IndyCar tends to get a bad rap in the racing world. Not as elite or as large-scale as F1, not as rooted in American motorsport NASCAR, not as ground-breaking as Formula E, IndyCar is often pegged as something to shrug off—with the exception of the Indy 500. But, friends, IndyCar is an untapped reservoir of incredible racing, amazing fan experiences, and all the things you rue the lack of in other motorsport. And you should be watching this season.
IndyCar has a complicated history. It was formed in 1996 after the rift between the Indy Racing League and CART was finally healed. That original rift, where one series became two, is referred to as “The Split.”
Basically, IndyCar (then called CART) was a Big Deal back in the 80s and early 90s—but some people felt that the rise in prestige was coming at a price. Specifically, the president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tony George. He felt that CART was straying from its American roots in dirt track oval racing, as detailed in Marshall Preutt’s sweeping oral history, which is worth a read.
So, George (also a member of CART’s governing board) decided that IMS and the Indy 500 wouldn’t be part of CART anymore, and he formed his own championship that focused on homegrown American drivers and oval events: the Indy Racing League.
The following twelve years where IRL and CART existed as two separate entities competing for the American open-wheel audience were a hot mess. Both series hemorrhaged money and fan viewership, putting the sport into what Indianapolis Monthly later summed up as “free fall.” Imagine if the Superbowl split off from the NFL. The NFL loses its premiere event of the season and has to spent a bunch of money to encourage people to watch games that don’t led up to any big event. The folks behind the Superbowl have to spend a ton of money to develop a whole sport around a single event. It’s not a good look for anybody.
Everyone involved had to suck up their pride in 2008 and admit that it was time to reunite. CART had gone bankrupt and was rebranded Champ Car, IRL was running road and street courses to try to regain some popularity and flesh out their race season, and all the reasons for splitting in the first place were seeming more ridiculous by the day. Tony George bought all of Champ Car, including its contracts for races like Long Beach, and modern IndyCar was born.
It’s been a long, hard road ever since The Split, which damaged the reputation of American open-wheel racing and became a political mess that nobody wanted to deal with. Finally, after over twenty years since the reunification, IndyCar is establishing itself as a legitimate, competitive series—and one that everyone should be watching, because it’s getting real good.
IndyCar is loud. It’s fast. It’s gritty. It’s full of the close racing everyone dreams about—cars going seven wide on the straight of an oval, 360 degree spins with perfect saves at the end, and hundreds of passes in a race. It runs every kind of track you can imagine: road courses, ovals, street tracks. IndyCar is the kind of racing that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Here’s Sebastien Bourdais passing three cars at once at Long Beach in 2018.
And Alexander Rossi duking it out with Robert Wickens at the IndyCar Grand Prix, passing each other back and forth for 90 unbroken seconds of great racing.
Or the incredible finish from Texas Motor Speedway in 2016—when’s the last time you saw the finish of a race go to the last lap?
And then there was rookie Alexander Rossi winning the 100th Indy 500 by literally clutching and coasting to the finish line after he ran out of gas.
This series isn’t afraid to get wild. No matter what track, you’re going to see some damn great racing.
Here’s where things get a little contentious. IndyCar is something of a spec series in that all teams are mandated to use the same Dallara IR-12 chassis and either a Honda or Chevrolet engine. The level of aerodynamic development and testing depends on each individual team, but the basic components are uniform across the board.
Some folks argue that this “ruins” the racing—what’s the point if manufacturers don’t design and build their own chassis and engines (or have to buy them from someone else)?
But, personally, the on-track product is more important than the theoretical nature of the cars. Objectively, I can appreciate the sophistication of an F1 car. They’re mindblowingly efficient machines. Do I love their aerodynamic and mechanical prowess? Yes. Do I drool a little bit when I get close enough to an F1 car to appreciate how awesome it is? Yes. Do I enjoy waking up at 8 AM on a Sunday to watch Lewis Hamilton lead a race for an hour and a half? Not so much.
The IndyCar season is a relatively short one, running seventeen races from mid-March to late September throughout the United States and Canada. This season, there are some new destinations to look forward to sandwiched between the tried-and-true classics that have been on the calendar for years to make up a grand total of seven road courses, five street circuits, and five ovals.
One of the biggest talking points leading up to the season has been IndyCar’s inaugural appearance at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. It seemed a long shot that IndyCar would be able to negotiate a deal to race on a track that was basically built for F1 (not to mention the fact that COTA is in the same general market as Texas Motor Speedway, which is also on the IndyCar calendar. The fact that IndyCar actually made the deal happen is pretty damn awesome.
It’s the only circuit on the calendar that hosts a properly top-level international event, too—unless you count Stadium Super Trucks, which opens for a few IndyCar races during the season.
The only other schedule change for 2019 is the addition of Laguna Seca in exchange for Sonoma as the season finale. Laguna Seca has hosted IndyCar races in the past, events that many see as a high water mark for open-wheel racing in the States. Here’s where the world bore witness to what’s gone down in history as “The Pass.”
