doubt were asking themselves and their employees engaged in racing where all the money was going while simultaneously looking at miniscule TV numbers for races everywhere except the Indy 500. Yet, there’s no detailing in the book of how or why the Japanese executives chose to move, which boiled down to George’s original premise of Indy’s preeminence and the issue of cost control in Indy car racing.

If it is sometimes up to the reader to decide what was necessary and what was sufficient to start, sustain and end this conflict, Oreovicz absolutely nailed one summation. He likens the acrimonious state of Indy car racing over the course of this conflict to the current political divide in America. “Distrust and dislike between the two parties became so intense that the pursuit of common goals and a desire to benefit the common good often fell completely by the wayside.”

The rearview mirror, famously invented at Indy, is a good place for this conflict to reside as all of motor racing currently struggles to sustain the glory days. A solid account of how things went down in the past is a valuable asset going forward.

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Indy Split

by John Oreovicz

Octane Press, $35

ISBN-13—9781642340563

Format: Hardbound, 6 x 9 x 1; 418 pages; B&W photo

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(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” carries a five-star rating on Amazon. Ingram and Bill Lester are co-authors of the 2021 release from Pegasus Books titled “Winning In Reverse,” which was released in 2021 and carries a five-star Amazon rating.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, December 12 2021
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