The Indy Racing League, better known as IRL, is the promoter of a predominantly oval based open-wheel racing series in the United States and more recently, Japan. Its centerpiece is the Indianapolis 500. The IRL is owned by Hulman and Co., which also owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway complex. The IRL was masterminded in 1994 by Tony George and was created with a breakaway group of drivers from CART, which had coordinated Indy car racing since 1979. George designed IRL as a lower-cost open-wheel alternative to CART, which had come to be technology-driven and dominated by a few wealthy multi-car teams much in the manner of Formula One. Since then, the IRL has developed a consistent engine package and chassis rules which have produced some of the closest finishes in any racing series. Ironically, the series is now dominated by those same wealthy multi-car teams that used to dominate CART.
George also wanted to maintain the U.S. tradition of higher-speed oval tracks as opposed to the road courses favored by F1, and, increasingly, CART as well. However, In the fall of 2004 the IRL announced three new events including a street race in St. Petersburg, Florida and two road courses, at Watkins Glen International in New York and Infineon Raceway in California for 2005. In the beginning George was widely ridiculed; IRL's early seasons consisted of few races and mostly unknown drivers, even in the Indy 500. Later the caliber of drivers improved and IRL began to draw teams over from CART, which contributed to the latter's recent bankruptcy.
The League consists of two series, the IndyCar Series (usually considered synonymous with Indy Racing League) and the Menards Infiniti Pro Series, which is the developmental series for IndyCar.
IRL is not an open formula, but neither is it a one-make or "spec" series. Instead, chassis and engine manufacturers apply to the League to supply cars for three year cycles. Currently, Dallara and G-Force provide the chassis, while Honda, Toyota, and Chevrolet provide the engines. A third chassis manufacturer, Falcon, technically still holds the rights to produce a chassis for IRL events, but as no orders were ever made, no Falcon IRL rolling chassis were ever completed, and the company has since ceased to exist, this point is essentially academic now.
Superficially, IRL cars closely resemble those of other open-wheeled formula racing, with front and rear wings and prominent airboxes . Originally, the cars were somewhat unique, being designed specifically for oval racing; for example, the oil and cooling systems were asymmetrical to account for the pull of liquids to the right side of the cars. The current generation chassis however, are designed to accommodate the added requirements of road racing. At present, top speed and aerodynamics are more important than road-handling or braking; this is expected to change drastically with the introduction of road courses starting in 2005.
Originally, IRL cars were powered by 4.0L V8, production-based, normally-aspirated engines, produced by Oldsmobile (under the Aurora label) and Nissan (as Infiniti). That engine formula was replaced by a 3.5L NA format for 2000, at which time the requirement for the block to be production-based was dropped. This formula was used until April of 2004. After that time, displacement was further reduced to 3.0L, still normally-aspirated, in an attempt to curb top speeds. Currently, Honda, Toyota, and Chevrolet badge the engines, though many powerplants are actually built by specialty-tuners Ilmor (Honda) and Cosworth (Chevy). In a major development announced by Chevrolet on November 4, 2004, Chevrolet stated that it would be ending its IRL engine program effective with the end of the 2005 season, citing costs that exceeded value, according to GM Racing Director Doug Duchardt. "The investment did not meet our objectives," he was quoted as saying. Whether another engine manufaucturer will supply IRL engines as of 2006 is unknown at this point. What is known is that the most successful engine in the history of the series, that from GM, will soon no longer be available. Whether this constitutes a very serious blow to the series or just another change remains to be seen. Speculation was rife that General Motors was more impressed by the return it was getting on racing dollars devoted to NASCAR, where the cars are referred to as "Monte Carlos" and the body styles used bear at least a superficial resemblance to a consumer product.
Currently, IRL engines are rev-limited to just over 10,000 rpm, and produce approxmiately 700 bhp at this speed.
The Indy Racing League may be unique in being the only sporting series in the world to measure opposition by lack of negative attention. The split between Tony George and the CART governing body was extremely acrimonious, and both series have suffered since, as the fan base also split. The 'war' between competing groups of fans is most active now on the Internet, especially on motorsports messageboards, and tends to affect any attempts at impartial views of either racing series.
