This will be a repository for indycar lore articles and tidbits I have written. The ultimate goal is to use these as a foundation for a Wikipedia article concerning the lore of our awesome and historic sport. Knowledge is power.
These entries are in no particular order. If you have any other great moments in history you would like to add please contact me through the usual routes. As always when I discuss history; I am no Donald Davidson so I may not be 100 percent accurate. I can promise due diligence in my research. I am confident of the prose that follows.
1905 AAA National Championship Season
1920 AAA National Championship Season
Board Track Racing – The board track era started Los Angeles in 1910; a location I know as Playa del Rey. A velodrome designer was commissioned to create the first autrodrome; a steeply banked ovals track whose racing surface was created with millions of 2X4’s laid on end. 100 mile per hour laps were predicted at a time when Indy was still in the 80s. The track was short lived; catching fire in 1913, but the groundwork for the next big think in motor racing had been created. John Prince, the initial designer of the track, would create the Prince Speedway Company and go on to build some 15 more tracks of various configurations.
Many tracks entwined in ancient history were board tracks for their whole life, or at some point in the locations history. Uniontown, Brooklyn, Altoona and many more were all known for their breathtaking races. New Jersey, a short 1/8 mile oval with 45 degree banking and eight second laps, was one of the most fearsome examples. During the non championship year of 1915, the first “championship level” board track race was held at Tacoma Speedway. A five turn track with every other board removed and gravel place into the voids to save some cash. Track historian Wayne Herstad said “There was a saying that all board tracks were awful, and then there was Tacoma.”
Arguably the most famous example was the Beverly Hills Speedway. The 1.25 mile rectangle has 35 degree banking in the corners; tame considering Culver City claimed 60 degrees at their track. During the season ending race in 1920, that years 500 winner Gaston Chevrolet was killed along with two others. Gaston would posthumously win the 1920 championship but would not be the only 500 winner to perish at a board track the same year as their victory. Howdy Wilcox in 1923, and Ray Keech in 1929, both at Altoona Speedway.
These tracks were dubbed Murderdromes in the media of the time. There were no safety provisions at these tracks. Similarly to today on the high banked 1.5 milers, any wreck or equipment failure would send the stricken machine to the outside of the track and collect any other competitors in its way. Unlike today, all that stood in the way of the spectators leaning directly over the edges of the track was a wooden guard rail. Many spectators lost their lives along with the competitors. The stigma stuck, and rightfully so.
The depression, along with the negative stigma, are often cited as the reasons for the extinction of board track racing. There were a few more extenuating factors; the tracks were hard on machinery. Often the fasted, but most reliable, car would win the race as passing at the high speeds seen on these facilities was nearly impossible. As the racing became stale and predictable, the fans moved on. Upkeep was admittedly expensive, but also dangerous. Workers would change broken boards from underneath the track as racing was taking place above. All of these factors led to dirt being the answer. The last championship race on timber was held at the infamous Altoona Speedway in 1931 and was completely dead by the 40’s.
1996-1997 IRL season – 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.
81st Indy 500 – 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.
1997 True Value 500 – 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.
The Bluegrass Duel – The reason this whole mess of an article was started; the finish of the 2011 Kentucky Indy 300. A late race caution leg to a sprint to the finish. A track renowned for side by side racing and close finishes would not disappoint this year. Fan favorite Ed Carpenter, driving for the perennial underdogs of Sarah Fisher Racing restarted P3 with 22 laps to go. Making short work of Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, Carpenter set his sights on leader Dario Franchitti. The two drivers ran side by side for the better part of 20 laps. Carpenter edged Franchitti to the line by 0.0098 seconds and securing a true david verse goliath victory. The little team that could had captured its first win, thanks to Ed Carpenter. This very well could be the last time we ever see a USAC graduate grab their first win in the series. Video
The Hildebrand – Another late race caution would set up a race finish to remember during the 2011 Indianapolis 500. Restarting on lap 165, in unlucky P13, JR Hildebrand steadily made his way to the front while conserving fuel. The majority of the field would make their final pitstop during that late race caution, setting up a fuel mileage finish. Hildebrand took the lead with only three laps to go and looked to be in position to steal a rookie Indy 500 win. Dan Wheldon stopped on lap 177 and was able to run all out to the finish, steadily passing cars that were running slow to conserve fuel. On lap 200, JR Hildebrand rounded T3 for the final time and chose to go around the slowing car of Charlie Kimball on the outside of T4. Hildebrand smacked the wall after getting up into the marbles, sliding along in a damaged racecar with the waving checkers in sight. Dan Wheldon was able to pass the still moving but wrecked Hildebrand in the last few hundred feet of the race to secure his second Indy 500 victory. Video
