The Knockoff Indy 500: The Birth, Life, and Death of the U.S. 500 Race
Written by Jake O’Callaghan, Edited by Meghana Sree
In the early 1990s, IndyCar racing in the US was thriving. Known then as CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), it was the home of the most famous race in the world - the Indianapolis 500. However, going into the middle part of the decade, political turmoil permeated through CART, with some shareholders unhappy about the running of the sport. One of these shareholders was Tony George, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and, by extension, the host of the Indy 500.
Tony George then made an announcement that shook the racing world to its very core, he would be creating his own IndyCar championship to rival CART. The championship would be called the IRL (Indy Racing League) and would begin in the 1996 season. Due to the fact that George owned the Indianapolis speedway, IRL would have the rights to host the Indy 500. This was devastating for the CART series, as their crown jewel event was ripped away from their grasp. Additionally, CART cars were allowed to enter but were only given eight out of 33 starting spots. The teams of CART saw this as a deliberate lockout and felt they needed to find a replacement event.
CART found its replacement at the Michigan International Speedway, bringing IndyCars back to this track for the first time in 10 years. The race would be called the U.S. 500 and would take place for the first time in 1996, on the same date as the Indy 500, thereby acting as a direct competitor for TV viewership.
The inaugural U.S. 500 was due to begin at 2pm EST, two hours after the IRL’s Indy 500 began. However, it did not begin at this time. On the outlaps to start the race, there was a massive pileup at turn 4 involving 10 cars. This delayed the race start by over an hour. All drivers except one, Adrián Fernández, were able to return to the starting grid with their backup cars. This massively damaged public opinion of the fledgling race, as similar incidents in previous Indy 500s did not allow drivers to re-enter and logged them as a DNF.
Following an incident-filled race, Jimmy Vasser won for Chip Ganassi Racing and with it, earned a spot on a recreated version of the first major trophy in American racing, the Vanderbilt Cup. He also reportedly received over $1 million in prize money for his victory.
The 1997 edition of this race proceeded with a similar amount of attrition but with much less fanfare. CART moved it off the Indy 500 date and did not spend as much money on advertising the race. Alex Zanardi won the race and made it two wins in a row for Chip Ganassi’s team. In 1998, the race was marred by a deadly crash towards the end of the race, where Adrián Fernández crashed in turn 4. His front right wheel disconnected and was sent into the stands, killing three spectators (Sheryl Laster, Kenneth Fox, and Michael Tautkus). This accident led directly to safety improvements where wheel tethers were introduced to all cars and improvements to catch fencing on ovals were made. The officials of the race did not stop it in light of the deadly accident, leading to massive criticism aimed at the governing body by fans and commentators alike.
The U.S. 500 name only survived until 2000, after which it was renamed the Michigan 500. Two years later, the CART series lost the rights to a race at Michigan International Speedway to the IRL. CART and the IRL finally merged in 2008 following economic difficulties and Michigan is yet to return after running its final IndyCar race to date in 2007. The U.S. 500 stood as an ill-fated side effect of an ugly political battle, in which the race itself was marred by crashes and tragedies. It did not survive for even so much as half a decade, and the memory of the race stands as a reminder of the tumultuous past of American open-wheel racing.