Honor, blood and a brewing battle

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior writer Ed Hinton has spent more than 35 years covering motorsports across the globe for entities including Sports Illustrated, The National Sports Daily, Tribune Newspapers and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The four-part series, The Damage Done, is his memoir of what he saw and reported leading up to the American open-wheel civil war and the consequences it wrought. His final story, Coda, is about the steps the Indy Racing League is now taking to hopefully steer the sport into a brighter future. This is Part I, The Gathering Storm

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Coda

On the afternoon of July 3, 1995, I was faxed a preview of a document that amounted to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of major open-wheel racing in the United States. It was sure to lead to civil war.

But unlike the American Civil War, both sides would be devastated, and neither side would recover.

From this one document would ensue 13 years of mutual destruction between two leagues, sending the Indianapolis 500 plummeting from the pinnacle of all the world's motor racing, and eroding Indy car racing to second class in the American public mind.

There they languish today, two years into the aftermath of the war, going into the 94th Indy 500, the 15th one since the split.

That fateful fax was preceded by a phone call from an anxious-sounding Bob Walters, then chief publicist at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I want to run something by you," he said. "We've prepared a press release, and I want to hear your thoughts before we send it out to the rest of the media."

Why me? Probably it was where I worked at the time, and maybe experience. I was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, then the most influential sports publication in the U.S., if not the world. I was the auto racing specialist, having covered all forms of the sport for more than 20 years.

Even before the fax cleared the machine, the impact was clear: If this edict were carried out, the destruction of Indy car racing would be a matter of time.

The release stated that beginning with the 1996 Indianapolis 500, 25 of the traditional 33 starting spots would be reserved for teams from the new Indy Racing League.

This was astounding because the IRL had yet to turn a wheel on a racetrack, and had yet to demonstrate that it could even attract 25 cars.

This was a blatant surprise attack on the powerful Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc. (CART), which since 1979 had accounted for most of each Indy 500 field. Now, if these teams complied, they would have to come on their knees with upwards of 40 cars to compete among themselves for only eight starting positions in the 500.

And this was revolutionary: The edict would shatter Indy's most inviolable tradition -- that "the fastest 33 cars start the race," no matter where in the world they came from.

The intent of the "25 and 8 rule," as it would come to be called in notoriety, was to force CART teams to compete not just at Indy but in all races of the new IRL, if they were to gather enough points to get Indy 500 reservations.

Outside Indy in May, CART owned the rest of the year with its own series, which was the most lucrative ever developed for open-wheel cars in the U.S.

Clearly, CART would never stand for the new rule. The glamorous teams would stay away from Indy entirely. Then inevitably would come the terrible test of who could do without whom: CART without the cornerstone race, or the Indy 500 without CART and its supporting series of races.

I phoned Walters back immediately with my opinion: This would be taken by CART, and by the motorsports media nationwide, as nothing short of a declaration of war.

This would rip open-wheel racing asunder, just when there was enough trouble maintaining prestige and popularity with one series.

But Indy car racing was in denial about the growing threat from another form of racing, rising rapidly out of the South and spreading nationwide, into mainstream popularity: NASCAR.

Walters listened, then sighed. "Well," he said, with a resigned tone in his voice, "Tony wants to go with it."

Anton Hulman "Tony" George had ascended the throne of Indianapolis Motor Speedway by hereditary right in 1990, at age 30.

He was the only male heir to his grandfather, Anton Hulman, who had saved the Speedway and the 500 after World War II.

Tony George arrived with a plan for sweeping change, and a chip on his shoulder. Indy had run too long on tradition, he decreed, and henceforth it would be run as a business.

I liked that. And I liked him -- still do, even now that he has fallen almost completely out of auto racing, his 20 years of bold plans no less noble for their terrible failures.

What had passed as tradition at Indy had seemed to be largely stodginess to me. But with young George in charge, the air seemed fresher and the grounds brighter every time you drove through one of the tunnels into the infield. He was making large-scale physical changes, fast.

And he was plunging into new business that would bring far more racing to Indy than just the 500.

He had begun hosting NASCAR races in 1994 -- even though traditionalists deemed it heresy -- and the first two Brickyard 400s had been landslide sellouts.

He had entered into a transoceanic flirtation with the treacherous, ruthless realm of Formula One and its czar, Bernie Ecclestone, with an eye toward bringing a U.S. Grand Prix to Indy.

So, going into the declaration of war in '95, Tony George had been a bullet train of change in motor racing.

Except for that chip on his shoulder.

Throughout the years of Indy car civil war, many would believe it was all about money through control of the sport. I thought that was true on the CART side, but never on George's side.

