Crash course

A prickly set of exchanges exposes a rift that still continues

Originally Published: June 13, 2013
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Ryan Hunter-ReayRobert Laberge/Getty Images2012 champ Ryan Hunter-Reay says things are done a certain way in IndyCar.

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THESE ARE HARD times for American motorsports, with soft TV ratings, sagging attendance and thinning sponsorship. So naturally, the two biggest sanctioning bodies have put their helmets together to brainstorm on ways to turn it around, right?

Um, no.

On the surface, it would appear that the once-wide rift between NASCAR and IndyCar has been bridged. Sprint Cup's Kurt Busch took a first step to open-wheel racing by passing Indy's rookie test program, and AJ Allmendinger's comeback story has warmed hearts in both series. But anyone paying close attention on Memorial Day weekend realizes there are still plenty of cracks.

On May 25, reporters asked NASCAR chairman Brian France about possible schedule changes that would allow drivers to attempt the Indy-to-Charlotte double. He replied flatly, "It's not on our front burner to work on that."

The next day, Tony Kanaan won the most competitive Indy 500 ever under caution. When some suggested looking into a NASCAR-style rule that would all but guarantee a race ending at speed, open-wheel traditionalists dismissed it. "This is Indy; there is a certain way things are done," says 2012 IndyCar series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay. "We don't try to produce results out of green-white-checkereds. It can be a bit gimmicky."

[+] EnlargeTony Kanaan
AP Photo/Dave ParkerTony Kanaan's win is the second straight Indy 500 to end under caution.

It all feels more like 1953 than 2013. Back then Indy was king, its competitors openly referring to NASCAR as "taxicab racing." Legend has it that in 1954, when NASCAR founder Bill France was spotted in Gasoline Alley, he was escorted off the premises at the behest of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman.

But by 1993, with the open-wheel world on the verge of civil war, Hulman's grandson Tony George invited France's son Bill Jr. to race his taxicabs at the Brickyard. When George started his rebel Indy Racing League three years later, he found a friend in France's International Speedway Corp., NASCAR's track ownership arm. By 2005, eight of IndyCar's 17 events were held at ISC facilities.

Since 2011, that number has been one, with IndyCar team owners accusing ISC tracks of not promoting their events and tracks claiming that weak gate draws weren't worth the trouble.

Now each time it appears an olive branch might be offered, the other side torches it -- even at a time when both sides could use a branch to hang on to. "There was a time when defending your position as the No. 1 series was important," says Roger Penske, whose 2012 teams led IndyCar in wins and clinched the NASCAR Sprint Cup title. "But right now, the idea of a high tide raising all boats might be more important. Cooperation is the only way that will happen."

So will it happen?

"I honestly don't know," he says. "I just know it should."

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Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR