Indy Car (Known formally as the Indy Car Series), is perhaps the greatest racing series in America... that everyone forgot.
The series is named for the annual Indianapolis
500, which has been running every year since 1911
(With the exception of during World War I and II). The cars are open-wheeled, open cockpit single seaters, very similar to Formula One
, although the differences between the two are many. Indy Car, once the pinnacle of American motorsport, has slowly seen a decline in ratings and popularity over the past thirty years as NASCAR
became popular for its wild, down-to-earth appeal. Even today, the Indianapolis 500, the crown jewel in the series schedule, is normally overshadowed in the ratings by just about any NASCAR race during the year.note
The Indy 500 is still, however, the largest single-day sporting event on the planet in terms of live attendence. Yes, even bigger than the Super Bowl. Permanent seating capacity at the Brickyard is just over a quarter of a million seats, but with extra infield capacity that's put into place for Raceday, attendance of the annual event routinely tops 400,000.
The reason for the decline stems from a split within the series itself back in 1979. Back then, the United States Automobile Club (USAC) had organized and run the Indianapolis 500 as well as other American championship car races since 1956 (when the original sanctioning body, the American Automobile Association - yes, the stranded-by-the-side-of-the-road AAA - withdrew from racing). However, many prolific team owners such as Dan Gurney, Roger Penske, and U.E. "Pat" Patrick had long disagreed with USAC due to alleged ineptitude on the organization's part. As a result, they formed Championship Auto Racing Teams, (CART) which was founded as an advocacy group to keep USAC in check. However, such an agreement was flat-out denied by USAC bigwigs, which then led to CART becoming a breakaway series. After several years of legal battling, USAC finally allowed the Indianapolis 500 to be part of the CART calendar, and all was good. CART enjoyed immense success in America as drivers such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, and Nigel Mansell, coming off of highly successful Formula One drives, touted its competitiveness.
But then things changed.
In 1994, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George became dissatisfied with CART's arbitrary rules
(CART was often charged with changing rules to benefit certain teams), escalating costs
(Which squeezed out small privateer teams who could not afford to race), lack of opportunities for American drivers (Only 10 Americans raced in 1996), and increasing emphasis on road course racing. In response, he teamed up with USAC and created the Indy Racing League (IRL), using the Indianapolis 500 as leverage to get the series off the ground. IRL was created to be a cheaper, all-oval, all-American alternative to CART, and George enforced it by allowing the top 25 drivers in his series a guaranteed spot in the Indianapolis 500, leaving only eight spots on the grid to CART regulars. This so-called "25/8" rule was very controversial as it was the first time since the Indy 500 began that the race would not necessarily start the fastest qualifying cars.
CART, outraged, filed a lawsuit in 1996, which ultimately ended in a settlement and the legality of the new series. In response they created a race called the "U.S. 500" to be run at Michigan super-speedway the same weekend as the Indianapolis 500. The US 500 was touted as the 'real' 500 where CART teams would show their technical superiority to the "CART rejects series". However, this boast backfired
when, in the very first U.S. 500 race, the front row drivers collided on the pace-lap — leading to a multi-car pileup before the race began and a major delay while backup cars were prepared and the race re-started. Over at Indy the race ran smoothly (although the qualifying had been tragically marred by the death of veteran driver Scott Brayton) but was severely lacking in star-power
and was won by by a relative unknown driver (Buddy Lazier, who had been a makeweight in previous races). Most pundits observed that for all intents and purposes neither side had really 'won' anything and that some kind of peace deal was urgently needed. The U.S. 500 was never run again.
However in 1997 George and IRL announced new technical regulations and commissioned new car and engine designs effectively outlawing CART-spec cars from competing at Indy
. The impasse remained throughout 1997 to 1999 as few CART teams were inclined to invest in new cars purely for one race. In 2000 however, the CART champions Target Ganassi racing did purchase cars, entered Indy and CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya walked the race - the first time since 1966 a first time starter had won. Then a year later the CART Penske juggernaut followed suit and won with another first-timer, Helio Castroneves. Although the crushing superiority of Montoya and Castroneves's wins were somewhat embarrassing for the IRL teams it was something of a Pyrrhic Victory
for CART as the IRL held the one card the CART series couldn't; the Indianapolis 500. The tradition and prestige of Indy completely overshadowed everything else and CART's leading teams, Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti, found it increasingly difficult to justify staying away from the big race to their sponsors. Eventually they bowed to the pressure and abandoned the series for IRL.
Now on the decline, CART began to get desperate. Trying to outdo IRL with a race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2001, they found that the greater performance of the cars led to many drivers coming close to to blacking out under the extreme g-forces imposed.
