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American Championship Car Racing

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This article provides a general outline of the major American Open-Wheel motor racing championship, for specific information on the current Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League see Champ Car and IRL.

1994 Indianapolis 500, a National Championship race

Since 1916 there has been a United States national automobile racing championship for drivers of single seater (commonly referred to as open wheel) cars.

This championship has been run by several different sanctioning bodies since 1909.

The Indianapolis 500 has been a round of the National Championship since its inception in 1911.

Sanctioning Bodies

  • From 1909 to 1955 the championship was sanctioned by the Contest Board of American Automobile Association (the AAA). AAA introduced the first championship for racing cars as early as in 1905 but it was cancelled after a couple of serious incidents. Barney Oldfield was leading the championship at the point it was cancelled.
  • In 1979 there were two championships run by two sanctioning bodies, USAC and CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), which was a body formed by most of the existing team-owners. As all the top teams were allied to CART, the CART championship became the de-facto championship. USAC ran a "rump" season, with few cars and fewer name drivers - the only exception being A.J. Foyt.
  • In 1980 USAC and CART jointly formed the Championship Racing League (CRL) to run the National Championship, but the management of the Indianapolis speedway disliked the idea. The CRL was abandoned before any races were run and CART exclusively sanctioned the championship. [1] In 1981 and 1982 the Indianapolis 500 was not included as a points-paying round of the National Championship, although all the top drivers and teams competed anyway. One further race was run by USAC at Pocono Raceway in 1981. This race was not supported by many CART teams, and even included some dirt-track cars. After this, USAC withdrew from sanctioning, except for the Indianapolis 500, which they continued to run. USAC ceremonially named the '500' as part of their 'Gold Crown' championship, an essentially meaningless title as the race was the only round, and allowed the race to be included in the CART championship.
  • From 1983 to 1995 stability returned and the championship was run by CART, with USAC organizing at Indianapolis.
  • In 1996, Tony Hulman's grandson, Tony George, the owner of the Indianapolis track and the '500', created the Indy Racing League (IRL), a separate championship that includes the Indianapolis 500 as a round. The IRL's results are either listed alongside the existing National championship [2] or treated as an entirely separate entity and not included. [3] [4]
  • CART continued running the existing championship until the organization went bust at the end of 2003.
  • The rights to CART's assets were purchased by a consortium called Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) in 2004 and the former-CART series was renamed the Champ Car World Series.

Retrospectively Awarded Champions

Vanderbilt Cup race start, 1908

In 1926 the AAA Competitions board retrospectively calculated championship results for major AAA-sanctioned races run between 1909 and 1915 and for 1917 to 1919.

In 1951 racing historian Russ Catlin officially revised AAA records with championship results based on all AAA races from 1902-1915 and 1916-1919. This had the effect of retroactively creating seven newly credited champions and changing the 1909 champion from Bert Dingley to George Robertson and the 1920 champion from Gaston Chevrolet to Tommy Milton.

Although the 1909-1919 races were not considered to be part of a championship at the time, they are included in statistics by most historians.


Marlboro Penske PC-23 Indy/Champ car

National Championship cars have variously been called 'Championship (or 'Champ') Cars', 'IndyCars' (after the Indianapolis 500) or simply 'Big Cars', a term that reflected the cars being larger than junior formulae such as midgets or sprint cars, and that has largely disappeared from use.

From 1998 to 2003 'ChampCar' was a trademark of CART, and is now owned by OWRS.

The 'IndyCar' name was incorporated by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1992. CART was licensed to use the term until 1997. When a 6-year non-use agreement with CART expired in 2003, the IRL series was rebranded the 'IndyCar Series', with the IRL name remaining as the sanctioning body.

Types of circuit

The American National Championship is notable for the wide variety of racetracks it has used compared to other series, such as Formula One and the various forms of Endurance sports car racing. The mainstays of the championship are paved oval speedway tracks, road courses and closed public road (Street) circuits.

Until 1970 the championship frequently raced on dirt and clay tracks, but all such tracks were removed permanently by the USAC before the 1971 season.

From 1915 to 1931 wooden speedways were frequently used for championship races, however they were too expensive to maintain and nearly all were demolished in the 1930s.

The Pikes Peak Hillclimb was a round of the championship in the years 1947 to 1955 and 1965 to 1969.

In 1909 a point-to-point race from Los Angeles, California to Phoenix, Arizona was included in the championship.

A full list of tracks is available here [5].

Non-US races

For the majority of the National Championship, the races have been held inside the United States. First championship event outside of US took place in 1967. American championship cars raced in Monza oval in 1957 and 1958 in a non-championship "Race of two worlds". Alos in 1966 there was a non-championship USAC race in Japan. Since the 1980s the CART/CCWS championship has increasingly raced outside the US.