His motive, I still believe, was mainly a matter of family honor and noblesse oblige toward open-wheel racing.

As a teenager he had followed his grandfather around Gasoline Alley, meeting the tough and towering figures of Indy's golden era: A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby and Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Lloyd Ruby … Americans all.

Then the late 1970s brought a series of annually occurring tragedies into the young life of George.

On the night of the 1976 Indy 500, when Tony was 16, his father, Elmer George -- a former driver married to Tony Hulman's only child, Mari -- was shot and killed in an argument with a trainer at the family's horse farm outside Terre Haute, Ind.

When Tony was 17, his grandfather died, and even the hallowed Speedway itself seemed somehow orphaned without its gentlemanly owner/dictator, known throughout motor racing simply as "Mr. Hulman."

When Tony was 18, in 1978, former Formula One and Indy driver Dan Gurney circulated a letter to other progressive team owners. It proposed that America's premier open-wheel series, then controlled by the United States Auto Club (USAC), could and should be much bigger, better and richer than just a satellite tour to the cornerstone Indianapolis 500.

USAC was essentially a puppet of the Speedway, and rejected Gurney's proposals. So in late '78 he and other owners, such as Roger Penske and U.E. "Pat" Patrick, formed CART, and soon gathered most of the top teams into their alliance.

The glaring exception was the irascible, indomitable Foyt, the most independent-minded man in motor racing, coming off his unprecedented fourth Indy 500 win in '77 -- and fiercely loyal to the Hulman-George family and USAC.

When Tony was 19, in 1979, CART lawyers hand-delivered entries for 44 cars, right on deadline for that year's 500, to the Speedway. The entries were accompanied by demands for what it would take for that huge, vital group of cars and drivers to show up.

Then the CART teams set off to inaugurate their own series, with two races prior to the Indy 500, and await the Speedway's response.

They got it that April. As they unloaded in the garages of what was then called Atlanta International Raceway for their second race as an organization, there erupted something of a commotion among them, and I began asking them what was the matter.

They had received a telegram telling them they were not welcome at the Indy 500 that year, they said. Almost immediately they began discussing litigation. They would go to court for the right to compete in the 500. They would succeed.

From there, they effectively seized control of Indy, even though technically USAC remained the sanctioning body for the 500. What the CART teams wanted at the Brickyard, the CART teams usually got.

Quickly the USAC "championship trail" of other races died out, displaced 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.

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.

So, arguably, the downfall of Indy car racing began with CART's shift to road racing.

Tony George had to witness and stomach all this. But he was an heir in waiting. Not until he was 30, by family tradition, would he be given command.

Meanwhile he apprenticed in racing from the ground up, starting out as a fuel man on the pit crew of his idol and in some ways surrogate father, Foyt.

Independent as Foyt was, he had always deferred to the Hulman-George family, and worshiped them. From the outset, he acknowledged to young Tony just how important they were.

Foyt, left with no alternative, eventually participated in CART, but never cottoned to it. He longed for the USAC days when he reigned supreme at Indy, before the uppity barons in their Gucci loafers seized control in 1979.

From early on at the helm of Indy, George was chronically at odds with the barons of CART -- Penske, Gurney, Patrick, and by the '90s Chip Ganassi, Barry Green, and most of all, the militant Carl Haas and his even more militant business partner, actor Paul Newman.

The barons treated young George more as a new force to be felt out and somehow dealt with. Word was, they considered him a punk.

Publicly they treated him, as Haas would later put it, as "a track promoter," just one of many -- even though George's track was unchallenged as the greatest in the world.

They granted George a seat on the CART board of directors, but only as a non-voting member. They thwarted his every suggestion at every turn through the early '90s, saying no when he proposed an engine formula compatible with Formula One's, saying no when he proposed a neutral Indy car czar such as the roundly respected Leo Mehl, then Goodyear's director of worldwide racing.

George wanted to achieve what not even his grandfather had. He wanted to make Indy -- which previously had stood in splendid isolation -- a full-fledged, and certainly prominent, member of the worldwide racing community.

The CART barons continued to vote for what was best for their own series -- and their own individual business interests.

Finally, thoroughly exasperated, George walked out of a CART meeting, resigned from the board, and began working on a plan for his own racing series.

Traditionalist racers and fans had always resented CART as something of an occupying force on the hallowed ground of Indy, usurpers, dripping with opulence and arrogance and racing more for profit than passion.

In addition to importing road racers, CART teams had adopted the European tradition of drivers "buying rides" -- that is, bringing lucrative sponsorships or enormous personal wealth with them.