Spin and Win – The 1985 Indianapolis 500 may go down as one of the greatest performances in history. It is the only one to my knowledge that has its own “official” nickname moment, and for good reason. The race had suffered heavy attrition that day; already a third of the field was out of the race with a damaged car by the time Danny Sullivan attempted the inside move on Mario Andretti on lap 120. As Sullivan crossed the white line back onto the racing surface from the apron, he lost control and spun in the chute between T1 and T2, amazingly keeping the car off the wall. With an undamaged car, but four squared off tires, Sullivan follows Andretti into the pits where Danny puts on new shoes and Mario takes fuel only. Sullivan is able to re-pass Andretti a mere 20 laps later and would go on for the win. Video
The Pass – 1996 was a dark year for American open wheel racing. It marked the first year of the infamous split between CART, in its 18th season, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway backed IRL in its inaugural season. 1986 would go down in infamy for another reason. During the CART season finale at Laguna Seca; rookie of the year Alex Zanardi put an amazing pass on Bryan Herta in the corkscrew. The steep downhill left right chicane is notoriously tight and any pass attempt usually ends with two wrecked racecars. On this occasion, Herta allowed a bit of room and Zanardi, traveling too fast to make the turn, cut through the sand on corner exit to capture his third win of the season, on the last lap of the race. Outside the confines of the racing surface, the pass would not stand in most of today’s series; warranting a black flag. But in the looser rules of the ‘90s, the pass would be allowed and Alex Zanardi wrote his name in the history books forever. Video
Fastest racecar in the world – In 2000, CART was racing some of the fastest machines in the world. Engine competition was in full swing with Honda, Toyota, Cosworth-Ford and Mercedes; all full season participants. Chassis competition was heated as well, with both Lola and Reynard updating the cars on a yearly basis. Nine of twenty races were on ovals, and there were a few noteworthy Americans behind the wheel. This was truly the banner year for the series before slowly eroding away beginning in 2001. At the season finale in 2000, the drivers were reaching record speeds at the relatively flat, in comparison, but long Auto Club Speedway. Gil de Ferran set the official-unofficial-depending-on-who-you-ask closed course speed record in qualifying with an average speed around the two mile D shaped oval of 241.426 MPH.
Fastest race in the world –Most of the fastest races of all time were run caution free. As a testament to the relative light skill set needed to wheel the IRL cars; seven of the ten fastest races, by average MPH, are during IRL or INDYCAR sanction. A mere two years after de Ferran’s record qualifying run, the rival IRL broke a speed record of a different sort. In 2003, Sam Hornish Jr. won the Toyota 400 at Auto Club Speedway with a record average speed of 201.151 MPH over 400 miles. Bryan Herta brought the days only caution for contact on lap 8. The race ran caution free through to the checkers and by the end of it Sam Hornish Jr. and the IRL held the record for the fastest circuit race in history.
Fastest Indy 500 – The 1990 Indy 500 marks USAC’s first foray into the list of races with average speeds above 180 MPH at 13th place. This is one of only two entries in a list of 27 races gaining this particular distinction. The race actually started with a different sort of record being broken. Emerson Fittipaldi consecutively led the first 92 laps of the race, a new record. And by halfway he was averaging 174.192 or just an eyelash under the half distance speed record. By the time it was finished, Emmo had dropped to third, thanks to a blistered tire, and Arie Luyendyk would walk away with the win; his first of two. Thanks to the four quick cautions of the day, he would also walk away as the title holder of the fastest Indy 500 in history with an average speed of 185.981MPH over 500 miles.
IMS speed record – During the first year of the now infamous split, the upstart IRL series was contesting races with used, year old equipment from the CART championship. The ”vision” of having more cost efficient engines and chassis had not quite reached its completion, and possibly a bid to sway a few CART teams to defect for the Indy 500, the race was run to similar technical regulations as the 1995 edition. The main difference in 1996, and possibly the key to the record breaking speeds seen, was the continuing tire war between Goodyear and Firestone. Both companies pushed the edge of cohesion, reliability and longevity to sometimes grisly, but often unheard of levels of speed. The culmination was the second day of qualifying. Arie Luyendyk smashed the one lap qualifying record with a speed of 237.498 on lap four of his run. He also clinched the four lap average record with a speed of 236.986.
Great stuff, but, um, the Spin & Win was ’85. 🙂