IndyCar has found a pretty great blend of contemporary circuits and classic tracks. Laguna Seca, Long Beach, Road America, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mid-Ohio, and Barber Motorsports Park are some of the most well-loved circuits in North America, and IndyCar is going to all of them this season.
Road America, for example, is a long, rolling circuit akin to the kind you’d find in Europe. (A kind of track that has been largely abandoned by F1.) It’s tucked away in the woods of Wisconsin, and it has that old-timey charm that’s been phased out of a lot of tracks. It’s a strip of asphalt that’s not padded by tons of fencing or even huge gravel traps and run-off. It’s incredible. It’s a little piece of the 1970s still hanging out in the 21st century.
And Gateway Motorsports Park is a relatively new edition with its first race taking place in 2017. It’s only 1.25 miles, which makes it one of the smallest tracks on the IndyCar calendar. It keeps the race exciting because there’s always passing going on. Back in the CART era, Gateway was hosted on the same day as or the weekend before the Indy 500—obviously not a smart move for attracting fans. Thankfully, IndyCar realized we were at a loss without this track on the calendar, because we get great racing like this:
And if you’re new to Indy—don’t discount the ovals. Yes, it’s kinda weird to see open wheel cars outside of their natural road course habitats if you’ve strictly been a fan of European racing. If I could only recommend a new viewer five races to watch, I’d pick all five ovals. They’re that good.
IndyCar is one of those series where the dramas almost write themselves. Here are some of the most important things to watch out for as we head into 2019.
Alexander Rossi vs. The World. If there’s one thing IndyCar is really missing, it’s a good, bitter rivalry. It’s great to have a series where the drivers are likable, but man, where are the antagonists? The drivers here to stir shit up?
Enter Rossi. The former F1 driver and rookie Indy 500 winner has come into his own in IndyCar as the closest thing IndyCar has to a Bad Guy. He races hard and isn’t afraid to get physical protecting his place on the track. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he’s a dirty racer, but he’s one of those guys who walks that very fine line between dirty racing and some good ol’ aggression—which adds an extra level of spice to some already good racing. Rossi’s attitude has paid off, though. He’s quickly established himself as one of the top drivers on the grid, and he’s going to be hungry for a championship after losing out to Scott Dixon in 2018.
Scott Dixon Goes for Six. While there are plenty of variables in any one race, there are still a handful of drivers you can depend on to put on a great show. Scott Dixon on Chip Ganassi Racing comes to mind—he’s the second driver to ever secure five IndyCar championships, and he’s frustratingly great at, like, every kind of racing you could throw at him. He’s not fully dominant in a Lewis Hamilton sense—but he’s a punchy driver to reckon with on track.
That paid off in 2018. While Dixon wasn’t out-and-out the most obviously great driver on the grid, he consistently put in strong (and frankly impressive) performances that turned what could have been a mediocre season into his fifth championship. This year, it’s a guarantee that he’ll be back in full force to defend his title.
Robert Wickens’ Recovery. It’s been just over six months since a tragic accident at Pocono Raceway left IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens paralyzed. The Canadian driver was one of the biggest shocks at the start of the 2018 season—he took pole position and dominated most of the race at St. Petersburg until an accident with Rossi wiped him out of contention.
While Wickens is still working hard at his recovery, his team—Schmidt Peterson Motorsport—has assured him that he’ll have a car ready whenever he’s ready to get back in it. Until then, former F1 driver Marcus Ericsson is stepping in to fill the empty space left at the team.
Fresh Meat. Colton Herta, son of IndyCar and Champ Car driver Bryan Herta, and driver on the Harding Steinbrenner Racing Team, has already caught plenty of attention in his first tests at COTA, where the rookie driver set the fastest overall time. Herta was constantly a front-running competitor in Indy Lights, and he just took home his first class win at the 24 Hours of Daytona this year. He’s already being compared to Wickens bursting on the scene last year.
All times in EDT.
March 10: Streets of St. Petersburg, 1 PM on NBCSN
March 24: Circuit of the Americas, 1 PM on NBCSN
April 7: Barber Motorsports Park, 4 PM on NBCSN
April 14: Streets of Long Beach, 4 PM on NBCSN
May 11: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, 3 PM on NBC
May 26: Indianapolis Motor Spedway, 11 AM, NBC
June 1: Streets of Detroit - race 1, 3 PM on NBC
June 2: Streets of Detroit, 3 PM on NBC
June 8: Texas Motor Speedway, 8 PM on NBCSN
June 23: Road America, 12 PM on NBC
July 14: Streets of Toronto, 3 PM on NBCSN
July 20: Iowa Speedway 7 PM on NBCSN
July 28: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, 3 PM on NBC
Aug. 18: Pocono Raceway, 2 PM on NBCSN
Aug. 24: Gateway Motorsports Park, 8 PM on NBCSN
Sept. 1: Portland International Raceway, 3 PM on NBC
Sept. 22: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, 2:30 PM on NBC