Indycar Rising: The Resurgence of a Motorsport Icon
With motorsport on an overall decline, one series has found its way back to the forefront of the racing world. That series, is Indycar.
The State of Racing in the Modern Day
Members of the racing community, myself included, hate to admit this, but auto racing is a dying sport. Not due to the lack of fan interest or lucrative sponsorship deals, but due to our ever-changing world. Over the last twenty years, motorsport has gone through many drastic changes. Engines have gotten quieter and more polar bear friendly, entire racing organizations and circuits have shut down or have been left to rot, and many world-renowned drivers have retired or passed on. Parts of what made racing amazing back then were gone. With green energy and electric vehicles being at the top of almost every politician and series organizer's wishlist, we could be one of the last generations to hear the sound of a proper racing engine. However, in these trying times we find ourselves wedged in, one racing series has found a way to thrive. A sport that, a little over two decades ago, helped make the United States the king of motorsport during the late 90s and early 2000s. This is the unprecedented return, of Indycar racing.
"The Split" and its Consequences
The late great Greg Moore. Photo courtesy of Autosport.
"The Split" was the American open-wheel civil war that took place from 1996 to 2008. By 1996, Indycar was still America's primary motorsport. The names were bigger, the purses heftier, and the races grander. Then, in 1996 Tony George, the chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, broke away from Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). The reasoning behind his decision to leave the longstanding union of American open-wheel racing was due to his feelings towards the direction the sport was headed. He felt that CART had turned its back to its origin and home, in favor of the glitz and glamour of international drivers and events. CART, as the name suggests, was run by team owners. This kind of democracy-based legion works great until the top team bosses get to decide what benefits them the most, to the detriment of the entire sport and smaller teams. This would lead to the formation of Tony George's pet project coming to life later that year, the Indy Racing League (IRL). The IRL was going to directly compete with CART, and inadvertently start what would result in the massive decline of open-wheel popularity in the United States. CART ran on both ovals and road/street circuits and was filled with top teams and drivers from all across the globe. Back home in Indiana, the IRL would only turn left and would be comprised of full-blooded American drivers who took the "proper route" into racing (usually USAC sprint cars). From the start of "The Split" to the dawn of the new millennium, CART reigned supreme in almost every aspect. However, with NASCAR exploding in popularity as the two open-wheel siblings squabbled, the IRL began attracting more and more attention. The race-long wheel to wheel racing was unlike anything CART could offer on a consistent basis. This, along with many of its top teams defecting back to Indianapolis, it soon became apparent that the writing was on the wall for CART. By 2003, they were bankrupt. After a quick reorganization, CART returned under the new title of the Champ Car World Series. The series would finally give up the ghost in 2008, finally merging back with Tony George and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. During their twelve-year battle, their crown was hastily snatched by the new king: NASCAR. It had everything both sports wanted to offer, but without the constant political infighting. Even after the merger, the newly reformed Indycar would not see itself up near the top of the American racing food chain for nearly a decade. This would not be aided by the tragic and unnecessary death of a two-time, and defending, Indianapolis 500 champion, Dan Wheldon during the 2011 finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The Lowest Point
Following the announcement of Wheldon's passing, the race was called off. However, in a tear-jerking tribute, all remaining drivers went to their cars and lapped five more times in honor of their fallen friend. Image courtesy of Indycar.
The date is October 16th, 2011, Las Vegas Motor Speedway: the championship-deciding race to cap off an exciting season of Indycar. Entering race day, there were two major storylines that were drawing the public's attention. The first was, of course, the championship fight between Dario Franchitti and Will Power. The secondary headline came from an idea that was brought about on May 3rd by Indycar president, Randy Bernard. Bernard, who was once the president of Professional Bull Riding (PBR), was selected as the new president of Indycar following Tony George's ousting from the position around two years prior. The idea for the season finale was to have a form of contest that any outside driver could sign up for. The purse from this competition alone was $5 million, not including the winnings from the race itself. That was the catch though, you had to win the race to win the massive bonus. His plan was to draw in more international attention onto the sport by having drivers from Formula One, WRC, BTCC, Moto GP, or any other international series compete for the win. This did not go as planned, however, as only one driver answered the challenge only one month before the race: Dan Wheldon. The defending Indy 500 winner was without a permanent ride, and was practically a free agent, at the time. He took the offer to salvage the embarrassment of the failing promotion. If he won, he planned to share half of it with a lucky fan. To help build the race into more of an entertaining spectacle, the field was grown into the largest size seen in fourteen years, with a total of 34 cars participating. As the green flag dropped, it was apparent that hard side-by-side racing would be the hallmark of the race. However, with the number of cars on track and the speeds at which they were reaching, an accident was going to happen. On lap 11, it happened. A huge chain-reaction crash caused a pileup that blockaded part of the racing surface. Two cars navigating through the carnage could not avoid the wreck, as championship contender Will Power and contest participant Dan Wheldon both went airborne. Whilst Power barely avoided hitting the catchfence, crashing down upon the SAFER barrier, Wheldon was not so fortunate, After a long red flag session, in which four drivers were taken to the hospital, Dan Wheldon was pronounced dead at 1:54 PM. Due to a publicity stunt gone awry, Indycar had lost one of its greats. Now, with fans, teams, and drivers alike distraught and angry, Indycar was in the worse shape it has been since the early days of "The Split". Fans were tuning out, drivers were leaving the sport, and with a new expensive chassis on its way for 2012, teams were not thrilled either. It would take almost another decade for Indycar to return to its former glory.
