Since 1916 there has been a recognized United States
national automobile racing National Championship
for drivers of professional-level, single-seat open wheel
race cars. The championship has been under the auspices of several different sanctioning bodies since 1909. Since 1911, the Indianapolis 500
-mile race has been regarded as the marquee event of the National Championship.
As of 2008, the top-level American open wheel racing championship is sanctioned by the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series. Indy Cars, similar to Formula 1 cars in appearance, are open-wheeled, winged, single-seater cars. The term Indy Car (or IndyCar, Indycar) is a more popular term used to describe the cars that would typically compete in Championship car racing, popularized during the skyrocketing popularity of CART PPG Indycar World Series racing.
- AAA (1905–1955): The national championship was sanctioned by the Contest Board of the American Automobile Association. The AAA introduced the first championship for racing cars as early as 1905 but it was canceled after a couple of serious incidents. Barney Oldfield was leading the championship at the point it was canceled. Official records regard 1916 as the first contested season, however, titles were later retroactively awarded back to 1909. Championship racing did not cease in the United States during WWI, however, the Indianapolis 500 itself was voluntarily suspended for 1917–1918. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, all auto racing was suspended. From 1942–1945 no events were contested, primarily due to rationing. Racing resumed in 1946. AAA ceased racing participation after 1955 following the fatal accident of Bill Vukovich and the Le Mans disaster.
- USAC (1956–1978): The national championship was taken over by the United States Automobile Club, a new sanctioning body formed by the then-owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony Hulman. It would continue in a stabilized environment for over two decades. During this time, the Indianapolis 500 continued to grow in popularity, while international participation began creeping into the series. By the end of the 1960s the cars evolved from front-engine roadsters to rear-engine formula-style racers. The schedule was dominated by ovals, and dirt track eventually were almost completely phased out. Technology and speed climbed at a fast rate. Hulman would die in 1977, and several USAC officials were killed in a plane crash in 1978. By the end of the 1970s, however, a growing dissent amongst the participants was based on many factors, including poor promotion and revenue.
- SCCA/CART & USAC (1979–1981): Championship Auto Racing Teams was formed by most of the existing team-owners, with some initial assistance from the SCCA. Therefore, there were two national championships run each by USAC and CART. The Indianapolis 500 remained under USAC sanction. The top teams allied to CART, and the CART championship became the de facto national championship. USAC ran a "rump" 1979 season, with few cars and fewer name drivers—the only exception being A.J. Foyt.
- In 1979, USAC denied several of the upstart CART series entries' to the 1979 Indianapolis 500. The ongoing controversy saw a court injunction during the month, and the day before the race, a special auxiliary time trials session was held, to allow those denied a chance to qualify for the field. Two cars were added to the back of the pack, bringing the total number of starters to 35 (up from the traditional 33).
- In early 1980 USAC and CART jointly formed the Championship Racing League (CRL) to run the national championship, but IMS management disliked the idea. The CRL was abandoned before any races were run. USAC remained as sanctioning body for the Indianapolis 500 itself, but the field was composed of CART-based teams. CART exclusively sanctioned the remainder of the season, and the national championship.
- In 1981–1982, the Indianapolis 500 remained an independent race sanctioned by USAC and composed CART teams. Other independent "one-off" teams entered at Indianapolis as well. Indianapolis was not included as a points-paying round of the CART national championship. In addition, by that time USAC had designated Indianapolis an "invitational" race, offering entries only to invited teams. That moved to prevent the uproar over denied entries which occurred in 1979.
- One further race in 1981 was run by USAC at Pocono. This race was not supported by many CART teams, and featured a mixed field filled out by converted dirt track cars. USAC ultimately withdrew from sanctioning championship races outside of the Indianapolis 500. USAC ceremoniously created the Gold Crown Championship, an essentially meaningless title as the season consisted of only one paved championship-level round (the Indy 500) after 1981. The situation was such that the season ended with the Indianapolis 500, thus it spread over two calendar years.
- CART & USAC (1982–1995): Stability returned and the national championship was run by CART. The Indianapolis 500 was sanctioned by USAC, but points were paid towards the CART championship. USAC's Gold Crown Championship continued, settling into an unusual June through May schedule calendar (spreading across two calendar years), which provided that the Indianapolis 500 would be the final race of the respective season. However, during that period, the schedule was never comprised of more than one race (i.e., Indianapolis).
- IRL & CART (1996–2003): In 1996, Tony Hulman's grandson, Tony George, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway created the Indy Racing League (IRL), a separate championship that featured the Indianapolis 500 as a round. The IRL's results are either listed alongside the existing national championship or treated as an entirely separate entity and not included. CART continued running the existing national championship until the organization went bankrupt at the end of 2003. Tracks that defected to the IRL, including Indianapolis, were no longer part of the CART series.
- IRL & CCWS (2004–2007): The rights to CART's assets were purchased by a consortium called Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) in 2004 and the former-CART series was renamed the Champ Car World Series.
- IRL (2008–present): Prior to the start of the 2008 season, Champ Car was absorbed into the IRL, creating one unified series for the national championship for the first time since 1978.
Car names and trademarks
Race cars participating in national championship events have been referred to by various names. Early nomenclature was to call the machines "Championship Cars," which was later shortened to "Champ Cars." The name "Big Cars" was also commonplace, a term that reflected the machines being larger than junior formulae such as midgets or sprint cars. That term has largely disappeared from use.
In most years since the USAC era, the term "Indy cars" (after the Indy 500) has been the preferred moniker. Apropos to that, when CART was founded in 1979, its acronym stood for Championship Auto Racing Teams, which reflected the historical use of the term "Championship Car." Soon thereafter, CART started exclusively marketing itself with the "Indy Car" term, advertising itself as the "CART Indy Car World Series."
Through the 1980s, the term "Indy car" was used to describe the machines used to compete in events sanctioned by CART, as well as the machines competing in the Indianapolis 500 (singly sanctioned by USAC). All references to the name "CART" were being increasingly discouraged as the series sought to eliminate perceived confusion from casual fans with Kart racing.
In 1992, the CamelCase term "IndyCar" was trademarked by Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Inc. It was licensed to CART through 1997. After the inception of the Indy Racing League in 1996, use the term was voided after a lawsuit and subsequently by a six-year non-use agreement. Following the settlement, and the lack of direct connection to the Indianapolis 500, CART decided to revert back to the former term. It rebranded itself as Champ Car and the machines were referred to as "Champ cars."
Complicating the situation resulting from the open-wheel split, Champ Car races held outside the United States were still permitted to use the Indy moniker (e.g., Toronto Molson Indy and Lexmark Indy 300). Foreign venue promoters took advantage of the marketing power of the Indy 500 name for their events, even though the Champ Car series they wer epromoting no longer had any ties to that race. The exceptions created confusion, and Champ Car gradually phased out the usage to distance itself from the IRL.
After the settlement expired in 2003, the IndyCar term was brought back. The top level of the Indy Racing League was rebranded as the "IndyCar Series." The machines in the series were also referred to as "IndyCars."
In 2008, when Champ Car merged into the Indy Racing League, the term "Champ Car" was abandoned, and all open wheel racing fell under the "IndyCar" name once again.
- "Indy car" is a generic name for championship open wheel auto racing in the United States. "Indy car" initially described an open wheel car that has participated in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Originally, the cars were generally referred to as "Championship cars". However, as the result of the genre's fundamental link to the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, many people started to use the Indy car name in order to differentiate the Indianapolis-style open-wheel cars from other types of open-wheel cars, such as those used in Formula One.
- In general, Indy cars of both CART and IndyCar are slower on street and road courses, being less expensive and technology-centric platforms than their Formula One counterparts. This was even the case during the CART PPG era during the mid to late 1990s. Currently, with the bid to keep costs down around teams, a competitive Indy car team like Newman-Haas Racing operates on approximately US$20 Million per season, while the McLaren-Mercedes F1 team has an annual budget of US$400 million. In particular, the Formula One chassis was required to be built by their respective team/constructor, whereas an Indy car chassis could be purchased. The dominance of a select few manufacturers has essentially turned the IndyCar Series into a spec series. CART/CCWS became a spec series more intentionally for cost savings purposes.
- The current Indy car has come into being since 1997 when Tony George specified new technical rules for less expensive cars and "production based" engines. This outlawed the CART-spec cars that had been the mainstay of the race since the late 1970s, which significantly hurt the sport of open-wheel racing in the United States.
- Indy car racing historically tended to take place on oval speedways, road and street courses, while Formula One used street courses and later designated road courses. However, Champ Car's final season in 2007 saw no oval tracks used, while the IRL added street courses to what was originally an all-oval series.
- Indy car racing is generally considered less demanding than Formula One. Former F1 champions who retired from that series went on to win CART championships, such as Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, and Nigel Mansell. Also indicative of Indy car racing's lower status is that it is considered a stepping stone to F1, as a top six finish in the final drivers standings of the IRL championship will qualify the driver for an FIA Super Licence. This however was greatly contradicted by CART's immense growth and popularity during its existence when it came to rival F1 and overshadow NASCAR. CART champions have found mixed success in F1; Jacques Villeneuve won the F1 championship in his second year, and Juan Pablo Montoya was moderately successful as well. Others such as Michael Andretti and Cristiano da Matta were unable to make a name for themselves in the European series, each having underwhelming and brief stints there before returning to CART.
- Indy car racing was dominated by North American drivers until the 1990s, which saw incursions from European and South American drivers. This led to Tony George forming the IRL in order to promote American drivers. Conversely, American drivers have never found great success in Formula One since the 1970s, the last drivers' champion and race winner was Mario Andretti. The IRL notably has yet to see its goal of American driver domination return.
- Due to the lack of American drivers, Formula One has struggled to establish itself in that market, at certain years (including 2008) not having a US Grand Prix race on the calendar. In a parallel, Indy car racing has made little headway outside of the United States and Canada, even though it has regularly run on a handful of tracks in other parts of the world.
