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Mario Andretti: Nearly 20 years later, IndyCar Series still suffering effects of CART-IRL split in attracting fans

Jul 11, 2014, 3:25 PM EDT

(Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images) Getty Images

The fallout from the 1996 split between the now-defunct CART open-wheel series and the then-upstart Indy Racing League continues to hamper IndyCar’s efforts to further build the sport, according to legendary driver Mario Andretti.

Even though the two series reunited in 2008, IndyCar still struggles when it comes to attracting new fans, Andretti told John Bombatch of

“I was hoping that by now, since it’s one series again, it would have regained more popularity,” Andretti said. “But I think the split was for too long, and we lost a lot of our fan base. We almost have another generation coming now.

“Sure, we have hardcore fans. But even still, the newer fan base has to be re-educated to appreciate what the IndyCar Series is all about. Right now, I think the product is really good. I think the races are the best I’ve ever seen, with the nature the cars are and the way it is regulated.”

With eight different winners in the series’ first 11 races of this season coming into Saturday’s race at Iowa Speedway, parity has become synonymous with IndyCar – and the sanctioning body has to promote that type of close racing, said Andretti, a four-time open-wheel champ and winner of the 1969 Indianapolis 500.

“Once you’ve got the product, you’ve got to feel pretty positive about the series,” Andretti, 74, told Bombatch. “It’s just good racing, that’s all there is to it. The talent in the field is deep, it’s good. There’s a strong international contingent, which is fine. Golf has that. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve gotta keep hammering, that’s all.”

Even though Andretti has technically been retired from IndyCar racing for 20 years now, he’s still behind the wheel at most events, driving a specially-built two-seat race car in which he gives fans rides in during race weekends.

Andretti, the only driver to have ever won the Indy 500, Daytona 500, as well as USAC, CART and Formula One championships, is still mischievous in his new role as he was when he was a full-time racer.

“We’ve had a few people who just lose it,” Andretti told Bombatch with a laugh. “I’ve had a half dozen or so of those over the years, which makes it a special day. A bit embarrassing for them, but fun for me.

“There’s a panic button for the passenger to hit, which shows a red light on my steering wheel to tell me that they’re worried … and I ignore it. Once you’re in the cockpit, you’ve gotta go with me. Sometimes people get a little nervous, which is good. I like that actually. That’s the whole idea.”

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  1. Jeff - Jul 11, 2014 at 3:48 PM

    I think the CART split from USAC hurst just as much, and that split caused the IRL, CART split. Most fans seem to forgot that CART split first, and that that is the real reason for today’s situation

    • indycarseries500 - Jul 11, 2014 at 4:51 PM

      Championship racing was never going to grow under USAC. CART had legit concerns and USAC gave then no option but to break away. It could’ve worked fine but CART was unfortunately run by the car owners and at times they forgot what thier meal ticket was and didn’t make Tony George feel like one of the boys so he took his bruised ego on a power trip. The USAC/CART split was necessary the CART/IRL split was full of egos who decided to screw everything up rather than work together.

      • extavernmouse - Jul 11, 2014 at 4:53 PM

        That was some wavelength we were on, huh?

  2. extavernmouse - Jul 11, 2014 at 4:52 PM

    I respectfully disagree. USAC was very reactionary and in no mood to change with the times. Otherwise CART wouldn’t have split off.

    Having lived through it, I really feel that the CART years were the golden ones during my time watching the sport. CART brought racing to cities that didn’t have tracks near them, fostered a whole bunch of competitive racing teams, created new stars, and had cool looking cars.

    The IRL was just a power grab. There was no reason for it except that the guy with the biggest chip in the series — the Indy 500 — wanted to play by his rules, so he took his race track and went home. It was hubris and it was dumb. Though CART didn’t help the situation by doing things such as putting its own 500 mile race on over Memorial Day.

    My take is that the sport would never have grown so big if the USAC split hadn’t occurred. I agree with Mario that the IRL split is what hurt the sport, at a time when NASCAR was growing fast. All the new racing fans went to NASCAR instead of open wheelers.

  3. worknman24hours - Jul 11, 2014 at 6:34 PM

    A pretty positive statement from Mario.

    The product is getting better every race so let’s see it on regular tv set at roughly the same time every weekend.

    And where is the sponsorship tie ins with the fast food chains ,grocery stores,beers and the like on tv promoting the series?

    Get the word out Indycar!-we got a real racing series here!

  4. uknownothingatall - Jul 11, 2014 at 9:50 PM

    I have F1 and sports car racing to be a fan of now. Tony George can be proud of his legacy of destroying american open wheel racing.

  5. dcollins22585 - Jul 12, 2014 at 12:56 AM

    Right now motorsports is not attracting new fans. It was great when the video games and HD TV first came out but the newbies have found something else now. IndyCar has some very good racing but the cars are a little too equal.

  6. tonyminton - Jul 12, 2014 at 5:30 AM

    Her sis the deal.. ALL of the races oare on a cable channel I don’t get. NBC something. Try putting the races on NATIONAL NETWORK TV and maybe you gain some fans. The racing is great, what isn’t greta is the price. FAMILIES can not afford to go. You have to spend nearly a paycheck to take a family to a race and dispensible income is not common for all. Lower the price make money on the back end with parking , concessins, souveniers etc. stupid marketing is all that is wrong.

    • worknman24hours - Jul 12, 2014 at 7:56 PM

      I can never understand the reason why you would price any race or event to where people simply say, “to heck with it,’ll watch it at home.”

      You want to value price the thing especially with family packages to pack the people in and then get them to buy the stuff availible there.

      Empty seats look really-really bad on tv.

  7. Jeff - Jul 12, 2014 at 8:59 AM

    From what I know and remember, it was the 60s and 70s that was the zenith of open-wheel racing in America. The CART, USAC split in the late 70s precipitated everything that’s happened since.

    • indycarseries500 - Jul 14, 2014 at 10:42 AM

      The Indianapolis 500 maybe but the rest of the series, not at all.

  8. kitnamania13 - Jul 12, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    The problem is still Tony George. He still gains from the success of the series and the Indy 500. Until that changes, the series is toxic for many. There only way to solve this is change in ownership, one way or another.

  9. chaparral2f - Jul 12, 2014 at 4:29 PM

    I will forever hold Tony George responsible for destroying open wheeled racing and for diminishing the Greatest Spectacle in Racing-the Indianapolis 500. I grew up following the 500 in the early 60s with the roadsters, then the Lotus rear engined challengers, then the epic 70s and finally the halcyon days of CART. People may forget that at one time, CART was rivaling F1. Nigel Mansell and Michael Andretti are prime examples of jumping ship to Indy cars. Sadly, there was not enough interest in two warring, competing series. CART had the advantage with more technically interesting cars and higher profile drivers while the IRL had the 500. I have tried to get excited about open wheeled racing, but I just cannot. The cars are revolting to me design wise. The magic of the Indy 500 has disappeared. Anyone remember the days in the 70s, 80s and 90s leading up to the split when the entire month of May was filled with excitement and wonder? Anyone remember the electric qualifying days as well as the Bubble days? I watch F1 and Sports Car racing today while fondly recalling all the teams and drivers who made open wheeled racing what it was.

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