Back, and (arguably) Better than Ever
Six-time Indycar champion Scott Dixon, and Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson look on during January testing at Sebring International Raceway. Photo courtesy of Indycar.
Following the tragedy of 2011, Indycar went through some rather rough years. The original DW-12 chassis, which was used from 2012 - 2017 and named in honor of Dan Wheldon, had some glaring faults in both the economic, racing, and looks department. Economically speaking, the car was, as mentioned before, rather expensive in comparison to its predecessor. The new advanced safety cell that would be implemented into the DW-12 would run teams around $349,000. Along with this, the all-new expanded aero kit for the new machine would run the teams another $70,000! In addition to the new advancements in safety, the larger, more F1-like aero kit would be the defining feature of the DW-12 chassis. One of the biggest differences, regarding the aero kit, were the fenders that covered the rear end of the car. This was to help prevent a Vegas-like accident where cars are launched off of one another. However, as seen years following their implementation, they did next to nothing when it came to stopping airborne crashes. Thankfully, when the redesign of the chassis, the IR-18, hit the track in 2018, the fenders were removed. This was not to say that it did not produce great racing at times. The race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA was one of few examples that the chassis and aero kit worked well. However, this race was also the first to feature the tightly contested pack racing. For nearly the entire race, cars going in constant excess of 190 MPH were mere centimeters from touching, at times. The end of the race featured a massive crash in the infield that sent Ryan Briscoe lawn-darting into the turf. Luckily, he was uninjured in the incident. Following the race, some of the drivers, many of whom raced at the 2011 season finale, expressed their displeasure in Indycar's complete lack of care for drivers' safety, not even four years after Dan Wheldon's crash. To this day, we have not seen pack racing return to Indycar racing since the last race in Fontana.
Today, the sport seems to be in one of its best spots since the glory days of CART back in the late 90s. The schedule, similar to CART, is now primarily focused on road courses and street circuits, with only a handful of ovals left on the calendar. The star power, going into the 2021 season opener at Barber, is truly staggering. The "rookie" class alone displays some of the best talents not only in Indycar but across the entire world of auto racing. Leading the set of Indycar newbloods is the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Jimmie Johnson. Being one of only three men to win the title seven times, his name certainly brought attention to the sport. However, internationally, the next man to step behind the wheel is no stranger to open-wheel racing. When former HAAS Formula One driver Romain Grosjean announced that he would be racing in the NTT Indycar Series in 2021, few could believe it. This was only a couple of months removed from his horrifying crash in Bahrain which could have easily killed him if it was not for modern racing safety technology. Rounding out the field is three-time V8 Supercars (or just Supercars now) champion, Scott McGlaughlin. He will be the only one to challenge for the rookie of the year honors, as he is the only one participating on both ovals and road/street circuits. He also has the highest probability for success, jumping from the dominant Penske Supercars team to the equally dominant Penske Indycar team. The 2021 season is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory, but what does the future hold for Indycar?
The field gets underway at the 2019 season finale at Laguna Seca, with eventual winner Colton Herta leading the pack. Photo courtesy of Racer Magazine.
In a time where most series' futures are uncertain, Indycar is seemingly one of the few that have risen to the challenge. With rumors of new teams and manufacturers entering the sport, big names such as Daniel Riccardo expressing interest in racing in the series in the future, and fan interest at one of its highest peaks in recent memory, Indycar is making quite the comeback. However, will it last? In my personal opinion, I believe it will. The schedule, aside from missing a couple more oval races, is perfect. The current car specs are some of the best ever, constantly producing sidepod-banging races on both the oval and road courses. The driver lineup for the foreseeable future seems quite promising as well. During the peak of CART, you had legendary names like Juan Pablo Montoya, Alex Zanardi, Gil De Ferran, Michael Andretti, Dario Franchitti, Paul Tracy, Greg Moore, and so many more who came from all across the auto racing world to participate alongside the previously mentioned homegrown talent. With young names such as Colton Herta, Pato O'Ward, Rinus VeeKay, and Alex Palou all in very competitive machinery, along with the international newcomers, the next decade of Indycar seems incredibly bright and might help in leading Indycar back to the top of the motorsport podium. As mentioned before, more big names are taking interest in racing in Indycar. Whether it is just to run the Indianapolis 500, or the entire season, racers from far and wide want to give it a go. With "the Captain" Roger Penske at the helm, the oceanliner known as Indycar is sailing full steam ahead towards the promised land!
Thank you all for reading, bumping, and following, and I will see you down the road! Don't forget to tune in to the 2021 Indycar season opener at Barber Motorsports Park on April 18th, at 2:00 PM American Central Time on NBC. (Disregard if you are reading this in the future)