Vanderbilt Cup

The 1916, 1936 and 1937 Vanderbilt Cup races were included in the National Championship. The 1909-1915 races were retrospectively added to the championship in 1926. CART resurrected the Cup in 1996 as the winner's trophy for the US500 race. When that race was discontinued in 2000 the Cup changed roles and became the championship trophy. As OWRS bought all of CART's assets in 2004 they have kept rights to use the Cup.

Indianapolis 500 and 'The Split'

From its inception in 1911, to creation of the Indy Racing League in 1996, the Indianapolis 500 was a round of the National Championship. The exceptions are the 1981 and 1982 races, which were removed from the CART championship for political reasons by the USAC. However, when the race still attracted all of the regular teams despite its lack of championship status USAC relented and allowed CART to run at Indianapolis.

Winning the Indianapolis 500 has always had at least an equal profile with the winning the National Championship, although direct comparisons are difficult as many of the National Champions also won the Indy 500. 1993 is a good example of a year when the winners of each title received the same amount of attention. That year former Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi won the 500 but the current F1 champion Nigel Mansell won the National Championship, becoming the only driver to win both titles consecutively.

The creation of the IRL in 1996 with the Indianapolis 500 as its centrepiece race removed the race from the existing National Championship. This of course was a hugely controversial move in racing circles, with opinions at the time ranging from praise to ridicule - in 2004 the US Sports Illustrated magazine named the IRL's formation as one of the 'Ten Dumbest Moments in Sports'. [6] This assessment was based on the notable decline in the number of television viewers, car entries and estimated grandstand ticket sales (the Speedway does not officially announce sales figures), since the impasse began in 1996. [7]

Today most commentators seem to agree that both the Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League hold an equal claim to the legacy of the National Championship and that a merger is the only logical move. [8]

Further details of the 'Split' can be found here [9]. and under Indy Racing League and Champ Car

Notable Drivers

The driver with the most championship titles and race wins is A.J. Foyt. From 1959 to 1981 Foyt won 67 USAC championship races and seven USAC titles (including 1979). Although Foyt retired in 1993 he never won a CART-sanctioned race.

Ralph DePalma won the most AAA-sanctioned races (24).

Michael Andretti won the most CART-sanctioned races (42).

As of the end of the 2005 season Sam Hornish, Jr. has the most IRL wins (14) and Sébastien Bourdais has the most CCWS wins (13).

Mario Andretti is the most successful driver born outside the United States with 52 wins and 4 titles.

Canada's Paul Tracy is the most successful non-US citizen (28 wins, 1 title).

Four drivers have held the crowns of CART Champion and Formula One World Driving Champion. They are Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nigel Mansell and Jacques Villeneuve.

Five drivers have won both a National Championship race as well as at least one Formula One race. They are as follows: Peter Revson, Dan Gurney, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and most recently Juan Pablo Montoya.

Notable Fatalities in Competition

1920 Indianapolis 500 winner Gaston Chevrolet was killed in a crash later the same year at the Beverly Hills Speedway in Beverly Hills, California.

1919 Indianapolis 500 winner Howdy Wilcox died after a crash at Altoona in 1923. Altoona also claimed the lives of 1924 Indy winner Joe Boyer in 1924, and 1929 Indy winner Ray Keech in 1929.

Ted Horn, champion in 1946, 1947 and 1948 died after crashing at the DuQuoin dirt track in late 1948.

Indy 500 winners Floyd Roberts and Bill Vukovich were killed during the 1939 and 1955 500's respectively.

4-time race winner Jack McGrath was killed in a crash at Phoenix in 1955.

1951 and 1958 champion Tony Bettenhausen was killed in a crash at Indianapolis in May 1961.

1996 Indianapolis 500 polesitter Scott Brayton was killed May 17, 1996 during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500.

Rookie Jeff Krosnoff was killed in a crash at the Molson Indy Toronto in July, 1996.

Gonzalo Rodriguez died in a practice accident at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. on Sept. 11, 1999.

5-time race winner Greg Moore died on Oct. 31, 1999 after a crash in the Marlboro 500 at Fontana.

Tony Renna(26) was killed on October 22, 2003 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a tire test.

National Champions

Ralph DePalma, National Champion in 1912 and 1914

Retroactively Awarded AAA Titles

AAA National Championship

A.J. Foyt, seven-time National Champion

USAC National Championship

CART & USAC National Championships

Jacques Villeneuve, 1995 National Champion

CART National Championship

Juan Pablo Montoya, 1999 CART Champion
Cristiano da Matta, 2002 CART Champion

CART & IRL Championships

CCWS & IRL Championships

External links