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Revisionist History: How Jeff Gordon Nearly Destroyed American Open Wheel Racing

by Frank Santoroski          @seveng1967

Editor’s note: While this article is largely done in the spirit of parody, the information presented within is factual. 

Photo: Chris Owens/INDYCAR

When the Verizon IndyCar Series hits the track at St. Pete in 2018, it will mark the eleventh season of a unified series following that nasty “split” that began in 1996. Things seem to be on a general upswing for the Series, with positive growth and new teams joining the grid.

Admittedly, things are not perfect and there are issues to be addressed, including signing a title sponsor and television coverage partner for 2019, but folks associated with the series seem to be genuinely optimistic about the future.

Despite the encouraging attitude, the wounds of the split still run deep, and there remains a significant percentage of the populace that refuses to accept the unified series. Just mention the split on social media, and watch your comment counter blow up as hundreds will chime in to play the blame-game.

You are likely to read several disparaging comments about Tony George, and many that will call him FTG, although his first initial isn’t actually F. (You can decipher that on your own). Others will point the finger at Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, or anyone that was in charge of CART at any given time. However, there is one responsible party that is often overlooked in the feeding-frenzy of trash talk: a certain Mr. Jeffrey Michael Gordon.

Now, before you poo-poo this theory like the Roswell UFO or the shooter on the grassy knoll, let’s examine all the facts. Jeff Gordon began racing at an early age, debuting in quarter-midgets at the age of five. His stepfather, John Bickford, was incredibly supportive of the youngster’s racing activity as he watched Jeff pile up the wins.

nascar.com

Bickford went as far as to pack up the whole family and move them from California to Pittsboro, Indiana, where there were more opportunities for young racers. Living in the shadow of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gordon, now a teenager, dreamed of following the likes of guys named Foyt, Unser, Andretti and Johncock on the road from USAC Midgets and Sprints right to the Indianapolis 500.

A funny thing happened on Gordon’s way to the Brickyard. When he had accomplished all he could in USAC, including becoming the youngest Silver Crown Champion, he began to shop his talents to the CART teams in hopes of a ride. Despite the fact that he was a high-profile name that was pegged as a future superstar by the pundits, he found the doors slammed shut in his face.

Indeed, CART in the early 1990s bore little resemblance to the USAC series that preceded it.  The schedule was heavy on road courses and the grid was filled with international drivers that had come up through European formula racing, many of which had Formula One experience. Even the American drivers in the field were largely a product of various SCCA road racing series’ and you’d be hard-pressed to find any young driver behind the wheel with a dirt track background.

The road to the 500 no longer went through USAC, and Gordon was denied a ride, unless he could come up with some funding. Poor Jeff Gordon must have felt like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation, who drove all the way across the country to visit Wally World, only to find the theme park closed when he arrived.

There was, of course, interest in Gordon from another racing discipline, and he debuted as a NASCAR Winston Cup driver in 1992. But, that’s just the beginning of the story.

Tony George, erstwhile president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was acutely aware of the plight of Jeff Gordon and others with similar backgrounds. He attempted to exert his influence over the CART board of directors, but to no avail. With a non-voting role on the board, George decided to take his ball and go home.

George’s ball just happened to be the biggest race in the world, and he set about creating his own series that was built around his race. In doing so, he crafted the original rule book to keep the CART guys away from his playground with the 25/8 rule. While there are a number of reasons for the acrimony that led to the split, one of the Indy Racing League’s stated goals was as follows:

To give a better opportunity for American drivers to succeed in motorsports and compete at the Indianapolis 500, particularly USAC drivers whose numerical representation at the 500 had dwindled.

If that doesn’t scream “The Jeff Gordon Clause”, I don’t know what does. When the new league hit the track in 1996, there was a larger representation from American drivers with USAC experience. At this point, Jeff Gordon would have been welcomed into the IRL with open arms. Unfortunately, that ship had sailed. Gordon was wrapping up his first Winston Cup Championship as the IRL was being formed.

IMS Photo

There was, however, another young USAC star and product of Indiana short tracks that the IRL could hang its name on. That guy was Tony Stewart. In 1997 Stewart won the Championship in the IRL’s first full season. (The 1996 season consisted of just three events, and remains a footnoted curiosity in the history books with its co-champions).

As one of the fledgling League’s first marketable stars, Stewart’s title came in the same season that saw Jeff Gordon win his second Winston Cup.

In comparison to Gordon’s Cup, the IRL Trophy was much larger, but the paycheck: not so much. I’m not sure if the two compared notes, but Stewart, who was known to moonlight in the Busch Grand National Series, made his debut at a full-time Cup driver in 1999.

