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Had it not been for CART-IRL split, Toyota might never have come to NASCAR

Mar 22, 2014, 1:18 PM EDT

David Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. (Photo courtesy TRD) David Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development. (Photo courtesy TRD)

The NASCAR that we know today might have a significantly different look if it wasn’t for the split between CART and the upstart Indy Racing League in the mid-1990s.

Had the IRL not been formed and essentially excommunicated CART from racing at the Indianapolis 500, Toyota may never have decided to move its resources and racing hopes to NASCAR.

That comes in a story by Tom Jensen on FoxSports.com with a fascinating revelation and admission by David Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Research and Development, which spearheads the manufacturer’s NASCAR initiative.

Toyota had begun an Indy car development program in the early 1990s and was preparing to race at Indianapolis in 1996.

But when former IMS president Tony George formed the alternative IRL circuit – with two of its supposed key intentions to create a series to develop more American-born drivers, as well as make open-wheel racing more affordable and attractive to prompt groups to form more American teams – it caused a deep rift within the open-wheel ranks.

George’s declaration that only IRL-affiliated teams would be welcome to compete in the 1996 Indy 500 not only kept CART out, it forced Toyota to radically alter its open-wheel plans.

Originally intent on racing at Indy, Toyota instead aligned with CART from 1996-2002.

“We literally were testing cars and engines at the speedway (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) in 1994 and we didn’t get to race there until 2003, when we joined the IRL ranks,” Wilson said.

And when that happened, Toyota quickly realized its return on investment was dramatically less than expected.

“To demonstrate the lack of value … in 2003, we won the Indy 500, we won the race in Japan, we won 13 out of 16 races that year, and that fall, we still had to sell to our management to stay in the sport,” Wilson said.

“As much as we loved it from an engineering standpoint, we also starting realizing that there were a lot of empty seats. And open-wheel in the United States was not exactly catching fire, so that started our … relationship with NASCAR.”

Toyota’s run in the IRL was agonizingly short-lived. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop its open-wheel program, Toyota ultimately departed the IRL and abandoned its overall open-wheel program just three seasons later.

But before the open-wheel program was discontinued, Toyota had already begun working on entering NASCAR, ultimately joining the-then Camping World Truck Series ranks in 2004 and eventually climbing to the marquee Sprint Cup series in 2007.

Even today, 18 years after the IRL (now known as IndyCar) was formed, it’s clear the wounds from its split with CART still run deep, fracturing open-wheel racing in the U.S., from which it still hasn’t recovered – and may never will.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

  1. manik56 - Mar 22, 2014 at 2:33 PM

    Toyota planned a great F1 program too. Lol.

  2. spa67 - Mar 22, 2014 at 10:24 PM

    Nothing that has not been said before. Tony George had more impact on the success NASCAR has had in the last 20 years than ANYONE actually affiliated with the NASCAR in ANY capacity.

    • indycarseries500 - Mar 23, 2014 at 2:23 AM

      I don’t think so, I know a lot of people aren’t willing to believe this but NASCAR was ahead of CART in 1995. The marketing machine was already set in motion. The decline of IndyCar and the rise of NASCAR were for the most part independent. CART still did very well from 96-2001 but I doubt it would’ve been much bigger if the split didn’t happen.

      • midtec2005 - Mar 23, 2014 at 3:07 AM

        I’m not so sure, not having the “500” on the schedule can only hurt. I agree than NASCAR was on the way up, but CART likely would have done better as well.

  3. spa67 - Mar 22, 2014 at 10:40 PM

    Look how few comments there are. If a tree falls in the woods and…

    • crunge4461 - Mar 23, 2014 at 3:07 AM

      Actually, if you look at the other stories here (NBC motorsports talk), most of em’ don’t have many comments, this is a lot of comments for any story up, so in a relative sense your statement is a contradiction, because this story has more posts than most of the other stories on NBC Sports motorsports talk

  4. testover6370 - Mar 22, 2014 at 11:30 PM

    Many suspect NASCAR encouraged the formation of the IRL to weaken CART and gain momentum at their expense. If true here’s a direct example of how that worked. But more importantly, it is time to put the split in the past and move forward.

    • indycarseries500 - Mar 23, 2014 at 2:25 AM

      NASCAR was more about building themselves up than tearing anyone else down. No way NASCAR encouraged the IRL at all.

  5. crunge4461 - Mar 23, 2014 at 3:15 AM

    As for this story, who cares. We (American Open Wheel Fans) all know the damage done by the split. Nascar would have been a huge force regardless…they had American names and on the edge racing that was gritty and dangerous, there was a reason it became so popular. With that said, CART and IRL happened at the best time for Nascar, it was probably the dumbest thing I have witnessed in motorsport in my life (for the vantage of a CART fan, which I was), especially cause 1995 was an amazing season for CART, one of the best. The split hurt bad, for anyone to deny this is really out to lunch on their history. However, it is now water on the bridge, there is one series, the racing is way better than anything else and the split should be forgotten. We have to move forward and keep up the great racing and use this to build the sport. Forget about the split, that is almost twenty years ago!

  6. bigdcart - Mar 23, 2014 at 8:51 AM

    In the early 1990’s C^RT had the best cars and the most respected racing series in the world. Then came Tony George with Billy Boat, Racin Gardner and the infamous Crapwagons. Thanks Tony, you ruined it for us all.

    • acuraf12 - Mar 28, 2014 at 10:17 AM

      Agreed.
      FTG

  7. Jeff - Mar 23, 2014 at 6:45 PM

    CART split first. In 1979.
    Also, I’m tired of the Tony George hating.
    No open-wheel racing fan would have anything to complain about if it weren’t for Tony George and the entire Hulman family. Without Tony Hulman there would be no Indianapolis Motor Speedway or the Indianapolis 500. They would have died on the vine after World War II. Without the 500, there would be no champ car, CART, IRL, IndyCar or INDYCAR. The Indianapolis 500 makes the stars, not the other way around. I can’t think of one driver who’s raced exclusively on road or street courses become a household name in the United States. Foyt, Rutherford, Unser, Mears and Castroneves are household because they raced and won at the Indianapolis 500.

  8. crunge4461 - Mar 23, 2014 at 7:27 PM

    I am confused, you are saying that no one has any reason to complain about Tony George, but then all of the reasons for fans not being able to complain about Tony George are actually the accomplishments of Sr., Tony Hulman. Does anyone in the American Open Wheel community not love the late great Tony Hulman? Pretty sure every fan of Indy thinks Sr. is the greatest thing that ever happened to the sport. Tony George though should not get the credit for his dad’s accomplishments. If you want to say that TG is great, fine, but please cite the great things that TG did, not the great things that Sr. did.

    Where I will agree with you is that the split is 20 years ago, and there is no reason to keep beating a dead horse. TG made a big mistake, frankly I think that the history really bears this out, his decision did tremendous damage to the 500 that was highly noticeable and did a disservice to what Sr. had created before. That said, it was not his intent, it was a mistake and it is long history. Need to move on from that nonsense and keep building the series today.

  9. Jeff - Mar 24, 2014 at 8:54 PM

    CART made the mistake first. If the CART owners weren’t so arrogant, George doesn’t do what he did. They tried to force him, but ultimately he made them pay. CART owners were stupid to think they could go without the Indy 500. They are the ones who came back to the 500, not the other way around.

    And Tony George is Tony Hulman’s grandson. You take the whole family, you can’t pick and choose. The family did what they thought they needed to do, eventually sending George along his way.

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