Forced by the series doctors to cancel the race for medical reasons, CART took a huge blow in prestige, which was then compounded when a row over engine rules resulted in key engine manufacturers Honda and Toyota defecting to IRL. CART tried to pick up the pieces in 2003 by reforming under the name "Bridgestone Presents
The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford
(Champ Car)." After declaring bankruptcy in 2003 and again in 2008, Champ Car was finally bought out by IRL.
In a final twist of the saga George was voted out of his position at the head of the series by his own sisters, allegedly angry at the amount of family money that had been spent over the years, and a new boss was brought in (Randy Bernard, a former head of Professional Bull Riders). Now the 'IRL' name is largely history too, and the series is officially the 'Izod Indy car Series'
, a series contested between US and non-US drivers on oval, street and road courses.
Current and Former Drivers
Chip Ganassi Racing:
- Charlie Kimball - Handicapped Badass. Although 2011 was his first time in the Indy 500, he deserves recognition as being the first ever driver at the race with Type 1 Diabetes. He didn't get a podium finish but for him to complete the race at all (which he did handily) was a noteworthy achievement. Due to his condition he needed to have two drink reservoirs, one with water, the other with a high-glucose drink, and a switch to let him select which reservoir he'd be drinking from, chosen based on a blood-sugar-level gage integrated into his car's custom steering wheel. In the event that an insulin shot was needed, his pit crew included a doctor who could provide him with the needed injection on the next pit-stop.
- Scott Dixon - A divisive figure. To some an Indy Car legend, to others unskilled driver an who drives with no respect for anyone else.
- Ryan Briscoe - Debuted at Ganassi in 2005. Seems to have fallen victim to Always Second Best, on the team and on the racetrack. It's not that he's bad, but he seemed to be perpetually overshadowed by Will Power at Penske. Picked up a part time ride for Panther Racing (and an Indy one-off with Ganassi) in 2013 before returning full-time to his first team to pick up the car vacated by...
- Tony Kanaan - The Stoic. Many TV commentators are quick to note TK's lack of emotion whenever he is injured or suffers a heartbreaking failure, although there have been times when he succumbs to Not So Stoic. Seems to have inherited the "Best Driver Never To Win At Indianapolis" title until he's finally put his face on the Borg Warner Trophy in 2013.
- Kanaan signed with Ganassi late in 2013 to drive the car Briscoe ran at Indy. That plan changed when Dario Franchitti announced his retirement. As a result, Kanaan will now drive Franchitti's old car and Briscoe will drive his Indy 500 car.
KV Racing Technology:
- Helio Castroneves - Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass. Some say he's a very credible driver. Others say he only wins when he feels like it. But you can't deny that when he wins, he does it like a true champion. Too bad he can't do it every time. Current holder of the "Best driver without a season championship" label - which is astounding given his overall resume in open-wheel cars, both in CART and the IRL. He was leading with two rounds to go in 2013 - until gearbox troubles at both Houston races led to him finishing runner-up to Scott Dixon.
- Will Power - His successes on road course tracks are balanced by his failures on oval tracks, usually due to outside circumstances. He always is competing for the title, but his failure to get results on oval tracks means that he kept losing to the more consistent Dario Franchitti, until he finally pulled it off in 2014, beating his own teammate Helio Castroneves, for the championship. Somewhat incidentally got his ride with Team Penske.
- Juan Pablo Montoya - The modern day renaissance man. He's won in CART, Indy Car (his one-off at the 2000 Indy 500), Formula One, the 24 Hours of Daytona, a few road races in NASCAR, and as of 2014, returning to single-seaters with one of the best teams in the business.
- Sébastien Bourdais - The Bus Came Back. After winning four straight Champ Car championships, he was Put on a Bus and left for Formula One. His failure in the series meant that for the 2011 season, He's Back.
- Simona de Silvestro - This Swiss Miss is considered by many to be The Rival of Danica Patrick: She doesn't prefer to be in the spotlight and is a road course master. Her ability to shake off horrific crashes one after another have solidified her as Made of Iron.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing:
- James Hinchcliffe - Canada, Eh?. Landed with Andretti Autosport under the worst possible circumstances, because his ride belonged to Danica Patrick before she left for NASCAR and was going to be Dan Wheldon's before he was killed at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Despite all the baggage, has been very competitive now that he has better equipment to run with, and won the series' Most Popular Driver award in 2012.
- Marco Andretti - The Spoiled Brat. Despite having raced for several years with limited success, he still manages to be the epitome of immaturity when things don't go his way. Of course, following in the footsteps of your legendary father and grandfather must be no easy feat, considering many people believe he's cursed.
