How awkward do they look? That's the beginning of a race I'd heard about but never seen, the Daily Mirror Indy Trophy at Brands Hatch, 7 October 1978. Yes, a United States Auto Club championship car race, but in Kent, the U.K. It was the second half of a double header following the Daily Express Indy Trophy, which had been held at Silverstone a week earlier. Convergent evolution had turned the IndyCar into something that looked a lot like its Formula 1 cousin, but under the skin there were some significant differences. These cars were a fair bit heavier (minimum weights for F1 were still in the future, so the flimsiest F1 cars were pushing 550kg, compared to 750 or so for the USAC machines), and without a Colin Chapman their chassis tech was a few years behind, think early 1970s state-of-the-art. One area where they were well ahead, however, was power – the USAC series had made the switch to turbocharging a lot earlier than F1, so in 1978 their single-turbo Fords and Offenhausers were already proven and reliable, pushing nearly 800bhp to F1's 500. They were also optimised for oval racing, so I wouldn't be surprised to learn components like the oiling system were asymmetrical to keep the weight transfer even through the high-G left-handers. Basically, USAC cars were built to do this...
|Start of the 1971 California 500, confusingly at a place called Ontario Motor Speedway|
Apart from being the first visit to Europe for American open-wheelers since the Races of Two Worlds in 1957 and '58, these two races were significant for another reason. They were very nearly the first USAC road races in a decade.
Yep, according to my notes – and I'm open to being corrected on this, because not all the tracks are familiar to me – the previous road-course event for USAC had been a single race at Canada's Mosport Park in July 1977. Before that, you have to go all the way back to a 150-miler held at Indianapolis Raceway Park, in July 1970. Any earlier than that, and the token road race was literally held on a road, as in 1969 the Pikes Peak Hill Climb was still part of the championship.
|Mario Andretti qualifying for it like the badass he is (Source – why aren't you reading Primitipo already?)|
So by my count, from the start of 1970 to the end of 1979, a whole decade, the USAC Indy championship cars did just five road-course events in total (there was also the Kent Oil 150 at Watkins Glen in '79). But once Dan Gurney's infamous "White Paper" got CART jump-started, they did six in 1980 and '81 alone.
This is significant, because the CART takeover was apparently the prompt for Tony George's nunfuckery in the 1990s and 2000s – the Series War, the destruction of CART and IRL both, the rise of NASCAR, all of that. At least that's the message I got from Ed Hinton's excellent Honor, Blood and a Brewing Battle, which details the split from ground level from its beginning in 1996, through to the Danica Patrick era, just before reunification. The sense of doom he lays over the whole thing makes it clear George's decisions courted disaster from the start, but Hinton also gives George enough empathy to make it clear why he did what he did, painting him more as a tragic figure than the damn fool I see him as. In the early '90s CART was stable, commercially successful and rivalled F1 for TV viewers, especially after Mansell defected and took a huge chunk of the British public with him. When Senna tested a Penske at the same time Bernie just about had a heart attack. But by the time Dubya stole the 2000 election, "The 500" was at Daytona, not Indianapolis, and F1 stood alone as the world's biggest TV event. As Hinton tells us, Sports Illustrated was debating whether to even send anyone to Indy that year, where previously the only question was whether it would be on the cover or not.
Why? Because of that old bugbear, American insularity. Tony George wanted to make the 500 a "full-fledged, and certainly prominent, member of the worldwide racing community" – and he wanted to do this by returning it to its roots as an all-American extravaganza. Anyone with half a brain can see it's a case of "pick one," but Tony didn't see it that way. At the root of it all, so he believed, was the "CART barons" and their preference for road racing.
Traditionalist racers and fans had always resented CART as something of an occupying force on the hallowed ground of Undy, usurpers, dripping with opulence and arrogance and racing more for profit than passion.
Quickly the USAC "championship trail" of other races died out, replaced by the CART series. CART owners unabashedly tried to emulate Formula One, with emphasis on road courses and street circuits in addition to oval tracks.I'm sort of sympathetic – if Bathurst became dominated by foreign drivers instead of Aussies and Kiwis, I doubt the bogan backlash would be pretty – but at the same time I have to doubt the "fans switching off" aspect of the story, because as I said, CART was booming, the most commercially successful era the sport ever saw. And bear in mind, most of USAC's "championship trail" looked like this:
The street circuits especially made business sense, because events could be held in and near major cities by simply laying out temporary courses, rather than building permanent racetracks.
