Before you read this, I should make some things clear about where I stand in my interpretation of the split of 1996. Being born and raised in Indianapolis, I was 12 at the time of the split. My family followed the 500 every year, but I never even knew there was a championship outside of the confines at 16th and Georgetown. In 1996 we still watched the 500, though in the years following our family slowly lost interest. When I left for college, I had a renewed passion for motorsports and indycars in general. I immediately came back to the 500, and was a fan of the IRL for the ovals. I saw ChampCar as F1 lite. Yes the cars were fire-breathing monsters until the very end, but it still seemed a bit empty. My thoughts on this were sealed when SeaBass went to F1, I wanted him to succeed. I did watch all 3 series and could tell you what was happening at any time throughout the championship trail, I just fell in love with the IRL more, plus they had Indy. My favorite drivers in the current series started in CART or ChampCar, I just enjoyed the ovals more and got my high speed, open wheel road racing through F1. I stood on the IRL side of the line, but absolutely enjoyed ChampCar and loved the drivers. Anyway… back to the present…
What should a series trophy represent? Should it be intertwined in the history of said series or a creation of the times, changed or replaced every few years? The current Izod INDYCAR Series trophy is a creation of the sponsoring body. It was created by sculptor Ted Gall and first awarded in 2010. Personally, I think the trophy is slightly disturbing and I don’t quite see how it relates to Izod or the INDYCAR Series. I always got the impression that the trophy was an interpretation of the three naked, unicycle riding dudes comprising the sculpture called “The Chase” at Barber Motorsports Park. This always confused me. Why would Izod, who I believe commissioned the new trophy, use this unusual sculpture as the template for the new series trophy located at a track the series has only visited once? I guess this is why I am not in marketing.
Unification brought on an odd set of circumstances, one being if we are “unified” what will the championship trophy be? The old IRL trophy had to be retired when the series finally dropped the name. So a new one was created to signify a new era of indycar racing and to, even further, soothe unhealed wounds still present from the split. CART revived the historic Vanderbilt Cup as the trophy for the US 500 from 1996 until 1999. In 2000, the series designated the cup as the series championship trophy. This was one of the supremely positive aspects of ChampCar that got lost during reunification. I am sure INDYCAR has the trophy in their possession and they are absolutely entitled to the use of the name, if so wanted.
The Vanderbilt cup was created in 1904, two years before the French Grand Prix, by William Kissam Vanderbilt II. The race was contested on the dirt roads of Nassau County in Long Island, New York. For the 1908 edition, Vanderbilt moved the race to his newly constructed Long Island Parkway, one of the first modern, paved roads in the United States. The cup continued in Long Island until 1911 when it moved to Savannah, Georgia to be run with the American Grand Prize, or the earliest origins of the US Grand Prix. From 1912 through 1916 the cup bounced around between Milwaukee, Santa Monica and San Francisco before being ultimately cancelled and forgotten with the onset of World War One. The race was revived for two years, by Vanderbilt II’s nephew George Washington Vanderbilt III, in 1936 and 1937 at Roosevelt Raceway, once again in Long Island. 1960 saw the final year, before the CART revival, of the Vanderbilt cup as a one off by Cornelius Vanderbilt IV held at Roosevelt Raceway. Yes, all three of these men are in the same great Vanderbilt family of the shipping and railroad mega empire of the mid 1800’s. Looking back at worldwide grand prix racing history, the Vanderbilt Cup, for the first seven years, was recognized as a world grand prix race, the first closed circuit style race to ever be held annually at this level.
Although I do think the IRL trophy was quite snazzy, CART had right idea. They took a figure from the earliest memories of open wheel racing, or any racing for that matter, and resurrected the cup for 3 years before finally moving it to the rightful place in open wheel racing, the season championship trophy. The Vanderbilt cup has no history in championship racing, other than being a “showcase” event for a few of the revival runnings. In all honesty, they were not showcase events, but stunts of other crazy Vanderbilts in an attempt to write their page in the family history book without much success. The closest the cup ever came to championship status was when in 1951, as the story goes, AAA Contest Board member Russ Catlin created a championship history for years that had no championships. If he didn’t have enough information about the year, he would choose the Vanderbilt Cup winner. All of this to give AAA 50 champions for 50 years of operation in 1952. But these “champions” are fictitious creations in the name of publicity. (this insanity of AAA inventing championship results is a story for another day…)
Even with all the bad karma surrounding the Vanderbilt Cup, I think INDYCAR should resurrect this as its trophy and bag the naked unicycle riding man. The original is owned by the Smithsonian, so a new copy can be made, the old CART/ ChampCar example cannot be reused. Include all official season champions across all big time open wheel racing in the US through history. For split years, name them as co-champions for the year, nothing needs to be stated on the trophy about sanctioning body. INDYCAR has been compiling all records into a single historic database, this type of trophy could bring together over 100 years of championship racing, bridging multiple series and championships to make a single historical icon.