Oh boy, we are in quite the pickle right now. ChampCar-ification, CART 2.0, IRL Lite; these descriptive metaphorical links to the past are beginning to plague the indycar social media airwaves. Lines in the sand are drawn and it seems everyone is closer to the edge than we have ever been. Before we all have an aneurism, let’s take a look back at the history of scheduling in American open wheel racing. It is the 100 year history that has brought us to where we are today, and having active knowledge of it may shed new light and soften the staunch postures that many of us are starting to take.
Since the dawn of open wheel racing in America and spanning over 100 years, the sport has been in a transitional phase. In the earliest years of AAA racing, road courses were the grounds that many of the early stars cut their teeth in motorsports. The road circuits of the naughts and teens were held on open, public roads with course lengths often easily surpassing 15 miles. The automobile industry, and more importantly, professional racing in the western hemisphere was born on the streets. The 23 mile crown point circuit, 23 mile laps at riverhead and a nine mile lap at Elgin; these are a few examples of how large some of the tracks were. From 1906 through 1913, the majority of top level pre championship events were help on open road courses, with a point to point race and a few dirt, brick and beach ovals thrown in for good measure. The promoters quickly realized the advantage of a captive audience and transitioned to an oval-centric calendar, foregoing the open, uncontrolled road courses.
Ovals had always been a part of major racing even before the first official national championship in 1916, but the explosive popularity of the sport forced the promoters and AAA to move the championship behind a closed, ticket taking gate. AAA had experimented with an oval only series in 1905, featuring short sprint events held on dirt tracks. The championship ran a total of 71.4 miles over the course of 11 races. This was the first points paying championship in the western hemisphere, but the idea never took off and it was 1916 before another championship was created. By this time, only two out of the 15 events were road courses, both being run at the Santa Monica road course. The championship was interrupted for three years for WWI, resuming in 1920. By 1921, the calendar was filled with board ovals, and of course Indianapolis. Although having no official championship in 1917 and 1918, all high profile events were held on ovals.
The consumer loved board ovals, often called murderdromes in the media of the time. The tracks got the nickname due to the inability to contain an out of control car in the confines of the track and not in the seating areas around it. Add in the high speeds attained, often above 100 mile per hour lap times, and high banking; the Culver City track claiming 50 degree banking in the corners, these were very dangerous places to be. But, with a very ironic twist considering the parades we are inundated with today, spectators grew weary of the racing because often the fastest, most reliable car would win. The high speeds and banking made passing all but impossible, the highest starting car that could stay in one piece usually won the race.
It was not until 1924 that the champ cars raced on anything but board tracks and at Indianapolis. Syracuse would be the site of the first championship dirt race since 1916. The trend of swapping board for dirt ovals continued, and in 1932, only dirt tracks and Indianapolis were visited by championship racing. There were sporadic road events; the first airport event in 1934 at Mines field in Los Angeles and two more attempts at reviving the Vanderbilt Cup in 1936 and 1937. But, it was not until 1947 that the Pikes Peak Hill Climb broke up the string of oval events year in and out. 1965 saw the addition of Indianapolis Raceway Park as a road event. A few more were added, but by 1971, both dirt event and road events were dropped in favor of a pavement oval only schedule. Of course we all know about the eventual CART takeover in 1979, and the changing of American open wheel racing forever.
In 1977 the first road course since 1970 was added to the schedule; the beginning of the modern era started to take shape. The owners realized the commercial value of the sport, which during USAC sanctioning had been not much more than a club series with a single, historic race that drew the best and brightest drivers from across the world. The addition of road courses, under the new owner driven CART, continued with great speed. 1983 was the final year that an oval-centric, open wheel series was able to stand confidently in the spotlight. CART did return to close to 50/50 schedule balance from 1998 through 2001, but by this time the series and open wheel racing as a whole had fallen out of the spotlight.
1984 was the year it all changed. CART adopted the highly successful scheduling practice of attempting to stage a third of the races each season on road, street and oval tracks. By the early nineties, CART was at the top of the motorsports world, only running about six ovals, while keeping about 16 races on the calendar each year. The cars were multimillion dollar fire breathing monsters that rivaled Formula One machines of the era in technological prowess and outright speed. Rumor had it that the FIA locked CART out of F1 tracks so a direct speed comparison could never be made. The American series that started on long, dusty roads was making the world’s greatest motorsports powerhouse a little nervous.
In 1996, after Tony George started the bloodiest civil war the world of motorsports had ever seen, both resulting series struggled to find an identity. CART continued its successful formula for two more years before rapidly gaining ovals in 1998, and just as quickly losing nearly all but one by 2006; running a handful from 2002 on. The IRL didn’t fare much better. The series started as oval only, and by all accounts was only able to keep the lights on because of the large cash infusions received from the IMS coffers. 2005 saw the addition of the first non oval event to the IRL schedule, and 2008 the great war was ended. No one won, ChampCar had just run out of money first and its charred remnants folded into the IRL.
Since this time, American open wheel racing, as a unified series, has been going through a major identity crisis. Fans of the road only series of ChampCar were told they must live in the oval heavy world of the IRL. Neither side had any more fans than the other to bring to the combined series, but everyone was glad to be back at Indy on Memorial Day weekend. Now the old IRL fans are face with the same dilemma; losing oval events to street courses.
Embarking on the, in my eyes, scary concept of losing the golden idea of a balanced schedule, I was initially worried about what the future held for INDYCAR. 2012 will mark the start of the fifth combined season of racing and with it comes a new chassis and engine package that has no ties to either of the two previous series. The schedule, oddly enough, is shaping up to be eerily similar in event makeup to the CART calendar in its heyday, the type of calendar that drew international eyes and stole drivers from F1. Why did the series run this type of schedule? The cars were expensive and wrecking at an oval each week was no fun. The owners paid the bills with twistie money so they could amaze the masses on ovals, and leave the world speechless every May.
The return to a road heavy schedule, as we all know, is driven by dollars and cents. Ovals just don’t want the series right now and the series can’t afford to promote themselves every time we want to visit one. The owners and series can actually make a few bucks at the street events, while keeping repair costs low. China, Brazil and even Baltimore are driven by dollars. Even the annual trip to Motegi each year was a financial gain for all players involved thanks to Honda for footing the bill. The more I think about it, the more I see that the ovals should be a treat, a special event to showcase how amazingly crazy the drivers of our series are. A return to the thirds style of scheduling might not be that bad. It really is the only business model that worked for top level open wheel racing, we have had two series more or less wither away while trying to thrive on either end of the calendar spectrum.
If, by creating this type of schedule, the owners are able to gain sponsorships and build a bit of wealth back into the series, we may see the return to a more open formula and the earth shaking engines and chassis that made indycar racing, our favorite kind of racing. Ultimately that is the goal; to bring the technological and engineering prowess back to IMS. The supporting races throughout the year are only preparation and advertisement for that one big Sunday afternoon in May. I don’t care what the schedule looks like; I just want to see the amazing racecars grace the speedway again. 1984 showed us how to accomplish that, and the good times continued uninterrupted. Now, nearly 17 years after the split, we seem to have forgotten why we started bickering in the first place and are now just an angry mob; focused on complaining because that is the only thing we know how to do anymore. 2012 looks a lot like 1984 to me and I am starting to warm up to the idea.