That added yet a second padlocked gate to keep out young Americans raised on the dirt tracks.

"We went on our knees to the CART teams," Jeff Gordon's stepfather, John Bickford, told me as Gordon rose to stardom in NASCAR.

Jeff Gordon They basically said, 'Show us the money and we'll show you the seat.'

-- Jeff Gordon

"They basically said, 'Show us the money and we'll show you the seat,'" Gordon would tell me later.

So George had to watch helplessly, with mixed emotions, while Gordon, the kid who'd grown up as a sprint-car prodigy in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., won the inaugural Brickyard 400 -- a NASCAR race.

Even then, George was watching yet another local prodigy tearing up the dirt tracks in USAC midgets, sprint cars and Silver Crown cars, winning in everything he drove -- but with no hope of buying a CART ride.

That was Tony Stewart of nearby Columbus, Ind.

Enough was enough.

Somehow, George determined, he would reopen the path to Indy for the likes of Gordon and Stewart. In 1994 he announced the founding of the Indy Racing League, with Stewart as his poster boy.

At every turn, old-liners whispered encouragement into George's ear. His was a glorious cause, making Indy again the showplace for American talent risen from the Saturday-night tracks.

He meant to accomplish this in part by simplifying technology and lowering costs, so that teams wouldn't need drivers who could bring money, and could afford to hire drivers who brought only their sheer ability.

Not the least of the old-liners, constantly in George's ear, was Foyt himself.

"Tony's a brilliant boy, and so's his mama," Foyt told me in one of his classic malapropisms, as the winds of Indy war began to blow.

Foyt would abide by -- and indeed influence -- every move the Hulman-George family made in breaking free of CART.

Many, including me, failed to take the IRL seriously enough when it was announced in '94. I thought it was mainly a bargaining ploy by George, to bring CART back to its senses from extravagance.

"The IRL will never turn a wheel in competition," I assured European journalist friends who were familiar with CART due to its international expansion, and concerned about a possible devastation of Indy car racing and the greatest single race in the world.

But as I read and reread the fax of July 3, 1995, and realized the magnitude of the "25 and 8" edict, I felt about as prescient as the North Carolina politician who in 1861 had dismissed the imminent conflict as so minor that he would "wipe up every drop of blood shed … with a handkerchief …"

The Fort Sumter of the Indy car civil war was, of all places, Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla.

The first shots were fired by the IRL, in holding its first race on Jan. 27, 1996, on a hastily constructed, three-cornered track built by Indy engineers on Disney property.

All the previous fall, there had been hope that Indy and CART would somehow reconcile -- as they had after various bickering over the previous 17 years -- and that perhaps George would even rescind the "25-8" rule for the Indy 500.

But now, a walk through the paddock at the Disney track made the gravity of the situation clear.

Conspicuous by their absence were the affluent CART teams with their posh entertainment tents, luxury motor coaches and glitzy paint schemes for lucrative corporate sponsorships.

They'd kept their vow not to give in to George's attempt to force them to compete in IRL races -- even though at this point in the technical transition, mere tweaks to the CART cars would have made them IRL-legal.

Instead, here were the upstart IRL teams, fielding mostly second-hand CART cars, or old cars from the independent owners who annually fielded teams on a "one-off" basis, for the Indy 500 only.

Tony Stewart had arrived as poster boy and was filling his role magnificently, telling any journalist who asked that there was no way he ever could have gotten a ride in CART. The IRL, with its open arms to American dirt-trackers, was a career-changer for him.

Walking among the patchwork teams in the paddock, Gordon Kirby of the British magazine Autosport asked me, "What strikes you as starkly different?"

"Pretty ragtag," I said. But there was something more profound.

"No sponsorship logos," Kirby said. And he was right. There were hardly any.

Where were they getting the money to compete? Word was already spreading that George was subsidizing teams out of his own pocket, or at least the Indianapolis Motor Speedway coffers.

This was a radical departure from any other racing league's financial model, ever. For just this one race, you could understand: Leagues and tracks often paid "appearance money" to top teams and drivers just to show up, so their names could be used in ticket promotions.

But a full season? If you'd driven the 55 miles up to Daytona Beach and proposed to NASCAR czar Bill France Jr. that he subsidize the Cup teams for a season, he'd have laughed you out of his office.

The sanctioning body provided the forum, the tracks provided the prize money, and other than that, the teams were on their own. That was the NASCAR model.

Then again, not even the France family could match the vast family wealth of the Hulman-George family, and its Hulman & Co., founded as a wholesale grocery company by Tony George's great-great-grandfather, Herman Hulman, in 1879. Now the company was broadly diversified, not only with ownership of Indianapolis Motor Speedway but with holdings ranging from Clabber Girl baking powder to television stations and the Telex communications company.

