Indianapolis 500 Retrospective – IRL to IndyCar

1996 didn’t feature the amount of household names previous years at the Speedway had. It did, however, still feature CART chassis from Reynard and Lola, some of which dating back to 1992, therefore some familiarity did exist, and it wasn’t entirely without drivers that either where known, or would be in the future well known in the motorsport world, despite the eighteen rookies on the grid.

Buddy Lazier in his No. 4 Chevrolet-powered Dallara waiting his turn to qualify for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. -- Photo by Doug Patterson
Buddy Lazier in his No. 4 Chevrolet-powered Dallara waiting his turn to qualify for the 2016 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. — Photo by Doug Patterson
Among the ‘stars’ in the 1996 Indianapolis 500 was CART Veteran, Arie Luyendyk who claimed the fastest qualifying average lap speed ever at IMS, a record which stands to the current day at 237.498 mph, though due to the format he wasn’t on pole for the race. Scott Brayton was on pole, for the second successive year. Sadly Brayton was killed in practice the day before the 1996 500. Also a CART veteran, Brayton had switched to the IRL with his Menards Special Lola. Also in the 1996 field was the late Michele Alboreto, Eddie Cheever and a young Tony Stewart, who would make his name in the Indy Racing League over the next few seasons before switching to NASCAR. Buddy Lazier would claim the victory in 1996. Buddy would later return to Indianapolis in recent years with his family team Lazier Partners Racing, without the success he had with Hemelgarn in that era. Although no longer a full-season competitor in the current Verizon IndyCar Series, Buddy is a regular at Indianapolis and will contest this year’s 500 Mile Race in his No. 4 Lazier/Burns Chevrolet-powered Dallara.

The new control tower, aka The Pagoda, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. -- Photo by Doug Patterson
The new control tower, aka The Pagoda, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. — Photo by Doug Patterson
1997 would be the year of real change at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the construction of a new control tower, “the Pagoda,” began in addition to new pit garages, a modern media centre and an infield road course in preparation for welcoming the FIA Formula One World Championship back to the ndianapolis Motor Speedway. The Indianapolis 500 Mile Race would see major changes for 1997 in technical regulations as well. The turbocharged engines, which had so long been the “sound of Indycar”, where outlawed, replaced with naturally aspirated 4.0 L production based engine, supplied by Oldsmobile and Nissan, whilst chassis where developed to the new regulations by Dallara and Panoz.

Speeds on the track where far lower than in 1996, with the pole position at 217 mph, and that wasn’t the end of the issues for the 1997 running. The race was due to happen on the Sunday as ever, however rain completely wrote off the chance for the race to run as schedule, so it was rescheduled for Monday. The race did start, but not enough laps were completed on Monday for the race to be declared official, so it was held on the Tuesday. Being held on a Tuesday, of course the spectators numbers where down. It wasn’t a terrible crowd given it was a Tuesday, but it could have been a much better crowd had the rain not caused the levels of issues it did.

The race wasn’t without controversy either, on Lap 198 of 200, Tony Stewart hit the wall at Turn 3, not terribly hard but enough to bring out the caution. As Luyendyk was leading from Scott Goodyear, coming to the flagstand over the start/finish for the final lap the caution was still out, as Arie approached the flagstand, the green and white flags where shown, and the restart was on. Arie accelerated away from Goodyear, however whilst going around the final lap, the radio communication between Arie and his spotter indicated substantial confusion as yellow lights where present on areas around the track, and green on others, with Arie’s spotter asking the eventual comment of ‘What the **** are they doing?’ That comment during the race on national TV appeared to encapsulate the views of others, as the Indianapolis 500 began to hemorrhage TV audience. He came home to win, but the confusion and race control decisions of USAC, would mean that for 1998, USAC would be relieved of race control duties over the Indianapolis 500, ending an era.

1998 would see the 25/8 rule finally dropped so all 33 cars in the race had to qualify in a new shorter format for the Month of May. Billy Boat took the pole position, whilst Eddie Cheever claimed the win. 1999 saw Kenny Brack win when Robby Gordon’s car failed a lap from the end of the race.

