Can you name a motorsport series that’s named after one of its races? There is, really, only one series that comes to mind: IndyCar, the American open-wheel racing series that’s seemingly named after both its primary location (Indianapolis, Indiana) and its biggest race (the Indy 500). But how did that happen? How did the sport come to pick such a perfect name for itself? As we head into Indy 500 season, I knew I wanted to find out.
At its core, the name “IndyCar” comes down to decades of infighting amongst the various different series that have comprised American open-wheel racing.
In order to understand the ultimate name, though, we need to run through a very brief history of American open-wheel. Basically, the championship we know as IndyCar today really developed with the Indianapolis 500 as its grounding event. The Indy 500 used to be sanctioned by AAA (yes, that AAA), but after the 1955 Le Mans disaster that killed scores of spectators and transformed the perception of motorsport around the world and the death of Bill Vukovich during the 500, AAA withdrew from racing.
The following year, in 1956, the United States Auto Club (USAC) took over sanctioning the race. USAC was formed by Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony Hulman, alongside a group of other folks interested in racing.
That response does make sense; after all, why would you want to leave the running of your race in the hands of a totally different group of people if you had the opportunity to just take over and do it yourself.
But even then, USAC didn’t call American open-wheel racing “IndyCar.” Instead, it founded the United States National Championship, which was contested by open-wheel race cars. American open-wheel also went by the nickname “championship auto racing,” which morphed into “champ car.” But because the cars also raced at Indianapolis, which was the primary event of the year, it also became known as “Indy car racing.”
As you might imagine, though, the fact that Tony Hulman ran both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the entire series that competed in the 500 raised some conflicts of interest. In 1979, a group of racing team owners decided to defect and create their own series, which they called Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). Basically, a lot of owners were upset with the way USAC handled important racing decisions, and American racing legend Dan Gurney rallied support to create a new series that was sanctioned by a group of team owners that all had influence over major decisions.
The original intention behind CART wasn’t to become a new series; it was to be an advocacy group that could help promote USAC races and make the voices of the team owners heard. But in 1978, after Gurney put his ideas to paper, eight USAC officials were killed in a plane crash, which created a power vacuum that turned the entire season into a disaster. Gurney presented his ideas to USAC at the end of the season, and USAC rejected them wholesale. CART left USAC, opting instead to become a series sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America.
Suddenly, there were two different series that both wanted to compete in the Indy 500, and things got ugly. First, USAC tried to ban CART teams from entering the Indy 500, and a decision in court required USAC to allow the teams to qualify. Both sides struggled in 1979 and opted to join forces for 1980, but the unification only lasted for five events before USAC withdrew.
At that point, there were two different mindsets about what American open-wheel racing should be. USAC prioritized dirt and oval racing, while CART prioritized a European style of asphalt road racing — but it was CART that had come out on top with a favorable international impression. USAC agreed to let CART add the Indy 500 to its schedule in 1983.
For a while, things looked good. For the first time in history, there was a full stable of important races in a season that transcended just the 500, and that was due to CART’s ability to effectively leverage technology, safety, and sponsorship rights.
But not all was well within the CART camp. Big-money teams like Penske were able to afford being on the cutting edge of technology, but there were plenty of CART teams that were running old, uncompetitive machinery. It led to the feeling that some teams’ voices were more important than others because those were the teams with more money and connections — and it kicked off the downfall of the series.
The fighting continued, with the arguments growing increasingly petty by the year. CART tried to claim the “IndyCar” trademark and rebrand in 1992, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway took them to court to terminate it. To retaliate, a newly formed sport called the Indy Racing League took full control over the Indy 500, guaranteeing its drivers entry and leaving a handful of slots open for CART teams. The arguments killed fan interest, and CART teams and engine manufacturers started defecting to IRL, leaving CART to go bankrupt in 2003. Three team owners acquired the series assets and renamed it Champ Car World Series, but it never exactly took off; Champ Car filed for bankruptcy before its 2008 season.
The actual name “IndyCar” was first adopted in 2003, when the IRL started to transition its branding to the new name. When IRL and Champ Car merged together in 2008, IndyCar became the official name of the reunified series, after years of both former contingents battling over the name.
It’s been a long, messy road, but the IndyCar name is finally, officially in use as a way to represent all of American open-wheel racing.