IndyCar is an integral part of American sporting history. Beginning in 1909 and with one of the most famous flagship events in the world – the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar seems like an ever-present staple of the American sporting canon.
However, IndyCar is perhaps not as financially stable as it may once have been. In 2018, three races in the IndyCar series had no sponsor; in 2019, the Long Beach race will no longer be sponsored by Toyota.
This is especially worrying as the Long Beach race is the second most popular of the series, behind only the Indianapolis 500. To compound matters, Verizon will no longer be the title sponsor of the 2019 season, declining the renew their contract.
The sport is dominated by a fan-base aged between 30 and 49, and many in the sport worry that it is failing to attract younger viewers. Indeed, as the chart below shows, the pickup rate amongst younger viewers is extremely low.
IndyCar is, therefore, skewing to an older demographic, which always worries the managers of a sport.
Share of Americans who watched any IndyCar Series event on cable TV in the last 12 months in 2018 (by age)
However, IndyCar, in its previous incarnations has almost always suffered from some form of adversity, making it an incredibly resilient sport. Unlike the relatively straightforward path of comparable sports like Formula One and NASCAR, open-wheeled racing in the United States has seen changes in sanctioning bodies, the formation, and reconciliation of rival groups, and near-constant upheaval.
Its endurance is a testament to its popularity amongst its core supporters and the fact that it still retains a capacity to thrill.
The IndyCar series is as old as car racing in the United States, dating back to the earliest days of motoring. The first series of IndyCar ran from 1909 to 1955 and was run by the American Automobile Association (AAA).
The very first IndyCar race was in Portland, Oregon in June 1909, and featured six cars, driving 14.6 miles around a track (three laps) with an average speed of 56 miles per hour.
In its inaugural season, the IndyCar series consisted of 23 races – both street racing and dirt tracks. Indeed, as evidence of the nascent stage of the series, the final race was a 480 miles race from Los Angeles to Phoenix.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 1911 that the flagship event of the IndyCar series began – the Indianapolis 500. Prior to that, races at Indianapolis were 50, 100, or 200 miles across a brick-lined rack.
The majority of tracks in the earliest days of the Indy series were wooden board tracks, although these were gradually replaced by concrete tracks as wooden boards became too expensive to maintain, particularly during the Great Depression.
The Depression and World War II both limited the schedule of the IndyCar series, with full series racing beginning again in 1946. In this period the cars and drivers got ever faster, and the racing became increasingly dangerous.
Ted Horn won three consecutive championships (1946-48) before fatally crashing in 1948. Following the Le Mans crash in 1955 in which Pierre Levegh and 82 spectators were killed, motor racing, in general, began a period of self-examination.
The American Automobile Association feared the result of such a crash in the IndyCar series for which it would be ultimately responsible. As a result, it refused to sanction any more races and removed its association with IndyCar.
Following on from AAA’s decision, the United States Automobile Club became the sanctioning body for IndyCar. The major features of the period from 1956-1979 were the dramatic changes in car design and the move toward profitability.
In 1964, Parnelli Jones won the Milwaukee Mile in a Lotus Ford with the engine situated behind the driver. This quickly became the standard for all cars in the series, as the drivers felt that it provided the optimal combination of power and driveability. Furthermore, since 1970 all races except one have been won by cars with a turbo rather than an aspirated engine.
The defining feature of the period from 1980-2007 was the split, and eventual reintegration of the open-wheel championships, culminating in the modern IndyCar series.
Throughout the 1980s the financial state of the championship was strong, and the series was even able to attract drivers from the Formula One championship, with Jacques Villeneuve and Nigel Mansell being perhaps the most famous examples.
However, the original CART rebels never fully reconciled with the USAC, and the sport split again in this period to create the Indy Racing League (IRL) in 1994. CEO Tony George felt that the USAC series was becoming too similar to Formula One, with international drivers and a sport dominated by a small cabal of wealthy international manufacturers.
Furthermore, he believed that the sport was showing a lack of respect to the Indianapolis 500, which should be the premier event of the series. The IRL allowed only American drivers and manufacturers, raced only on ovals and held the Indy500 as its flagship race of the season.