Juan Pablo Montoya, #9, Target, G Force, Oldsmobile -- Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
Juan Pablo Montoya, #9, Target, G Force, Oldsmobile — Photo courtesy of IMS Photo
For 2000 Chip Ganassi Racing would cross over from CART for the Indianapolis 500, ending the total boycott of the event by CART teams. Ganassi came over with Juan Pablo Montoya, who would leave CART for F1 in the following season. The Columbian was certainly not afraid of IMS, despite Al Unser’s words that Montoya must respect the Speedway or it will bite, he dominated the race, returned to CART and joined Williams F1 for 2001.

2001 at IMS saw more CART teams come across, Penske, Team Green and Chip Ganassi Racing in addition to Rahal’s team came across, and dominated the race, Castroneves taking his first Indianapolis 500 win, ahead of Gil De Ferran, and Team Green’s Michael Andretti, followed by the three entrants from Ganassi, showing the strength of the powerhouse teams.

2002 saw the first new regulations since 1996. CART had a very tough 2002, losing its major teams, Penske and Ganassi alongside others, over to the fledgling IRL series.

For 2003, the regulations would change for the Indy Racing League and the Indianapolis 500. Dallara and Panoz developed their new cars and as with the 1998 cars, Dallara’s IR series would become dominant. Toyota and Honda would supply the engines for the series. 2003 Also saw the retirement of Michael Andretti, who would purchase Team Green, making it Andretti Green, a team which would play a crucial part at Indianapolis in the coming years. 2003 also showed the effects of the split somewhat, for the first time, the event wasn’t a sell out crowd. It also struggled with the new regulations to reach 33 cars for the race, and it really became evident of the damage ‘the split’ had done to the Indianapolis 500, despite attracting back major teams and stars for 2003.

Danica Patrick during final practice on Carburetion Day for the 2010 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. -- Photo by Doug Patterson
Danica Patrick during final practice on Carburetion Day for the 2010 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. — Photo by Doug Patterson
In 2005, the Indianapolis 500 became the site of ‘Danica mania’. Danica Patrick qualifying 4th with Rahal Leterman Lanigan Racing in her first Indianapolis 500 made her an overnight sensation in the sport. In the race, Danica would lead the race and eventually finish 4th having to conserve fuel in the dwindling laps. Over the subsequent years, her popularity in the series and relative success would assist in IndyCar’s popularity before her switch to NASCAR in 2012.

2006 marked the 90th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 with an epic finish between Penske’s Sam Hornish, Jr and the latest member of the Andretti family dynasty, Marco Andretti, with just 0.0635 sec between the two at the end of the race. It would also mark the beginning of the sole engine supply by Honda after Toyota pulled out of IndyCar racing for NASCAR at the end of 2005.

2007 would see Dario Franchitti’s first Indianapolis 500 win of three, he’d have prior to his early retirement in 2013, following his career ending accident at Houston. He wouldn’t defend the win immediately in 2008 however, switching to NASCAR for a year.

2008’s reunification of the Indy Racing league and the Champ Car World Series, formally CART, which was the direct descendant of CART, would bring new teams and new challenges to Indianapolis. All the teams in the series would run the Dallara IR07, itself an update of the IR03. Firestone would be the sole tyre supplier and Honda the sole engine supplier. Therefore the ‘spec car’ era at Indianapolis was entirely in place, whilst for the first time since 1996, North America would have only one premier open-wheel racing series.

2009 would be a pivotal year at the Speedway. Tony George, whose vision had created the Indy Racing league and changed the face of the Speedway forever, would first have restrictions placed upon him by his family, before his sisters and mother Mari Hulman-George took control of the situation and removed Tony George from his official position. The reason for this was due to the vast amount of wealth spent over the preceding years, both in the speedway and in running and maintaining the Indy Racing league. As a result, no one really won the war over the American Open Wheel landscape. George lost control, CART was bankrupt twice over and what suffered were the sport and the fans, which abandoned it for other series and other sports, bringing to a close a terribly sad era in the history of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

The Hulman-George family would then bring in professional bull riding boss, Randy Bernard, to try and turn around the IndyCar Series and the popularity of the Indianapolis 500. Bernard would bring in various new concepts and ideas during his short tenure as the head of the Indycar series.

