IRL and CART
The battles wage?on and off the tracks
"Now we are engaged in a great civil war..."
Abraham Lincoln was referring to far more weighty matters at Gettysburg, but the phrase well describes today's Indy-type racing. Since the start of the '96 season, big-league American open-wheel racing has been split into two warring series—the Indy Racing League (IRL) and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). However, the conflict started long before that. Often, the sport seems more high-stakes/back-room machinations than on-track competition.
From 1956 to 1979, National Championship (aka Champ car, aka Indy car) racing was sanctioned by the United States Auto Club. USAC was created (with help from Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman) when the previous organizing group—the American Automobile Association, yes, the insurance and roadside assistance folks—left racing after a profusion of fatalities in 1955. USAC produced little more than middling success, except for Indy 500, which was established as the world's most important race and boasted the largest single-day attendance in all of sports.
A huge void was created when Hulman died in '77, and a '78 plane crash killed the USAC leadership. Simultaneously, race-team owners became increasingly frustrated that the sport was not reaching its full potential. Specifically, the owners said USAC poorly wielded power in negotiating TV rights, rights the owners thought should be theirs. Also, the owners said the tracks—especially Indy—were not paying the teams adequately.
Before the start of the '79 season, the owners formed CART, began organizing races, and quickly supplanted USAC. However, the Indy 500 remained a USAC event. (The IRL was sanctioned by USAC until the series began self-sanctioning in mid-'97.) During the late '80s and early '90s, CART blossomed in popularity and profitability, and gained a large and loyal following around the world. If there was enough money, power, and respect to fight over in '79, there was more than enough for a tussle by the early '90s. This time, IMS president Tony George—Hulman's grandson—didn't like how the balance of power had swung toward the race-team owners, which he said were attempting to take control of the 500. In addition, George disapproved of how far CART had moved away from Indy racing's oval-track roots. He wanted to create lower-cost, NASCAR-close competition. Helping in the decision-making process: massive new revenue from the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race starting in '94.
For the '96 season, George created the all-oval-track Indy Racing League. CART teams and fans were incensed. Other drivers, owners, and tracks saw—and exploited—the new opportunity. As in every war, each side believes it has a monopoly on righteousness. While the infant IRL struggled, CART's management and car-owner board of directors bungled and blundered far worse than USAC ever did.
The civil war has been devastating to both sides. TV ratings have plummeted so that CART has to buy airtime; if the Indy 500 wasn't part of the package, the IRL would have to do the same. It's reported that George funded many early IRL teams; CART "sponsored" about half the field of the '03 "Bridgestone presents the Champ Car World Series powered by Ford."
Both CART and IRL employed a similar rules package for the '96 season, highlighted by turbocharged double overhead cam 2.65-liter engines. This engine formula, with changes only to turbo boost to keep power and speed in check, has been little changed for more than 30 years. (Except for the loophole-exploiting '94 Mercedes, turbocharged 2.65-liter engines won every Indy 500 from '68 to '96.) In 1972, the comparatively primitive four-cylinder Offenhauser with unlimited boost made 1,000 (or more!) horsepower. With only a small fraction of that boost and severe rpm restrictions, 2003 CART engines produce some 750 horsepower.
Starting in '97, IRL went to naturally aspirated 4.0-liter engines loosely based on production powerplants. In 2000, to combat rising horsepower and speeds, the series switched to pure racing 3.5-liter V-8s. The series employs electronic engine rpm limiters to restrict power. In '03, the IRL's Indy Car Series engines were capped at 10,300 rpm and produced 730 or so horsepower, well beyond the official 650 horse figure.
About the only thing IRL and CART share is alcohol: The engines in both series burn methanol. Compared to gasoline, methanol allows an engine to produce more power (but worse fuel mileage) and is less prone to ignite if spilled.
Casual observers think CART, IRL, and Formula 1 cars are very similar. But the differences are huge and not a single part is shared among all three. So that drivers can survive high-speed oval crashes, Champ cars and Indy cars employ a much thicker and stronger chassis "tub" made of carbon fiber and aramid. Though no longer closely related, IRL and CART cars both weigh about 1,500 pounds, more than 300 pounds heavier than F1. IRL cars have the shortest wheelbase, though overall length is roughly the same as a Champ car and a bit longer than an F1 car.
In addition to front and rear wings, Champ cars and Indy cars both create downforce with the shape of their underbody. At 200 mph, this aerodynamic load can surpass three tons. These cars could easily run upside down on a ceiling, if you could find one big enough and a driver brave enough. But F1's more open rules allow them to make even more downforce. IRL cars are severely restricted with such things as common rear wings and gearboxes. Bodywork cannot be changed once the season begins. CART rules are more open than IRL, but not as free as F1. Pretty much anything goes for F1's 3.0-liter powerplants, which spin to an incredible 19,000 rpm to produce some 900 horsepower. And likely cost more than an entire ready-to-race Indy car.
But which is faster? With more horsepower and downforce, less weight, and stickier tires, an F1 car is king of the road courses. But that gargantuan downforce creates huge drag that limits F1's top speed, so an unmodified F1 car likely would be the slowest on a superspeedway, with the Champ car slightly faster than the Indy car. But what about a short oval, say, Richmond? That would be a lot more fun to watch than a battle between suit-wearing men in a cigar-smoke-filled room.
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