Data trace: Indy Racing League

Recalling how American single-seater racing tore itself into two rival series | Writer Peter Higham

The 2015 IndyCar Series was the 20th since Tony George introduced the Indy Racing League in 1996. That decision prompted a decade of ‘civil war’ with the then-current Champ Car World Series and it split open-wheel racing in North America.

Originally for ovals only, the inaugural 1996 series had three races ending with the Indianapolis 500; Buzz Calkins and Scott Sharp tied on points. Experiments for season two led to the 1996/97 campaign taking place over the next 14 months. Tony Stewart won that title, and remains the only Indycar champion so far to then go on and win NASCAR’s senior title.

While the original IRL field was no match for its Champ Car rival, the lure of the Indianapolis 500 proved irresistible for teams and sponsors alike. Reigning Champ Car king Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the 2000 Indy 500 for Chip Ganassi, and Penske Racing won a year later. Within 12 months both teams had made a permanent switch to the IndyCar Series as momentum between the warring parties took a decisive shift.

The die was cast. Champ Cars went bankrupt but recovered, limping on before being assimilated into the IndyCar Series – belatedly bringing unity to North American open-wheel racing. A final Champ Car race was held at Long Beach in 2008.

Chip Ganassi Racing has been the benchmark team since switching, winning the championship seven times. Scott Dixon’s win at this year’s final round secured his fourth title – matching Dario Franchitti’s record tally.