The NASCAR that we know today might have a significantly different look if it wasn’t for the split between CART and the upstart Indy Racing League in the mid-1990s.
Had the IRL not been formed and essentially excommunicated CART from racing at the Indianapolis 500, Toyota may never have decided to move its resources and racing hopes to NASCAR.
That comes in a story by Tom Jensen on FoxSports.com with a fascinating revelation and admission by David Wilson, president and general manager of Toyota Research and Development, which spearheads the manufacturer’s NASCAR initiative.
Toyota had begun an Indy car development program in the early 1990s and was preparing to race at Indianapolis in 1996.
But when former IMS president Tony George formed the alternative IRL circuit – with two of its supposed key intentions to create a series to develop more American-born drivers, as well as make open-wheel racing more affordable and attractive to prompt groups to form more American teams – it caused a deep rift within the open-wheel ranks.
George’s declaration that only IRL-affiliated teams would be welcome to compete in the 1996 Indy 500 not only kept CART out, it forced Toyota to radically alter its open-wheel plans.
Originally intent on racing at Indy, Toyota instead aligned with CART from 1996-2002.
“We literally were testing cars and engines at the speedway (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) in 1994 and we didn’t get to race there until 2003, when we joined the IRL ranks,” Wilson said.
And when that happened, Toyota quickly realized its return on investment was dramatically less than expected.
“To demonstrate the lack of value … in 2003, we won the Indy 500, we won the race in Japan, we won 13 out of 16 races that year, and that fall, we still had to sell to our management to stay in the sport,” Wilson said.
“As much as we loved it from an engineering standpoint, we also starting realizing that there were a lot of empty seats. And open-wheel in the United States was not exactly catching fire, so that started our … relationship with NASCAR.”
Toyota’s run in the IRL was agonizingly short-lived. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop its open-wheel program, Toyota ultimately departed the IRL and abandoned its overall open-wheel program just three seasons later.
But before the open-wheel program was discontinued, Toyota had already begun working on entering NASCAR, ultimately joining the-then Camping World Truck Series ranks in 2004 and eventually climbing to the marquee Sprint Cup series in 2007.
Even today, 18 years after the IRL (now known as IndyCar) was formed, it’s clear the wounds from its split with CART still run deep, fracturing open-wheel racing in the U.S., from which it still hasn’t recovered – and may never will.