The most bitter point of conflict between Champ Car and the IRL is of course the Indianapolis 500, long considered the crown jewel of North American motorsports. After the beginning of the IRL in 1995, Tony George restricted entry of the starting 33 cars to 25 IRL cars, with only eight CART vehicles being permitted to start. In retaliation, CART scheduled what was supposed to become its new showcase event, the U.S. 500 , at Michigan International Speedway on the same day, but it drew far less fan interest and was discontinued. Although cancelled in 1999, the initial Indy 500 policy toward CART has continued to be held up as proof of George and the IRL's ill-intent towards CART. Since the lifting of the ban, many of the former top teams in CART (now "Champ Car") have moved to the IRL and, as they dominated in CART, so do they now tend to dominate in the IRL.
Weak attendance and TV ratings have also plagued the IRL since its inception. While the league's race broadcasts struggle to find an audience, this is counterbalanced by the improved and increased TV coverage and improving attendance at many events. The continuation of the ABC network contract, as well as the establishment of successful races in Texas and Japan, and renewed interest in and attendance at the flagship Indianapolis 500 are seen by some as additional signs of stability. Also, the Champ Car series has lost its broadcast network television exposure, and to many its losses equate with IRL's gains, although to many others this is just demonstrative of an overall loss of interest in open-wheel motor racing in North America, engendered at least in part by the IRL/CART split. Some IRL fans have also become disgruntled with the current direction of the series, feeling that its current domination by ex-CART drivers and teams goes against the League's founding principles. They believe that the near-total absence of oval-trained open-wheel drivers is primarily to blame for the IRL's woes.
Driver safety has also been a major point of concern, with an alarming number of drivers injured, primarily in the early years of the series, some of them seriously, even fatally. Unlike with road racing venues, the lack of run-offs on oval tracks, coupled with higher, sometimes far higher, speeds due to the long straightaways and symmetrical turns, means that there is simply far less margin for error. Car design was attributed as a leading cause of early injuries, but the series has made significant and continuous improvements to chassis safety to address these safety concerns as they have become apparent. Following a series of spectacular high-profile accidents in 2003, including to American racing legend Mario Andretti and former champion Kenny Brack , and the death of Tony Renna in testing at Indianapolis, the IRL made additional changes to reduce speeds and increase safety. These included a significant review and changes in the chassis, and a further reduction in engine displacement. As a result, the 2004 season, while still far from perfect, was the safest IRL season to date.
The IRL was also the first race series to adopt the new SAFER soft wall safety system, which debuted at the Indianapolis 500 and has now been installed at almost all major oval racing circuits. Recognized as one of the most significant improvements ever in racing safety, the SAFER system research and design was supported and funded in large part by the Hulman-George family and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The system's full name, Steel And Foam Energy Reduction, accurately explains the method used to attenuate high-G impacts that in the past led to serious driver injuries.
As the IRL contemplates the beginning of its tenth anniversary season in 2005, the major questions facing it are what impact the end of the Chevrolet engine program after that season will be, how its marketing can be improved to improve television ratings, which although improved from the series' low point several years ago are still very weak by historical standards, and whether the new owners of Champ Car continue to ensure that series' competitive viability. Given the nature and depth of the animosities the split has engendered, the potential difficulties stemming from a reintegration of the two series could make the problems caused by the split seem pale by comparison.
- 1996 - Scott Sharp , United States; Buzz Calkins , United States (tie)
- 1997 - Tony Stewart, United States
- 1998 - Kenny Brack , Sweden
- 1999 - Greg Ray , United States
- 2000 - Buddy Lazier , United States
- 2001 - Sam Hornish, Jr. , United States
- 2002 - Sam Hornish, Jr., United States
- 2003 - Scott Dixon, New Zealand
- 2004 - Tony Kanaan, Brazil
IRL Rookies of the Year