But road and street racing also meant a different kind of driver. The tough Americans, who'd come up to Indy off the heartland oval dirt tracks, were phased out, displaced by Europeans, South Americans and Australians who'd been trained from childhood as road racers.
Slowly, American fans grew apathetic toward the imported personalities, and yearned for a resurgence of the Foyt ilk. But the Americans would never return in significant enough numbers. – Ed Hinton, Honor, Blood and a Brewing Battle
That's the start of the 1970 Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and it looks suspiciously 1940s for a race from the Vietnam era. At that time Indy was already being run by mid-engined cars with wings, but most of the championship involved this front-engined dirt-oval stuff, stuck in the past. That's what happens when blokes of a certain age graduate to management of a series – their idea of what racing should be was formed when they were wide-eyed youngsters having their first encounter with it and realising it was awesome. For the forty-something guys in charge of USAC in 1970, that mental image was probably from 1950. In the same way, Tony George's plans in 1996 were probably based on a mental image from 1976.
But it's probably not an accurate mental image. Something that's only just occurred to me in the last few days – and I've been reading Hinton's article on-and-off for a few years now – is that not once does it mention Formula 5000. Odd, right? Formula 5000 looms large in the memories of us Aussies, but it was actually invented in the U.S., where it emerged from and displaced what had started as Formula A, for mothballed F1 cars (Formula B, for production-based 1,600cc engines, was somewhere between F2 and F3 in speed; Formula C, for 1,100cc engines of either kind, was basically the second coming of Formula Junior).
|Lou Sell's Formula A Eagle-Chevrolet, 1968 (Source)|
To keep costs down the SCCA raised the Formula A engine limit to 5,000cc – the same as their juggernaut Trans-Am series – so it quickly became dominated by American V8s, which had as much power and more torque than the 3-litre F1 engines of the time. From there the formula just kept growing, and become the SCCA's headline act after the collapse of Trans- and Can-Am. In the mid-1970s, it was even co-sanctioned by USAC (which I'm guessing means USAC scrutineered the cars, with the SCCA providing the flaggies). But by 1978 it was an orphaned series, as USAC had pulled out leaving the SCCA to run it alone. But the Sports Car Club, naturally, wanted to run sports car races, so in a story that was recently detailed in Australian Muscle Car (worth a Pressreader search), they instead rebooted Can-Am by making everyone add fenders to their Formula 5000 cars. That went about as well as you might expect.
So in other words, that split between road and oval racing existed even in Indy's golden age in the 1970s – it's just that the road racing was easy to ignore in the history books, being literally split off into a different series. If you followed both halves, the '76 season looked an awful lot like a latter-day CART schedule:
|USAC Championship on the left, Formula 5000 on the right|
So even back then, road racing was putting bums on seats, and the CART barons were wise enough to realise that, with the demise of Formula 5000, they were ideally placed to make those events their own. That went double from 1984, when CART picked up the former F1 race at Long Beach. To hell with tradition, they made the Long Beach Grand Prix their season-opener, and today it's a blue-ribbon event almost as prestigious as the 500 itself. And let's not forget, the first race at Long Beach wasn't for F1, but a non-championship dress-rehearsal run in 1975 for... oh yeah, Formula 5000.
To be fair to Tony George, I'm not sure there was necessarily a solution to the problem of getting the dirt-oval heartlanders back to the biggest race of the year. That's the cost of professionalisation – it's not like an ordinary regional dealer can enter Bathurst anymore, either – and the career ladder to IndyCar is still something of a problem, although the Mazda Road to Indy programme is a valiant effort. But I'm not sure commercial suicide by trying to turn the clock back on your premier series was ever a smart move, even in 1996 when it all seemed so promising. Surely you have karting over there, Tony? Wouldn't getting young American drivers into karts have been a better move?
Or maybe the swing to NASCAR was always inevitable? As Hinton noted, the various breeds of dirt-oval racing no longer did much to send drivers to Indy, but it made a near-perfect ladder to NASCAR. And the slow descent of the once-proud Rust Belt, coupled with the political and commercial rise of the Deep South, was always going to shift the centre of gravity. The industry that underpinned the Midwest is long gone, not-at-all replaced by Reagan's "service economy"; Walmart is based in Arkansas, not Indiana, and didn't open their first store in Pennsylvania – home state of the Andrettis – until 1990. It's a long way down from there.
But in 1978, all that was in the future. The present was this hesitant, awkward, baby-steps return to the American tradition of road racing. I wonder what they would've said, if they could've known.