Types of circuits
The American National Championship is notable for the wide variety of racetracks it has used compared to other series, such as Formula One
and the various forms of Endurance sports car racing
. The mainstays of the championship are paved oval speedway tracks, road courses and closed public road/street circuits.
Until 1970 the championship frequently raced on dirt and clay tracks, but all such tracks were removed permanently by the USAC before the 1971 season.
From 1915 to 1931 wooden speedways were frequently used for championship races, however they were too expensive to maintain, especially with the onset of the Great Depression, and nearly all were demolished in the 1930s.
The Pikes Peak Hillclimb was a round of the championship in the years 1947 to 1955
and 1965 to 1969.
In 1909 a point-to-point race from Los Angeles, California to Phoenix, Arizona was included in the championship.
For the majority of the National Championship, the races have been held inside the United States. First championship event outside of US took place in 1967. American championship cars raced in Monza oval in 1957 and 1958 in a non-championship Race of Two Worlds
. Also, in 1966 there was a non-championship USAC race in Japan. Since the 1980s the CART/CCWS championship has increasingly raced outside the US.
The 1916, 1936 and 1937 Vanderbilt Cup races were included in the National Championship. The 1909–1915 races were retrospectively added to the championship in 1926.
CART resurrected the Cup in 1996 as the winner's trophy for the US500 race. When that race was discontinued in 2000, the Cup changed roles and became the championship trophy. As OWRS bought all of CART's assets in 2004 they have kept rights to use the Cup.
Indianapolis 500 and 'The Split'
From its inception in 1911, to creation of the Indy Racing League
in 1996, the Indianapolis 500
was a round of the National Championship. The exceptions are the 1981 and 1982 races, which were removed from the CART championship for political reasons by the USAC
. However, when the race still attracted all of the regular teams despite its lack of championship status USAC relented and allowed CART to run at Indianapolis.
Winning the Indianapolis 500 has always had at least an equal profile with the winning the National Championship, although direct comparisons are difficult as many of the National Champions also won the Indy 500. 1993 is a good example of a year when the winners of each title received the same amount of attention. That year former Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi won the 500 but the current F1 champion Nigel Mansell won the National Championship, becoming the only driver to win both titles consecutively.
The creation of the IRL in 1996 with the Indianapolis 500 as its centerpiece race removed the race from the existing National Championship.
This of course was a hugely controversial move in racing circles, with opinions at the time ranging from praise to ridicule—in 2004 the US Sports Illustrated magazine named the IRL's formation as one of the 'Ten Dumbest Moments in Sports'.
This assessment was based on the notable decline in the number of television viewers, car entries and estimated grandstand ticket sales (the Speedway does not officially announce sales figures), since the impasse began in 1996.
By 2008, the consensus among U.S. motorsport commentators was that both the Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League held an equal claim to the legacy of the National Championship, and that a merger was the only logical move.
On February 22 2008, both series announced the acquisition of Champ Car assets by IRL founder and Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George, effectively rolling the former series into the latter, and reunifying American open wheel racing under IndyCar Series control.
Further details of the 'Split' can be found here and under Indy Racing League and Champ Car
- The driver with the most championship titles and race wins is A.J. Foyt. From 1959 to 1981 Foyt won 67 USAC championship races and seven USAC titles.
- Ralph DePalma is credited with the most AAA-sanctioned victories (24).
- Michael Andretti has won the most CART/Champ Car-sanctioned races (42).
- Sam Hornish, Jr. has the most IRL-sanctioned wins (19).
- Mario Andretti is the most successful driver born outside the United States with 52 wins and 4 titles.
- Canada's Paul Tracy is the most successful non-U.S. citizen (31 wins, 1 title).
- Danica Patrick is the only woman to ever win an National Championship-level open wheel race (2008 Indy Japan 300).
- Four drivers have held the crowns of CART Champion and Formula One World Driving Champion.
- Five other drivers have won both a National Championship race as well as at least one Formula One Grand Prix. They are as follows:
Notable fatalities in competition
Retrospectively awarded champions
In 1926 the AAA Competitions board retrospectively calculated championship results for major AAA-sanctioned races run in 1905 & between 1909 and 1915 and for 1917 to 1919.
In 1951 racing historian Russ Catlin officially revised AAA records with championship results based on all AAA races from 1902–1915 and 1916–1919. This had the effect of retroactively creating seven newly credited champions and changing the 1909 champion from Bert Dingley to George Robertson and the 1920 champion from Gaston Chevrolet to Tommy Milton.
Although the 1909–1919 races were not considered to be part of a championship at the time, they are included in statistics by most historians.
- * From 1979-1995, the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race and the American Open Wheel National Championship were sanctioned by separate organizations, USAC and CART, respectively. From 1980-1995, winners of a USAC Gold Crown Championship were officially declared, but as such championship consisted solely of Indianapolis, all such winners are indistinguishable from Indianapolis winners in those same years.