American open-wheel racing has been in dire straits for years, and it all goes back to a little piece of white paper. Open-wheel sanctioning bodies in the US have only just recently started playing nice, and The IndyCar Wars tries to tell the story of its petty arguments and explosive fights. Unfortunately, it forgets the narrative in favor of listing the facts.
(It lives! Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. In honor of being trapped indoors, I’ve made the reading a little more frequent; every two weeks instead of every month. This week, we’re looking at The IndyCar Wars: The 30-Year Fight for Control of American Open-Wheel Racing by Sigur E. Whitaker, the story of The Split.)
Now, if you’re wholly new to the whole concept of The Split (which in this case refers to the ongoing problems in American open-wheel that stemmed from Dan Gurney’s white paper and continued until IRL and Champ Car finally kissed and made up)—or if you’ve just never quite grasped the longevity of the problems—then this book is… mostly fine. You’re going to get facts and dates. You’re going to get quotes from some of the people involved. You’re going to understand the numerical, factual impact of The Split as it played out in television ratings, attendance numbers, and sponsorship dollars. But what you’re not going to get is a story.
The IndyCar Wars jumps right into things without establishing much context. There’s a prologue about the nature of sponsorships, and then the first chapter dives into the dissatisfaction with payout to teams in 1978. Normally, a brief overview of the evolution of the sport—at least in the previous decade—is essential to understanding how tensions began to grow. Unfortunately, there’s not much of that here. The book is almost expecting you to know the history of American open-wheel racing right up until 1978.
Which is fine if you do, or if you specifically only want to know about The Split. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s like trying to explain why IndyCar maintains certain traditions at the Indy 500—yes, there’s usually a factual date to provide, but if you don’t explain the history and context, the why, you’re leaving out a good portion of that tradition’s purpose. Asking why everyone was upset at Emerson Fittipaldi for drinking orange juice after winning the 500, for example, has an easy answer (because winners always drink milk), but it’s not enough to establish the longevity of its importance, or why we still talk about it today. You need to know who started the milk drinking tradition and why tradition is so revered. You need to know that things at the Indy 500, as much as they change, are prized for staying the same. It’s so much deeper than one person drinking juice.
And The Split is so much deeper than frustrations about sponsorship money and sanctioning decisions. I think there was a missed opportunity to dive into the particular histories of the key players and draw out what it was that had, say A.J. Foyt swapping sides or Tony George’s hardline stance about not bringing both sides of the chasm back together. The overall impression is that everyone was just being petty. Which, yes, they were—but everyone involved also had motivations, desires, and fears that guided their actions. Without those aspects, I just found myself sitting there wondering what the big deal was.
That isn’t to say that the book was a whole loss. There was a ton of information that I didn’t know, and it helped me appreciate the impact of Gurney’s white paper as it still resonates in IndyCar today. While it was a little difficult to keep track of which side of the battle was doing what, that was in part the very nature of the battle: one side acted, then the other responded, then the first side decided to retaliate, and so on. That said, it likely would have been a little easier to follow had I been able to establish a stronger understanding of both parties.
(I also had some issues with the copy editing, which is normally fine, but… man. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of the “Hatch Brand” circuit before. I won’t get nitpicky about grammar because I am well aware that Shit Happens, but there were several track errors that were just egregious.)
My expectations were high, but while they weren’t met, I don’t want to paint The Indy Car Wars as a terrible book. It’s not! It does a mostly fine job, but it’s not the book that the complexity of The Split deserves. It’s a litany of facts that misses out on the opportunity to tell one of the wildest stories in motorsport history. If you need reference material, then this is the book for you. But if you’re looking for an insightful analysis littered with interviews or personal experience, then you might want to look somewhere else.
And that’s all we have for this week’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on September 20, 2020. We’re going to be reading Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story by Brian Donovan. And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at elizablackstock [at] gmail [dot] com!