INDYCAR – How Did We Get Here? Pt. 3 The Indy Effect
After years of instability, the championship had finally become recognized and repeatable. Historical mistakes were made, but the sport is well on its way to greatness and The Indianapolis Motor Speedway finally takes the helm of championship racing for the first time.
Board track racing was at its height in the early 1920’s. Millions of trees were felled to accommodate the hundreds of miles of the highly banked wooden autodromes that popped up all around the nation. These facilities led to a decline in interest from the general public. The high banking and speeds almost guaranteed there would be no passing; the highest starting car that could stay in one piece would nearly always claim victory.
National championship regulations had allowed more or less bespoke racing machines to contest the trail. This equipment was foreign to the general public, bearing almost no resemblance to the automobiles they drove on the street. Interest was slipping and the first threats to the Championship started to expose themselves. Audiences were clamoring for the unpredictability of dirt track racing, and more recognizable machinery.
Fans got their wishes very quickly, safety hazards and the cubic dollars required for the upkeep of autodromes saw the last board track race take place at Altoona in 1931. The facilities quickly faded from existence. Outside of the bricks of Indianapolis, all championship races took place on the dirt.
During the same time, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Eddie Rickenbacker pushed through a rule set that has more recently taken on the misnomer “Junkyard Formula”. What looked like a relaxing of the rules to allow cheaper and less technical shade-tree mechanics to enter equipment into the race was actually a move to entice automotive manufacturers to come back to the championship. They had been all but absent for over a decade, citing the bespoke equipment as no interest to them.
The equipment that contested the championship in the 30’s was more akin to sports cars or stock cars than the fire breathing thoroughbred monsters that had previously graced the circuits of America. Large displacement naturally aspirated engines and riding mechanics replaced the tiny supercharged single seat equipment from years past.
This was also the first time IMS flexed its muscles in the face of the sanctioning body. Series bosses had almost always deferred to The Speedway on technical matters, but this time IMS pushed the agenda that it saw as correct. Although a massive fixture in National racing, IMS had finally positioned itself as the beginning and end of American open-wheel racing from a technical standpoint.
The late 20’s also saw the total decline of racing in the US. Transitioning from the post-WWI boom of 20 championship races to the pre-WWII bust of only a handful each year was a difficult process. Unstable rules, uncooperative promoters and financially poor owners ushered in the most tenuous time ever seen in big time racing. The late 30’s and early 40’s were shells of its former championship glory. Seasons saw an average of three or four rounds a years during this period. US racing was dying, and the merciful cancellation of big time racing in 1942 for WWII could not have come at a better time.
1946 saw the resuscitation of big time racing in the US. However, there were few facilities prepared to host championship racing. Even Indianapolis was questionable due to its neglect during the war. The decision was made to include sprint car events in the national championship trail to pad event and entrant numbers during this complete rebuild season.
Six Championship car events, historically defined as a race over 100 miles in length, and 71 sprint car events were included the calendar that year. Better than expected car counts led to a fair bit of confusion regarding what is and isn’t championship history during the 1946 season. Whatever confusion is present in period sources, AAA released a memo ahead of the 1947 season stating that championship scoring for the 1947 season will revert to only Champ Car races, plus the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.
Dirt racing had been the predominant style of racing after filling the void left by board track racing. Only Pikes Peak and Indianapolis being the two non-dirt events until the inclusion of paved Darlington Raceway in 1951. It took a few years to catch on, but by 1956, a third of the championship was held on pavement and the divergence of pavement and dirt cars started in earnest.
1955 marked a time of new beginnings and rapid change as AAA withdrew from race sanctioning, instead choosing to focus on public automobiling services and programs. The power vacuum allowed Tony Hulman, then owner of IMS, to step in and create the United States Auto Club (USAC) to handle championship sanctions. By doing this, Hulman had consolidated IMS, big time auto racing, and technical control of the championship into one unified behemoth.
Indianapolis did indeed take full power of Championship racing, but it wasn’t with the single knockout punch of creating the 500 that sealed its place. Once board tracks fell to the wayside, IMS was the last strong promoter and track owner to compete with fairground horse racing tracks. This allowed Speedway brass a more free hand in guiding the technical regulations on behalf of the manufacturers and owners. A move AAA clearly had no motivation to make, evident by the missing but promised supercharger equivalency formula following the riding mechanic era.
Next week will examine the Split era’s and how in choosing where and what to race in the championship has led us to IndyCar racing as we know it today.