The Origins of an Indy Car–How Someone Created a Legacy Without Even Knowing

Origins of the Indy Car 13 photos
Photo: USA Today
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The 2022 NTT IndyCar Series has been over for over a week, and we have to wait a long time until we see some track action. To keep you excited, we will talk today about the definition of an Indy Car.
Of course, we will start with where it all began. The legend says that car racing began immediately when the second automobile was built in the 1890s. However, the first officially sanctioned races began in Europe as German and French mechanics made their creations go against each other in what would become known as Grand Prix events.

Still, these races were nothing like the circuit racing we know today. Instead, they were more like reliability tests where racers were to drive from one town to another. Whoever got there first was declared the winner. A lot of times, there was no predetermined route. You just took whichever road you thought was the faster one. This racing style also arrived in America with the Chicago to Evanston race in 1895. While this was a reliability test, it also drew some attention from the public.

There were five entrants in the race from Chicago to Evanston, and the race was held in snowy conditions in November. After more than ten hours, Charles and Frank Duryea won the race in their own custom-built car.

By the turn of the 20th century, Grand Prix events would eventually migrate onto enclosed tracks, but the focus was still on reliability. Race organizers would set a distance, and whoever could complete that distance first would be the winner, just like today. The American Automobile Association (AAA) would organize the first competitive season in American motorsports in 1905, and just like that, we have an official IndyCar body. However, nobody called them Indy Cars yet because they were known as Champ Cars back then.

Origins of the Indy Car
Photo: USA Today
Most of the tracks in that era were dirt one-mile ovals. Swiss racing pioneer Louis Chevrolet won the first race on a circuit in New York City. The AAA came back in 1909 with a street race in Portland where Howard Covey, in a Cadillac, beat only five other drivers on the 14-mile track. Some of these street courses were up to 23 miles long and the final race of the year was a 480-mile rally-style race from Los Angeles to Phoenix, lasting 19 hours. You could say the racing was pretty wild back then.

However, one track on the schedule was a game changer. Of course, we are talking about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The two-and-a-half-mile track was paved with bricks and extremely fast by the day's standards. As a comparison, most tracks had an average race speed of 20 mph (32 kph), while Indy had average speeds of more than 70 mph (112 kph). In 1911, race organizers decided to push the distance of the race to 500 miles (804 kilometers), so that's how the Indy 500 was born. Actually, in the beginning, it was marketed as the 1911 International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race, but the Indy 500 had a better ring to it, so that name stuck.

Ray Harroun took the win after seven hours and had just kicked off an entire century of racing tradition without even knowing. Because of one simple idea, he had a single-seat car, while every other car at the time was a two-seater. A mechanic would ride along with the driver and fix any vehicle problem on the track. Meanwhile, if nothing were wrong, the mechanic would manually pump oil into the car while on the straightaways, and he would tell his partner where the others were on track.

Origins of the Indy Car
Photo: USA Today
Harroun wagered that his lighter car would be so much faster and have less wear and tear on it that he didn't need a mechanic on board. He mounted new rear and side mirrors to scan the track for itself. All of this sounds like a race car from our days.

As a result, Harroun's race car became known as an Indy Car, and these types of vehicles began racing everywhere. As a result, this was where Indy Cars diverged from regular passenger cars since the average person has no use for a single-seat car. Plus, with the Ford Model T entering the market, stock car racing was born, a competition where people could race vehicles taken straight off the showroom floor.

After USAC took ownership of IndyCar from AAA, some teams began to disagree with how they run things. As a result, in 1979, a large group of teams and drivers split to form CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams). It was a huge deal because IndyCar was the biggest motorsport in America at that time.

It was a weird and confusing period, but in 1996 everything was much clearer because the IRL (Indie Racing League) was formed. Because of the split between Indy and CART, both leagues shrunk drastically and were in big problems. CART was in such bad shape that they had to pay networks to air their races. They eventually declared bankruptcy and were reorganized as Champ Car World Series in the early 2000s. However, in 2008 they merged back with IndyCar Series.

Origins of the Indy Car
Photo: USA Today
Nowadays, the Indy 500 event easily has 300,000 people paying to be there, and that race alone holds up the entire series. Hopefully, it won't be that way forever, and Indy can get back to its glory days.
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About the author: Silvian Irimia
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Silvian may be the youngest member of our team, being born in the 2000s, but you won't find someone more passionate than him when it comes to motorsport. An automotive engineer by trade, Silvian considers the Ferrari F50 his favorite car, with the original Lamborghini Countach a close second.
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