Since 2008, the IndyCar has put much of its acrimonious past behind it. Tony George was an early casualty, as the newly-merged organization sought a more irenic figurehead.
The period since the reconciliation has been dominated by the battle between Honda and Chevrolet. This competition has led to a rapid series of innovations, including the development of a new series of aero kits in 2015.
These aero kits allowed for a number of speed records to be broken; soon these became standard across the sport as a whole.
Safety is of paramount importance to the governors of IndyCar, and there has been constant innovation since the earliest days of helmetless, open-cockpit driving.
Since then, innovations in car technology have been matched by developments in safety technology. Central to this is an understanding of how extreme speeds and extreme forces affect the body, better allowing for the engineering of safer equipment.
Impact on the body
Traveling at 200 mph around tight bends means that there are extreme forces exerted on the body.
Throughout an IndyCar race, a driver will experience G-force loads of up to 5 Gs (meaning five times the normal effect of gravity on the body) when cornering, and between 0.7 and 1.5 Gs when accelerating. This places a strain on the driver’s body, particularly their neck.
IndyCar races also place other extreme stresses on the body, including extreme dehydration, a heart rate between 85 and 95% of maximum for the entire race, a body temperature of around 100 degrees, and blurred vision.
While these individually are not problematic, in combination they can diminish a driver’s capacity for safe driving and create long-term damage on their body. Accordingly, Indy Cars are designed to mitigate these as much as possible, with designs such as helmets that contain drinking water for drivers.
Furthermore, drivers are increasingly training their physical fitness to better handle the stresses of racing.
The helmet is one of the most important safety features for any IndyCar driver. They are tailored to each individual driver and are the result of constant safety innovation in the field. Each helmet contains at least 14 distinct safety aspects.
The helmet’s rigid outer shell is designed to disperse energy while also protecting from an impact. Under the outer shell is an inner liner, which spreads forces across as large an areas as possible.
Since 2003, it has been compulsory for helmets to be fitted with a small airbag that allows for safety crews to remove the helmet without neck strain. Under that, a lining made of Nomex and rayon transfers heat from the driver’s head, absorbs sweat, and protects the driver in case of fire.
The Head and Neck System (HANS) in use in IndyCar is compulsory and is designed to protect the driver from both head and neck injuries in the case of a sudden deceleration caused by a collision. As the diagram below shows, the head is rigidly connected to the neck via the helmet.
Sitting at the nape of the neck, the collar is designed to reduce the amount of movement and load experienced by a head and neck in a collision. An extension is sometimes added that allows the driver’s head to slide around and reduce impact if they are rear-ended.
These connect the collar to the helmet on both sides.
This secures the driver at the shoulders.
The key feature with this system is the fact that the head cannot move totally independently of the body, even when under the extreme forces caused by a collision.
This is one of the major causes of injury, even in relatively minor collisions. HANS is designed to still allow drivers range of motion when driving, although effectively extends the rigidity of the interior of the cockpit to the driver’s own body. The threshold for injury in the case of a collision is around 700lbs of force on the neck (in any direction).
The head restraint shown above limits these forces to less than 300 lbs; without it, a 40 mph crash exerts around 1,000 lbs of force, causing serious injury.
As well as the internal safety features for drivers, IndyCar has also taken great steps to provide safety features at all races.
There is a minimum of 18 attending medical personnel at every IndyCar race, made up of a trauma physician, an orthopedic physician, two paramedics, 12 firefighters/EMTs, and two nurses. These teams travel in four safety vehicles equipped with the latest medical equipment.
In 2002, IndyCar mandated the installation of a SAFER barrier at the Indianapolis 500, and later at all other IndyCar races. The Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barrier provides a solid steel barrier, behind which is a series of foam joists.
The steel barrier provides a rigid force, and the foam underneath absorbs and disperses the impact, greatly reducing the forces caused by a collision, while also protecting spectators and staff located behind the barriers.
Further innovations center on stabilizing the vehicle, particularly aerodynamically, as well as using a combination of rigid and soft materials throughout the vehicles to better cope with the impact of a crash. IndyCar has had a symbiotic relationship with Formula One in this respect, and many innovations have been shared across the two sports.
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