While the CART series continued on without the 500 acting like they never missed a beat, and the IRL struggled to carve out their space in the racing world, the only thing that could have made things worse would be seeing NASCAR make massive gains in popularity. Well, that’s exactly what happened. The  tremendous growth of NASCAR in the 1990s can also trace back to Jeff Gordon.

nascar.com

There was a concerted effort to craft Jeff Gordon into a star. Well, not just a star, but a bona fide celebrity. From the outset, it was painfully obvious that, going against the likes of Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett and the late Dale Earnhardt, Gordon was never going to win a mustache contest. His agents and handlers suggested that he shave that scraggly caterpillar off of his face, and do away with the bangs and Mullet as well.

The Jeff Gordon that emerged from the make-over had a clean, corporate, polished look. They may have, in fact, made his look a bit too polished. Country music artist/stand-up comedian, Tim Wilson, wrote a song he called “Jeff Gordon’s Gay,” debuting the ditty on The Bob and Tom Show, an early morning radio show popular in Midwest markets.

Gordon, of course, isn’t gay, although the use of a rainbow paint scheme on his car did little to quell the whispering behind his back. Either way, the combination of success on the track, and a carefully manicured media-savvy personality vaulted him solidly into popular culture. To this day, Gordon remains as the only personality from the racing world to have hosted Saturday Night Live.

nbc.com

On the track, Gordon continued his winning ways and became a polarizing “love him or hate him” driver. Half of the fans wanted to see him win, and the other half were there to see him lose. Either way, the grandstands were full, as the track owners clamored to add seats to their facilities.

The growing popularity of Stock Car Racing undoubtedly attracted a number of disenchanted open wheel fans over to the Dark Side, as the split raged on.

CART continued crowning foreign-born champions like Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya and Cristiano da Matta, only to see them defect to Formula One. Many CART loyalists found the early IRL laughable, and even referred to the cars as ‘Crapwagons’ a moniker that is credited to Paul Tracy.

The IRL’s quest to boost American USAC drivers into prominence wasn’t faring much better. After some guy from Sweden won the 1998 title, they did actually have a nice run of American champions with Greg Ray, Buddy Lazier and Sam Hornish Jr. These three champions had one thing in common: none of them came out of USAC.

As NASCAR was growing and adding tracks to the schedule, some of these new tracks (most notably Texas and Kansas) hatched the idea of forcing fans into buying season tickets in order to attend the Cup race. This allowed the IRL to play to packed grandstands on these racetracks, giving the illusion of a thriving series.

However, left to their own devices, the League was a tough sell to race fans. It was reported that when the Series visited the Monster Mile in Dover, DE in 1999, the combined number of participants, team members, track workers, safety personnel and credentialed media actually outnumbered the amount of paying spectators.

Fueled by guys like Jeff Gordon, the aforementioned Tony Stewart, and the old-timers with the mustaches, Stock Cars supplanted open-wheelers as the most popular form of US racing, taking what was once a regional series into a national empire. During that era, NASCAR reached heights that the old USAC, CART and IRL series could only dream about.

IMS Photo

There were at the time, in fact, attempts aimed at enticing Jeff Gordon back to open-wheel racing ostensibly to stop the bleeding.

Barry Green offered Gordon a ride with his CART Team for the 1997 season. He sweetened the deal with a plan that may have eventually put Gordon in a Formula One ride with BAR.

Gordon politely declined, opting to stay with a sure thing, rather than jump aboard a sinking ship. He did, however, take advantage of a ride-swap with Juan Pablo Montoya a few years later to get a feel of what he may have missed out on.

While CART eventually mismanaged itself out of existence, the IRL was able to utilize the dangling carrot of the Indianapolis 500 to coax the top teams over and swing the balance of power. Now, 22 years after the fact, the current series looks more and more like CART in its heyday, (if you remove the multiple chassis manufacturers and the free-flowing tobacco money) and bears little resemblance to the early IRL. This is a fact that some, like myself, find appealing, but others find tough to swallow.

A top shoe running USAC Sprints this day and age has about the same chance of breaking into IndyCar as Jeff Gordon did in 1992. Slim to none. The founding principles of the IRL now seem to be a failed experiment.

On the plus side, IndyCar has developed a ladder series to guide young drivers, American and otherwise, towards a career that may culminate in Indianapolis 500 glory. As a matter of fact, one of the brightest and most marketable new American stars of the series, Josef Newgarden, is a graduate of the Indy Lights Series.

They have called the program the Mazda Road to Indy in an attempt to idiot-proof it against another Jeff Gordon from coming along and wrecking the series.

With all things being cyclical in the world, the unified IndyCar Series is now seeing a slight uptick as NASCAR’s popularity is slipping. With Gordon having retired from full-time NASCAR competition, we can probably blame him for that too.

 

 

The post Revisionist History: How Jeff Gordon Nearly Destroyed American Open Wheel Racing appeared first on Drafting The Circuits.

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