2011 would be a special year at the Brickyard, a fairy tale year of sorts. The race marked the 100th anniversary of the first running, it also marked the final year of the IR03/5/7 era of Dallara chassis, with a new chassis due to be introduced the following year under Randy Bernard’s stewardship. The new chassis would bring back turbocharged engines for the first time since 1997. The new chassis tender would be organised by the ICONIC Committee (Innovative, Competitive,Open-Wheel, New, Industry Revelant , Cost Effective) with bids submitted by Lola, Swift, Dallara and the Deltawing group. Indianapolis in 2011 was a fairly-tale year for the pole sitter and the race winner. Underdog team, Sam Schmidt Motorsport, gained the pole with Alex Tagliani. In the race, Dan Wheldon who was without a full season drive, and had been testing with Dallara on the IR12 entered the race with friend and former teammate Bryan Herta’s eponymous team, Bryan Herta Autosport.

Dan Wheldon at the exit of Turn 4 during a practice session for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. -- Photo by Doug Patterson
Dan Wheldon at the exit of Turn 4 during a practice session for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. — Photo by Doug Patterson
The race overall was a fantastic event, but it would be the last lap that would place the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in the memories of many, JR Hidebrand, driving for Panther Racing was one corner from claiming victory in the Indianapolis 500 ahead of a charging Dan Wheldon, when Hildebrand hit the wall exiting turn 4, allowing Wheldon to pass and claim the victory in the centenary year. Hildebrand would drag his Panther-Dallara over the line to finish second.

Sadly, Dan would be killed in a multiple-car collision at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October, 2011, the season finale of the 2011 Indycar Series and Dan’s second race of the season. Lionheart’s legacy lives on in the fans of the series, in the memories of many and in the name of the current chassis. Dallara renamed the new chassis the DW12 in honour of Dan.

2012 saw the first Indianapolis 500 with the DW12 chassis and the first Indianapolis 500 since 2005 that multiple engine manufacturers competing, ending the singular supply contract of Honda, by Chevrolet (Ilmor) and Lotus (Engine developments ltd) joining Honda in supplying the new 2.2L V6 twin turbo. Lotus would be very unsuccessful, whilst Honda and Chevrolet would compete for victories throughout the coming seasons. Randy Bernard would be removed as CEO of the series in 2012.

The new chassis would see very close racing, Dario Franchitti and Takuma Sato taking the race down to the final lap in 2012, with Dario winning, when Taku crashed. 2013 would see Tony Kanaan claim victory, whilst 2014 would be the very popular victory of Ryan Hunter-Reay.

[singlepic id=364 w=300 h=200 float=left]In 2015, manufacturer-specific aero kits returned to IMS, a concept which was a vision of Randy Bernard’s to make the cars look different visually from one another, and try and move away from ‘spec’ racing which had come to plague the Indianapolis 500. The aero kits weren’t without issue, but they have presented higher speeds at IMS. The future for them is questionable however, just as it is for everything else at IMS.

The Indianapolis 500 has its 100 running in one week, what the future holds no one quite knows. The speedway has always overcome its challenges throughout history in time, whether those are political or on the track. Will we ever get back to Fishers vision of the Indianapolis 500 been the place to pursue automotive development, with multiple chassis and large scale development? What impact will the environmental lobby have on the future of racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as more forms of motorsport move towards Hybrids and alternative forms of energy? Will the Hulman-George family continue the legacy set out by Tony Hulman in 1945? Will Stability ever return to IndyCar politics? The future for the Indianapolis 500 holds plenty of questions.

For now and until some of those questions can be answered, enjoy the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, and enjoy every subsequent running which happen, the history of this race deserves to be celebrated, even if at times, it is a tough and frustrating to do so. It is ‘The racing capital of the world’.

Thank you for reading. If you missed the previous installments of our Indianapolis 500 Retrospective series, you can read them here:

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Jake Bartels

TK won in 2013, RHR in 2014.