In a bid to return to normalcy, I figured we would dive into some more indycar lore today. Yes, there is still the matter of a season review, but I am not quite ready to unleash my subpar conclusions to the world yet. In the mean time, we will continue our look into the moments that have made indycar the fascinating sport to follow that it has become today. The history of our sport is what has built it into what it is today, and these amazing moments should be amassed in a central location. This series of posts is the starting point to creating a Wikipedia page so these moments can be easily accessed by anyone. If you have any indycar lore moments you would like to add please, let me know. I am no means a giant in the world of American championship racing history, but I do know enough to be dangerous.
There are many great races, finishes, people, locations and racecars that deserve to be entered into indycar lore, but we must start somewhere. Some may be new, some may be familiar, but they are all great moments in indycar history. Today we will look at three items closely tied to the early IRL. As always, I will remind you that I am an armchair historian and although I have done my due diligence in research, there may always be a factual error. If you see anything amiss or have anything to add, please contact me thought the usual routes.
#19961997IRLseason – 1997 was an odd year for open wheel racing. We were just coming off of the split and everyone involved in the sport were reeling from the blow. During its inception, the IRL wanted to create a schedule that ended with the Indy 500 each year. To do this, the series would attempt to run a winter-based schedule; starting in the fall, continuing through winter, and culminating with the next year’s Indy 500. In 1996, the series started in January, knowing they would have a short schedule, and ending in May. After running the years’ three events and crowning co-champions in 1996 because of a scoring system that had no provisions for a tie breaker, the fledging IRL decided to revert to a more traditional calendar after the 1996 Indy 500. They combined the planned 1996-1997 season with, what would have been, the beginning of the 1997-1998 season; allowing 1998 to be ran during one calendar year and re aligning its schedule with the traditional motorsports calendar. This led to the odd ball 1996-1997 season, starting in August of ‘96 and ending in October of ’97. Only ten drivers competed in the entire 15 month long schedule. Just to add insult to injury, the 1996 portion was contested with old CART equipment and the 1997 portion was contested with the new oval only chassis created specifically for the IRL.
#81stIndy500 – The 1997 Indianapolis 500 was one of the odder editions in the history books. This was the second 500 to be run under the new IRL banner, and one of the last indycar races to be sanctioned by USAC. The month started as it usually does; the only worry being the new asphalt laid in the corners to repair damage from the previous year’s Brickyard 400. The month ended in chaos and controversy. A quirk in the qualifying rules saw two cars with fast enough times being bumped from the field because they were not locked in, per the new IRL 25/8 starting rules. USAC, in a move to guarantee the fastest 33 cars would be starting, expanded the field to 35 cars; allowing the 25 locked in entries to start, as well as the fastest 33 cars. A rainout on Sunday May 25 would delay the start of the race until the following day. On Monday, the cars were finally fired and the race looked to be underway. A green track, the new formula, and driver inexperience resulted in five cars out of the race before the green was even thrown. When the race finally got underway, it was quickly red flagged due to rain on the 15th lap. The race was finally restated on Tuesday and ran to completion, but not without massive controversy.
On lap 198, Tony Stewart caught the wall but was not damaged, bringing out the caution with two laps to go. Arie Luyendyk lead Scott Goodyear and the rest of the pacecar-free field around to what everyone thought would be the white and yellow flags. To the drivers’ surprise USAC waved the white and green flags and the race was on for 2.5 miles of green flag racing to the end. Arie reacted well to the flag stand and pulled a big lead on the field who were hesitant to go because the caution lights were still flashing throughout the track. Nevertheless, Luyendyk would retain his win, the second of his career, and the finish deemed legal. After three days of running and 35 starters, the finish would forever be the focal point of the 1997 Indy 500. Video, skip to 4 minutes 45 seconds.
#1997TrueValue500 – The brand new facility of Texas Motor Speedway will forever hold the distinction of running the first ever race under lights in top level open wheel racing, but that is not what 1997 will be remembered for. Billy Boat took the checkers on that historic day, and upon entering victory lane was greeted by an enraged Arie Luyendyk. Arie was making a scene because he and his team were under the impression that they had won the race. Arie was run off by a smack to the back of the head by none other than Boat’s team owner AJ Foyt. The following morning, it was announce that Luyenkyk was the correct winner and Billy Boat was demoted to third place. To this day, AJ Foyt has never returned the winner’s trophy and a replica was created for Arie Luyendyk. The events at Indianapolis and Texas in 1997 led the IRL to remove USAC as sanctioning body and moved race control in house for the following race at Pikes Peak. Video.
These three odd entries in the early IRL history book continues to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the championship during those weak first years. The 1997 Indy 500 was actually the first race I had ever seen in the flesh. It was a great day and as a punk 15 year old, I could have cared less about how the scoring went down or that the results were extra shady. It was just an awesome Tuesday that my mom had pulled me out of school so we could see the race live for the first time. The cars, the sounds, the speed; it all hooked me. I had no real idea of what the split was or what it was doing; it was just a good sick day. I guess that is why I can look at these debacles and still love the history. It didn’t matter to me then, and now even though I know I should know better, it still doesn’t matter to me now. I am aware that CART was not without its own missteps during these early years and fully intend to look at those in the next edition of #IndyCarLore.