As the Verizon IndyCar Series prepares for one of the most prestigious races on the calendar, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, we are reminded of the peculiar Long Beach/Motegi split race weekend from the 2008 season. The weekend hosted two races, in separate hemispheres, and with the teams and drivers split in their commitment to the two.
It was a strange episode in an awkward marriage between the Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League. As IndyCar has now begun its tenth season since unification, perhaps now is the time to reflect on that weekend and the significance of the infamous split and the sudden unification of American open-wheel racing just before the 2008 season.
Before the mid-1990s, the unquestioned supremacy of NASCAR over North American motorsport had not yet developed. Instead, NASCAR was consistently upstaged by the popularity and notoriety of the CART Indy Car World Series, as it was then branded.
As the story goes, even F1 Supremo Bernie Ecclestone was believed to have been unnerved by the expansion of American open-wheel racing in the early 1990s. Ecclestone’s fears were only exasperated after the departure of the current F1 World Drivers Champion, Nigel Mansell, to CART in 1993. Mansell joined a series that already included world renowned competitors like Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi.
Tragically, CART was thrown into disarray by greed, politics, and a power struggle between the team owners and the powerful Hulman-George family, owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In the end, a strong and healthy series begot two weaker series: the oval-dominated Indy Racing League and the road and street course-based CART (later re-branded Champ Car), who only shared their struggle to survive. In the end, hosting the Indianapolis 500 proved to be enough for the Indy Racing League to prevail.
The split lasted from 1996-2007. During the interval, confused and uninterested in the nuances of it all, American motorsport fans largely tuned out and the two series struggled to compete in a market where one had thrived in. By the end of the 2007 season, it was clear Champ Car couldn’t survive. Most of the big teams had begun departing for the Indy Racing League by the early 2000s and Champ Car was bankrupt.
Although merger talks developed at various points during the split, it was not until the end of 2007 that serious negotiations between the parties began. In essence, the IndyCar Series would absorb most Champ Car teams, who would be given the spec Dallara chassis and Honda engines, and some Champ Car events would be added to the calendar.
The biggest obstacle for the merger was the scheduled races at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan and the 34th annual Long Beach Grand Prix during the same April weekend. As late as February, talks stalled over this issue and it became evident that rescheduling each race at such a late date was impossible.
By February 22nd, a compromise was reached when it was agreed a unified series would host both races for a final split weekend. The existing IndyCar teams would compete in Japan and the Champ Car teams would compete in Long Beach. Championship points would be awarded for both races.
The action on the track during that weekend received the most attention IndyCar had received in years. The 2008 Long Beach Grand Prix was won by Australian Will Power in dominating fashion. Yet his victory was overshadowed by the events in Motegi, hours before. Danica Patrick’s win in Japan, the defining achievement in her career, was undeniably historic.
It was the first win by a woman in American open-wheel racing and thoroughly covered by the American sports and news media, but it was a lucky win. She hovered around the top five for most of the race, but was never in contention for the win and her victory is owed to a race that came down to fuel mileage, not pace. Patrick’s win in Japan was her last in American motorsport to date and she has spent most of the time since languishing as a backmarker in NASCAR, yet she is still a household name in America.
The weekend’s other winner, Will Power, has gone on to be one of the most dominating drivers in the past decade of American motorsport. He has accrued 29 race wins and claimed the 2014 IndyCar Championship. Though he has been a perennial championship contender and drives for one of the legendary teams of American motorsport, Team Penske, few outside of the IndyCar faithful know who he is.
Power’s relative obscurity is just an example of the lasting impact the split of open-wheel racing had in American motorsport. Even after almost a decade since unification, there is still much to be done for American open-wheel racing to reassert itself in sports culture.