Oh, and there was one more enormous contributor to George's war chest: NASCAR itself.

Both NASCAR and Formula One had taken public positions of neutrality in the coming Indy car war, but it was no secret that the other two giants didn't care much for CART.

F1 had fought CART's international expansion in the early '90s and had no love for the bellicose American barons who'd pushed into Australia, Canada and Europe, with designs on Japan -- all traditionally F1 turf.

But NASCAR's interest was closer and more fundamental. Organizations such as CART, in which team owners pushed the sanctioning body and track promoters around, were anathema to NASCAR's ruling France family.

When NASCAR's founder, "Big Bill" France Sr., summoned the various kingpins of stock-car racing from around the nation to Daytona Beach in 1947, he knew he had to seize absolute control of the new league. An adviser had warned him that this would work only as a dictatorship -- that a governing board would be disastrous.

And fear of any sort of union was fresh in France's mind as he formed NASCAR -- in May 1947, Anton Hulman had put down a bitter drivers' strike at the Indianapolis 500.

Now, in the mid '90s, there was undercurrent talk in the NASCAR garages that a CART-like organization of powerful team owners might arise, to take advantage of an upheaval in track ownership and demand higher purses.

Standing under umbrellas in the rain at Talladega one weekend, in an otherwise deserted garage area, one powerful team owner had posed an intriguing question to me privately.

"How much would you pay for NASCAR right now?" he asked, amid rumors that giant corporations such as Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, or even Disney, might be interested in buying.

"You mean if I were Murdoch? Oh, $2 billion, $3 billion, I don't know," I said.

"Now then," and here the owner pointed to the haulers of NASCAR's top six or seven teams, "if those rigs were suddenly gone, those teams were out, how much would you pay for NASCAR?"

"Oh," I mused, "about $1.99."

"Exactly," he said, and walked away in the rain.

The point was, without its major teams and stars, NASCAR would be worthless. This came precariously close to the thinking that had started CART.

What had started the NASCAR rumblings, in parallel to the Indy car conflict, were the activities of O. Bruton Smith. A longtime France family rival, Smith was chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., a track conglomerate he'd taken to Wall Street as a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange.

The France family, which owned NASCAR outright and controlled International Speedway Corp., another track conglomerate, was watching Smith closely as he gobbled up tracks with built-in NASCAR race dates. He already owned the tracks at Charlotte and Atlanta, bought existing tracks such as Las Vegas and Bristol, and planned to build new ones, his crown jewel-in-progress being Texas Motor Speedway.

Smith was acquiring tracks so fast, and had disagreed with the Frances so much for so long over how NASCAR should be run, that there was much conjecture that he might start a rival stock-car series.

Then Smith, not yet able to get a Cup race scheduled for his yet-to-open Texas track, hinted that he might just run a non-sanctioned or "outlaw" race, after the NASCAR season was over, with an enormous purse.

That got the attention of the NASCAR owners, and that in turn fueled rumblings of a CART-type council of team owners to sell their services to the highest-bidding series.

Amidst all this, Bill France Jr., second czar in the NASCAR dynasty, publicly postured himself as neutral in the Indy car conflict.

NASCAR's funding of Tony George's war chest was indirect, in the form of the enormous revenues Indy took in from the new, but firmly established, NASCAR race there, the Brickyard 400.

George would tell me years later that there was "no question" this additional bonanza from his NASCAR race emboldened and bolstered him for the IRL venture.

There was another connection with NASCAR: John Cooper, a longtime friend and sometimes business associate of the France family, and onetime NASCAR marketing director, was now one of George's closest advisers.

After working for NASCAR in the '70s, Cooper in late 1979 had been named president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in something of a quiet move, and served until 1982. Then, in the early '90s, Cooper had helped facilitate the partnership of Indy and NASCAR for the Brickyard 400.

On Jan. 26, 1996, the eve of the first Indy Racing League event, the IRL threw a lavish cocktail party in a tent outside the new track on the Disney property.

I noticed Cooper standing to the side, taking it all in. I walked over to check out some rumors I'd heard.

"Hey, John, you know what I hear? I hear the CART barons were scrambling to settle this thing, and that Tony was listening," I said.

"That right?" he asked.

"Yeah. And then I heard you to told Tony, 'f--- 'em,'" I said. "And that was it."

Cooper demurred, smiled, contemplated the ice cubes in his vodka and soda, then took a sip.

"Well," he said, "I might have said something along those lines."

The Damage Done, Part II: Getting It Wrong

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.