The history of American Open Wheel Racing and its respective national championships are as confusing and intricate as any other aspect of the sport. Controversy between the various sanctioning bodies, participating manufacturers and of course the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been the rule and not the expectation for the bulk of racing history in the United States.
I have attempted to construct a timeline of events between the various players in the game that is big time racing in the US. This timeline is the first step to a more complete and intricate chronological history hitting the major points in the 117 year history of automobile-turned-open-wheel racing that comprises the history of the series we currently enjoy.
All additional posts will be added to the “Open-Wheel Historical Timeline” tab at the top of the page. No promises to how often this will be updated, but it is a good start and is much more useful in published form as opposed to sitting on my hard drive. As always, all research was completed with due diligence, however I can never guarantee 100 percent accuracy. And as such, any notes, additions or corrections are more than appreciated and requested.
1895 – The first race on American soil is contested. Although this was more of a feasibility test of self-propelled carriages, the Chicago-Evanston-Chicago 50 mile contest started an undying love affair between Americans and the automobile.
1899 – The Automobile Club of America (ACA) is formed in an attempt to coalesce US racing. The ACA quickly aligns with the Automobile Club of France (ACF), the world’s predominant automobiling organization at the time.
1902 – AAA racing board is formed in opposition to the ACA which was seen as too bourgeois for the blossoming sport of motor racing.
1904 – The AAA Racing Board sanctioned its first race the 1904 Vanderbilt cup. It is unknown why William Vanderbilt chose AAA to sanction his new international event over ACA.
1905 – The AAA Racing Board sanctions the National Track Championship, but is inexplicably cancelled for the 1906 season. This 1905 season was the first time an official points system was applied to a season of racing in the world.
1908 – ACA creates the American Grand Prize in an attempt to break into the international grand prix scene and steal some of the limelight from AAA’s Vanderbilt Cup. These contests gave the United States two international level events.
1908 – The ongoing feud between the ACA and AAA was finally put to rest. It was decided that the ACA would sanction all international level events on American soil and AAA would sanction anything else that was left, which turned out to be the winning formula. By all accounts, this decision doomed the ACA and by 1916, AAA was sanctioning all big time racing in the US.
1908 – AAA dissolves the Racing Board to form the Contest Board. AAA’s exact reasons for the change have been lost with time, but it was most likely so they could legally oversee all automobiling events, not just races.
1909 – The Manufacturers Contest Association (MCA) was formed in an attempt to gain more manufacturer control over the technical regulations used by AAA at the time. The MCA’s insistence to use more stock style racecars and in effect, causing the extinction of American made thoroughbred race machines until 1915.
1909 – The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens for business.
1911 – The first Indianapolis 500 was contested.
1916 – AAA relaxes the rules to allow purebread race machines back into competition ahead of the inaugural 1916 championship racing season. The MCA had steadily been losing clout in the racing world and ultimately folded at a date unknown. This would mark the first time since 1905 a national champion was declared based on points earned through a season of racing.
1916 – The final American Grand Prize sanctioned by the ACA was contested and awarded points towards the 1916 AAA National Championship. The ACA fades from existence in the coming years and never sanctions another top level contest.
(Note: If you know anything further on the eventual demise of the MCA and ACA, please help me fill these holes.)
1917 – 1919 – the championship is suspended due to WWI. Major sanctioned racing continues uninterrupted however no season champion is crowned.
1942 – 1945 – Championship racing is completely suspended for WWII. No major racing takes place worldwide.
1952 – NASCAR creates the Speedway Division that consisted of stock block open wheeled cars, very similar to the sit up front engine cars seen in the AAA series.
1953 – The Speedway Division awards its last champion and is quietly discontinued.
1955 – AAA withdraws from sanctioning the season championship. The death of Bill Vukovish and the 1955 Le Mans disaster are pointed to as the main reasons.
1955 – The United States Auto Club (USAC) is formed by IMS owner Tony Hulman to fill the void created left by the AAA Contest Board. USAC becomes the arbitrating body for the Nation Championship.
1979 – The first season of the newly created Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) is contested. The Sports Car Club of America would sanction this inaugural season so the series would be recognized by the FIA and included on the international motorsports calendar.
1979 – The USAC championship is seen as the de facto national championship and continues to sanction the Indy 500
1980 – CART and USAC form the Championship Racing League in an attempt to combine the competing series. IMS management rejects the idea and the season is abandoned after Mid-Ohio and USAC does not contest another championship event in 1980. CART continues its season and with this decisive victory becomes the dominant national championship sanctioning body.
1981 – USAC Gold Crown Championship struggles to maintain a solid schedule. The last paved oval outside of Indianapolis is held at Pocono this year sealing the Gold Crown championships fate. The series would consist of a handful of dirt ovals along with the still USAC sanctioned Indy 500.
1985 – The USAC Gold Crown Championship now consists of a single event: the Indianapolis 500. Its winner holds the dual honor of being crowned both the Indy 500 champion as well as the Gold Crown Champion.
1996 – The Indy Racing League (IRL) is created and its first season contested in response to the increasing foreign diversity, diminished importance of oval racing and rising costs of the CART Championship. This will mark the first time since 1984 that USAC will sanction more than a single championship level event in a calendar year. CART still maintains its national championship albeit without the Indy 500 included on its schedule for the first time since the inception of CART.
1997 – After multiple officiating gaffs, the IRL kicks USAC out of the official’s seat and moves sanctioning in house. USAC will never sanction another championship level event.
2004 – CART declares bankrupt and its assets are purchased by Open Wheel Racing Series. OWRS morphs into The Champ Car World Series and contests its first championship season.
2008 – Lacking the financial assets to contest the 2008 season, Champ Car filed for bankruptcy and its assets folded into the IRL. 2008 marked the first time the Indy 500 and the national championship are sanctioned by a single unified body since 1978.
So that’s phase one. History is always fun and I can’t wait to add to it once the off season gets to be nearly unbearable. See anything wonky, have a request or want to float a suggestion? Contact me through the usual routes. This started as a random idea and has grown into a crowd sourced project; yes, there are other parts already framed and research is underway to complete future additions to this timeline. I have no idea how large this will grow but maybe we can create some semblance of informed historical accuracy in a confused sport with a fractured past.