The 2008 IndyCar reunification is, to this day, one of the most significant events in racing history. The infamous Split and continuous infighting had transformed the booming landscape of US motorsports into a few pithy little series that struggled to stand on their own two feet—and, as a result, the reunification was a lifeline for American open-wheel as we know it today. But what would have happened if a single-series IndyCar championship had never happened? What would the Indianapolis 500—racing’s oldest event—look like in 2020?
(As 2019 rounds out and we near the start of a new decade, Jalopnik imagines what the next year could bring... if the past decade had gone as we hoped it would. Or, in this case, how we definitely wouldn’t have hoped.)
To answer that question, we have to back up a bit. The initial split created two separate series: Championship Auto Racing Teams and the Indy Racing League. But problems abounded. CART began to flounder in the 2000s before being bought out and renamed Champ Car. IRL, the series that hosted the Indy 500, saw that iconic race decline in prestige. IRL absorbing Champ Car was the only way both series could stay afloat.
But if that hadn’t happened, I believe both would have eventually disappeared. Champ Car had filed for bankruptcy ahead of the 2008 season, and it would have stayed that way. The series wouldn’t have raced that year, leaving Champ Car drivers and teams scrabbling for purchase in IRL.
But if IRL had already opted not to take pity on the rival series, it wouldn’t have sucked it up and changed its mind just then. Feeling triumphant, Tony George would have proclaimed the longevity of his series. After a year of public jabs and petty fights, race fans would grow disenchanted. In 2018, the IRL would have folded entirely, essentially damning American open-wheel racing to the sidelines.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway would have kept the tradition of the 500 alive, though. Desperate to keep the series going, The Powers That Be would have postponed the 2019 running, instead focusing on a new outlook for 2020.
For that year, the Indy 500 would be contested solely by privateers with the “run what you brung” ethos to encourage as many entrants as possible. The most minimal safety standards would have to be upheld; other than that, anyone with an open-wheel car would be welcome to contest the race.
Due to lack of funding, the Month of May would be chopped down to the Week of May, with the weekend prior to the race reserved for practice and the following weekdays for qualifying. Fans would hesitantly turn out, dedicated to tradition but hesitant for the imminent disaster that would be sure to follow. Race day itself would be well-attended. The grid, on the other hand, would be a struggle to fill out, largely composed of retired drivers seeking one last chance at glory.
Our current Indy 500 led by Roger Penske seems like one hell of a better fate.