From The Vault: 1978 vs. 1998

1978 California 500 report in Autosport

Note: I wrote this in late 1998, at the height of the CART/IRL split, with the working title “It Was Twenty Years Ago Today.” Never published in any form, it’s an interesting comparison of what are now two eras from the past.

While in Los Angeles for the recent Marlboro/California 500, I inherited a stack of vintage Autosport magazines. Coincidentally, one issue contained Gordon Kirby’s report from the 1978 California 500.

Of course, late 1978 was precisely when a group of team owners competing on the USAC Championship Trail like Pat Patrick, Roger Penske, and Dan Gurney made a proposal to USAC to overhaul the rulemaking and marketing of its foundering series. When their proposal was summarily rejected, the owners formed CART and two separate Indycar championships were staged for the next three years.

It’s a frighteningly similar scenario twenty years later, when CART is still locked in head-to-head competition with the stubborn ghost of USAC, in the form of Tony George’s Indy Racing League. Have things changed in the interim – and for better or for worse?

Thirty cars started that 1978 race at Ontario Motor Speedway – “the first time in 30 years that a USAC 500-miler has been without a full compliment of 33 starters,” according to Kirby. Still, that compares favorably with the 28 cars that took the green flag this year at California Speedway.

Despite fewer cars, the 1998 field was much tighter and more competitive. The difference in speed between the fastest and slowest cars in 1978 was a staggering 41.697 mph, compared to 8.205 this year, when only one driver could be said to truly not have any business being in the field. Pole speed jumped from 199.375 to 233.860.

A more telling statistic is the number of finishers. Only five of the original 30 made the checkered flag at Ontario, compared with 13 in 1998. Eight of those thirteen were on the lead lap, whereas in 1978 second placed Gordon Johncock was five laps behind winner Al Unser. The last of the five cars running was 42 laps down yet credited with sixth place. By contrast, the margin of victory in 1998 was 0.360 second and the top seven cars were covered by less than 2.5 seconds.

There were four race leaders in the 1978 event and seven in 1998. But there were more yellow flags in the nineties race – ten for a total of 74 laps. That limited 1998’s average speed to 153.785 mph, a paltry gain over 1978’s 145 mph average, when there were only six caution periods. Attendance was announced as 80,000 in 1978, 106,000 in 1998.

Notes comparing 1978 and 1998 races

Looking at drivers, there were sixteen Champ Car race winners in this year’s field, an even dozen in 1978. 29 of the 30 drivers in 1978 were American, measured against 10 of 28 today. That trend doesn’t sit well with IRL officials, though the percentage of foreigners in the IRL is almost identical to CART’s.

But USAC has only itself to blame for not producing more American open-wheel drivers. Its feeder system of front-engine, tube-frame midgets and sprint cars have no relevance to modern Indycars – CART or IRL. But those cars are perfect training for NASCAR, where former USAC stars like Jeff Gordon and Kenny Irwin now display their talents.

The 1978 field consisted of no fewer than 12 brands of chassis, compared to five in the current era. Everyone was on Goodyear tires back then, whereas now the majority of the field is on Firestone. Four brands of engines compete in 1998, all backed by major manufacturers, whereas in 1978 there were only Cosworths, Foyts, and Offenhausers, assembled and tuned by numerous aftermarket engine shops.


Box score for 1998 Marlboro 500

CART’s engine manufacturers (who have continued with the same turbocharged 2.65 litre V-8 formula created by USAC in the late sixties) have now submitted a proposal to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway aimed to unify engine regualtions with the IRL, which introduced “production-based” 4.0 liter normally-aspirated motors in 1997.

Conflicting philosophies about engine supply remains the biggest barrier between CART and the IRL making peace. IRL officials are dead against the way CART’s manufacturers develop proprietary technology in-house, then lease fully-serviced engines to contracted teams. The IRL believes engines should be made available in kit form for independent builders to tweak.

Looking back to 1978 (or almost any IRL race, for that matter), it is difficult to find any benefit to that plan. In the USAC California 500, there were an amazing 13 engine and related failures, compared to only six in CART’s 1998 event. That level of engine-induced attrition was not unusual in the late 70s.

Without question, the CART’s on-track product in the late 1990s is a quantum leap from Indy car racing of the 1970s. The cars are faster, safer, and more reliable, and for the most part, the venues they race on are vastly improved. The economic climate is also very healthy, with strong corporate sponsorship and major car manufacturer involvement. Attendance is at record levels. The IRL, meanwhile, looks a lot like USAC in the late 1970s.


Though the ‘foreign invasion’ is here to stay, the complexion has changed; instead of catching Formula One champions at the end of their careers, like Emerson Fitipaldi and Nigel Mansell, CART is creating new F1 stars like Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi, and perhaps some day, Dario Franchitti and Greg Moore.

Yet despite its impressive growth in the worldwide motorsports spectrum, CART badly needs to be racing at Indianapolis to restore its rapidly declining credibility in America. But the IRL seems intent on fighting all of the progress that CART has made on the racetrack in an effort to restore the “glory days” of twenty years ago or more.

It’s a shame that whatever grudge the Speedway continues to harbor is getting in the way of it joining in and adding to the success. With both CART and the IRL facing the end of their respective engine rules packages after the 1999 season, the time is now to start making up for the twenty years of lost ground that NASCAR has so happily benefitted from.