Indycar Lore… 1980 CRL Season

What had started in 1978 as an honest attempt at increasing the marketability of championship racing sanctioned by The United States Auto Club, spiraled out of control almost instantly. The “White Paper”, a simple inter-team memo, sparked the formation of Championship Auto Racing Teams and, with help from the Sports Car Club of America, created its own rival championship trail. The 1979 season saw both CART and USAC sanction their own full, but independent, championships. The “split” was already in full swing and each side started digging in for a long battle.

However, in 1980, there looked to be an amicable resolution on the horizon when the Championship Racing League was formed. The CRL was to be a joint sanctioning effort combining the best of what USAC, date equity of events and officiating, and CART, the stars and cars, had to offer. The once rival sanctioning bodies were, for a short time at least, able to hammer out agreements on rules, tech and release a 12 race schedule.

1980 CRL seasonThe happy union was announced on April 3, 1980, just ten days before their inaugural event. Representation on the CRL board of governors was not equal, with car owners capturing five of the six seats and already presenting a thorn in USAC and IMS’s side. But the agreement pressed on in an attempt to keep big time racing in the US unified.

Before the papers were signed, USAC had already released a 12 race schedule independent of CART and was intent on seeing it out until the creation of the CRL. The initial 1980 USAC season contains an oddity that has been lost in open-wheel history. The opening round at Phoenix International Raceway scheduled to take place on March 2nd, over a month before the CRL was announced, was cancelled due to the Salt River flooding and making access roads to the track inaccessible.

Nevertheless, the CRL successfully ran five races together, as a happy family, early in the year before the floor fell out from under the whole deal. Already disenfranchised by losing six races from their initial schedule in favor of less established CART events and in a position of underrepresentation on the CRL board, USAC quickly cut all ties with the CRL before the fifth and what would become the final combined round at Mid-Ohio. USAC would not sanction another race in the 1980 season. What could make USAC cut all ties so quickly? The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, of course.

IMS President and CEO John Cooper lobbed the first grenade, signaling the end of the honeymoon. On June 20, Cooper told media outlets that the CRL is too heavily controlled by car owners. He went on to say that “… champ car racing must be run by an independent group… and if USAC did not realign itself, the 500 would look to sanction elsewhere.” Independent was not something that CART or USAC could claim to be while under the guise of the CRL.

A whirlwind of politicking ensued, including the rumor that NASCAR, Cooper’s former employer, would be tapped to officiate the 500 if USAC didn’t get its act together. On June 30th, the USAC board attempted to amend their own bylaws in an attempt to change the way CRL’s Board of Governors were selected. A move that they believed would quell the IMS uprising and keep the tenuous relationship between the three players going. The revision failed to capture the unanimous vote needed to amend the USAC bylaws.

The two nay votes were casted by Pat Patrick and Roger Penske; Both team owners and CART stalwarts given voting positions on the USAC board with the formation of the CRL. After the failed vote, USAC had no choice but to immediately withdraw from the CRL and reorganize their own board in order to maintain their good standing with IMS.

The CRL ran one more combined round at Mid-Ohio before USAC totally wiped their hands of the now untenable union. But not before firing one last shot at CART by voting Roger Penske and Pat Patrick off the USAC board.

CART finished the planned season and awarded the championship based on the five rounds of CRL competition in addition to the final seven rounds of CART competition. What followed in 1981 and beyond is well documented. USAC, as just a pawn in The Speedways attempt to keep control of technical regulations in-house, was never able to recover from the negative PR and soiled relationships with track owners. CART flourished and, with the decisive victory in 1980, became the de facto national championship trail.

A lot could be said about the key players from all sides, and as it stands, all participants are guilty of simply promoting their own self-interests. And, as ironic as it may sound, attempting to protect championship car racing in the United States so it could flourish and grow to new levels. IMS felt a need to protect what, in their eyes, was the key to the whole sport. USAC was only guilty of being a pawn in the IMS war chest and doing what they felt was right by maintaining a link between the powerful owners union and IMS. Finally CART, specifically Patrick and Penske, for being forced to throw the final punch and Cooper for throwing the first.

In the spring of 1982, John Cooper resigned to take a chairman position on the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States and Joseph Cloutier was named president of IMS. The ACCUS, an organization known to vehemently choose their own path to the detriment of others, is the arbitrating body overseeing all sanctioned racing in the US on behalf of the FIA and a perfect place for Cooper.

Cloutier had initially been named president of IMS in 1977 after the passing of Tony Hulman and was known to be more open minded when dealing with team owners. The IMS board appointed Cooper to the role of president, displacing Cloutier, in 1979. For only presiding over The Speedway for two and a half years, it seems like Cooper did an awful lot of damage.

Under Cloutier’s leadership, CART, USAC and IMS were able to coexist more or less peacefully for eight years.  You have to wonder what would have been if Cloutier, who served until his passing in late 1989, could have presided over The Speedway for those 30 faithful months. Would the CRL have been able to flourish in a new era of cooperation? Would Tony George have made the same decisions once he took control of IMS after Clouter? If the CRL has maintained stability, what kind of fire breathing open-wheeled monsters would we have now? What would F1 and NASCAR look like today?

Yet another interesting story of deceit and lies in the fragmented history of American open-wheel racing. A story that is not told enough in the context of events leading to the “big split” in 1996 and 1997. Fortunately, I think everyone sees the value in sticking together for the foreseeable future. In due time, we could very well see those fantastical machines we all dream about now that we are all rowing in the same direction; for most of the time anyway.

Eric Hall

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2 Responses to Indycar Lore… 1980 CRL Season

  1. dzgroundedeffects says:

    Nice recapitulation! Many tidbits there I didn’t know. As much as my 13 year-old self would’ve wanted to see it, I’m afraid Talladega would’ve been a disaster. This business with Cooper and Cloutier makes me more curious about the history of ‘NASCAR-relateds’ tampering w USAC and IMS.

  2. H. Donald Capps says:


    A very nice summary of what is one of the most important seasons in recent US racing, yet one that is far too often either ignored or dismissed, and certainly overlooked. The brief life of the Championship Racing League and the roles of USAC and the IMS in its demise, as you mention, tend to be missing from the broader context framing the discussion of the many problems that still plague IndyCar even today.

    The whole business regarding NASCAR sanctioning the International Sweepstakes race on Memorial Day was — to put it mildly — a red herring. The long-standing animosity and outright loathing that still existed between USAC and NASCAR was still very much an issue even in 1980. The IMS was the center of the USAC universe — just as it had been for the AAA by the latter part of the 1920’s when the IMS and the Contest Board were under the control of one man: Eddie Rickenbacker (formerly Rickenbacher), who was the president of both organizations.

    Combined with the FIASCO War, the CRL/USAC/IMS/CART squabble, and various other goings-on elsewhere in the sport, it certainly makes 1980 a very interesting season in automobile racing history.


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