Tuesday, December 30, 2014

1979: Year of the Original Split

Today we have a couple of artifacts from the original open-wheel split of 1979. Specifically, programs from the first CART and USAC races of that season at Phoenix International Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway, respectively.

The covers themselves tell the story of what each group offered.

CART had the top drivers, with the notable exception of one A.J. Foyt Jr. of Houston, Texas. As such, Gordon Johncock, winner of the previous Jimmy Bryan 150 and at the time a Phoenix resident, is featured.

USAC offered, uh, plenty of seats. Actually, USAC offered  a superstar driver (Foyt ), some other respected veterans and former winners (including Gary Bettenhausen, Roger McCluskey, Jim McElreath and Billy Vukovich) and, most importantly, the Indianapolis 500.

The welcome note from Ray Smartis, general manager for Ontario, hoped for a quick end to the open-wheel civil war:

“Regretfully, some of the prominent drivers you have been used to seeing at OMS are not competing in today’s event because of a current dispute between some of the teams and the U.S. Auto Club.

“We have been working continuously to help heal that breach and we sincerely believe that it will be healed soon. In the meantime, we also believe that today’s race will be every bit as competitive and exciting as you have come to expect for a major contest here at OMS, and we shall continue our dedicated efforts towards the good of all racing.”

A USAC stock car race also was on the bill. Foyt dominated in winning both races.

A couple of drivers who would become stars in NASCAR were in the stock car event: Rusty Wallace, who finished fourth, and Mark Martin, who was 28th.

Ontario Motor Speedway, a sort of idealized version of IMS, closed in 1980 after a mere decade of operation. OMS switched back to CART for its 500-mile race that summer and for its last one the next year.

Phoenix continued as an open-wheel home for many years, some seasons offering both spring and fall events. Interestingly, it broke ties with CART and aligned with the upstart Indy Racing League/USAC for 1996.

Dwindling attendance, however, soon became a huge issue as the “second split” proved disastrous for, well, everyone.  It’s now been nearly 10 years since Phoenix played host to an IndyCar event. Even now with a unified series, a return in the near future seems unlikely.