- Ryan Hunter-Reay - Often a midfielder during his early CART/CCWS and Indy Car career until he won the series championship in 2012, a year after technically failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. 2013 started out pretty well too, and in 2014 he became the first American to win at Indy since 2006.
- E.J. Viso - Fair-to-middling driver who doesn't cause too many problems but doesn't stand out either. Post-2013 status unknown.
- Carlos Munoz - Made an impressive series debut in the 2013 Indy 500, starting and finishing second before making a couple more starts that year and being signed full time for 2014. Many are already comparing him to former 500 champ and fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya (see above).
A.J. Foyt Racing:
- Graham Rahal - The Wild Card. Because his successful father refuses to let him ride on his coattails, Rahal is known for signing with many teams simply so he can race (In 2010, he raced with four different teams). However, when he does race, he is extremely competitive. His first career race was a Second Episode Introduction in 2008 at St. Petersburg, and an instant win.
- James Jakes - another Wild Card, and a pay driver to boot. He struggled at Dale Coyne for his first two seasons and continues to race midpack for RLLR in 2013, but he did have a very impressive 2nd place finish in the second leg of the Detroit doubleheader.
Team Barracuda - BHA:
- Takuma Sato - The Klutz. 2011 was one accident after another on the track for him, though he has enough raw speed and raw talent to be as competitive here as when he was in F1. In 2012, he spun out on the final lap of the Indy 500 trying to make a pass for the lead. Odd Couple pairing with Foyt has worked well in 2013, giving Sato his first career win and Foyt his first win as an owner in over a decade.
Dragon Racing:(currently a vacant team)Ed Carpenter Racing:
- Alex Tagliani - The Older Canadian. 'Nuff said.
Part-time and Retired Drivers:
- Ed Carpenter - Currently the only driver/owner in the series. While he's admittedly lackluster on road and street circuits, he's made up for it on the ovals, giving Sarah Fisher her first win (as either an owner or driver) at Kentucky in 2011, following it up with a win for his own team at Fontana in 2012, then the Indy 500 pole in 2013. Retired from road and street circuits after 2013, and so he now shares his car with...
- Mike Conway - Got squeezed out of Andretti Autosport and ended up with Indy Legend A.J. Foyt's team. Retired from ovals after two horrifying crashes hitting the catch fence during the 2010 Indy 500 and nearly repeating that in 2012, but would return to win on the Belle Isle street course in 2013 for Dale Coyne before being hired by Carpenter to share the ride.
- A.J. Allmendinger - former Champ Car driver that switched to NASCAR before getting a second chance in open wheel with Penske in 2013. Surprisingly, his best result in 2013 was at the Indianapolis 500, and he's continuing to bounce between stock and Indy cars. He is shifting back to the Sprint Cup Series, having received a full-time ride there for 2014.
- Rubens Barrichello - A Cool Old Guy (he turned 40 during the 2012 season) who came to Indy after becoming the pilot with most races on F1 - a career marred by bad luck and failing to become Brazil's champion after Ayrton Senna died. At least he beat the Stig. Left the series after 2012 to race stock cars in Brazil.
- Dario Franchitti - Jack of All Stats. He didn't specialize in road course or oval track racing, but he is still amazing at what he did - and that's racing. The result is that he is a three time Indy 500 winner and has three Indy Car championships. He retired after the 2013 season due to suffering a Career-Ending Injury in the penultimate race of the season. Also known outside of racing as the former husband of Ashley Judd.
- J.R. Hildebrand - Became a minor celebrity after his heartbreaking crash at the final corner of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 while in the lead, giving the win to Dan Wheldon. Fired from Panther Racing after the 2013 Indy 500.
- Alex Lloyd - The Kid Sidekick. His 4th place finish at the 2010 Indianapolis 500 meant that he would live to race another day, but his form is still to be seen.
- Tomas Scheckter - Glass Cannon. Son of former Formula One champion Jody Scheckter, Tomas is best known for his spectacular outside lane charges on the ovals...and his spectacular wipeouts that often result from it (especially when he drove for Red Bull in the early 2000s). Unoffically retired from the series after 2011.
- Paul Tracy - Small Name, Big Ego. While definitely a former great, his form has not been up to par as of late, and his hot temper usually leads to his big ego. Unoffically retired from the series after 2011, although he does do analyst work for Canadian television.
- Kurt Busch - the current NASCAR star attempted the Memorial Day double (the Indianapolis 500 and Charlotte's Coca Cola 600) with Andretti Autosport in 2014 after passing rookie orientation at Indianapolis the previous year. He joined John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon as those to attempt both races on the same day. Busch did well in Indy, finishing sixth, but had a bad night in Charlotte, being forced out of that race two-thirds of the way through by a blown engine.