Motor Sports

DECLINE AND FREEFALL OF USAC

by Larry Roberts

July 25, 1997

If the United States Auto Club (USAC) was an airplane, its latest aerial maneuver could best be described as a tailspin. It's almost out of control and it's going to take some skilled hands on the stick to get it back under control. On the other hand, it may be that USAC has come to the end of its evolutionary life, sort of like the sabertooth tiger.

Until last month, USAC was arguably the most prestigious sanctioning body in American auto racing, although its importance had been going downhill for many years. It had been formed in 1955 to take over as the sanctioning body for American auto racing when the American Automobile Association stepped away from the chore. The conservative AAA had been the sanctioning body for American auto competitions of all kinds since the turn of the century but the unprecedented number of racing fatalities at the beginning of that decade made it pull away due to the bad publicity. USAC was put together by members of the disbanded AAA Competition Committee and it was business as usual from 1956 on.

And since it controlled the Indy 500, business was very good in those days. It was the only organization allowed to sanction events in this country that required international recognition and as such, it officiated at all world land speed record attempts at the Bonneville Salt Flats. It also operated the then-famous Mobile Economy Run which pitted American auto makers against each other in several classes to see who could squeeze the best fuel mileage from Los Angeles to Boston.

USAC pretty well had a lock on everything else too. Its Midget Division (renamed "Compact Sprints" for a while) contained the cream of the crop of those tiny quarter-miler oval track cars. Its Championship Trail provided races for Indy Cars before and after the annual 500 race, its Sprint Car Division cars were kings of half-mile tracks and it had a Stock Car Division that was almost as prestigious as NASCAR. It was even the official body that ran the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

But with the coming of corporate sponsorship in professional auto racing and the big money that came with it via television, USAC began to lose its grip on the reins of American racing. The cost of Indy cars skyrocketed and motorsports businessmen like Roger Penske began to call the shots. With the formation of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) as the power behind the Indy 500 as well as what once was the Championship Trail, USAC as a sanctioning body went into a decline.

USAC loyalists were heartened in '95 when Tony George, scion of the family that owns the Indianapolis Speedway itself, ousted CART and its million-dollar race cars and formed the Indianapolis Racing League (IRL), an organization that would again put USAC into the limelight. IRL cars were to be cheaper to build and operate and provide an opportunity for less well-heeled teams to get into the Indianapolis 500.

The scoring, timing and administration of IRL events was to be done by USAC, but problems began to arise immediately. At the Indy 500, a quasi-accident near the end of the race lead to the starter giving the green go-ahead flag to the race winner while the driver of the second place car was given a yellow caution light, a gaff that was caused by USAC officials. The IRL race at Texas International Raceway a few weeks later became a PR nightmare when USAC scoring broke down, neglected to credit Arie Luyendyk with two laps and gave the win to Bobby Boat who drove for A.J. Foyt. In the ensuing melee, Foyt punched Luyendyk in full view of the TV cameras.

Tony George then decided that his problem-ridden IRL didn't need additional troubles caused by USAC, thanked it for its services and took over sanctioning duties in-house.

But USAC still has its own agenda: it sanctions Midget and Sprint Car races around the U.S. and co-sanctions Formula Ford 2000 races with the Sports Car Club of America, but its glory days are gone.

I just hope it doesn't crash, burn and follow the sabertooth tiger into the La Brea Tar Pits.

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