The Evolution Of The IndyCar


By Andy Miller

Note from George – As promised, is visited by a guest blogger; and not just any guest blogger – but none other than “The Speedgeek”. If you’ve followed this site at all, you’ve seen Andy’s many thought-provoking posts in the comments section. Andy has his own site and is more recently involved with Grab Bag I finally had the opportunity to meet Andy at Indianapolis this past May. I appreciate Andy contributing to the site as I wind up a little down time. I’ll be back at it on Thursday with my thoughts on the chassis announcement and then on Friday with a preview of Toronto. Thanks, Andy. – GP

This Wednesday’s ICONIC board announcement concerning the new-for-2012 specification IndyCar brings us to the next step in a long, arduous process of bringing IndyCar racing into a new era. There has been much talk from fans and from people within the IndyCar paddock of what the next IndyCar should look like, how it should perform and how it should (or should not) address the changing landscape of racing and the car industry. In the midst of all this talk, I’ve been given to doing some thought about what IndyCars and Indy-style racing has looked like since it began about 100 years ago.

As the ICONIC board and the folks in the IZOD IndyCar PR department have acknowledged (with the help of this excellent poster), the appearance of IndyCars has changed quite a bit, in the long view. However, with a few notable exceptions at the beginning of brief periods of change, the appearance of the cars has remained quite static in the course of the actual eras themselves. I realize that that statement is about as clear as the technical explanation as to how Roger Penske’s team managed to get a non-standard sway bar piece earlier this season, but please just hear me out.

When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was opened in 1909, the race cars were largely based on road cars. These cars were mostly tall, narrow-tired, front engine ladder frame chassis with engines of varying sizes and a varying number of seats and passengers. From Ray Harroun’s 1911 race winning Marmon Wasp up through Wilbur Shaw’s 1937 race winning Shaw-Gilmore, the cars pretty well fit this description. Over those 26 years, there was considerable variation in the amount that cars were shaped to slip through the air, and there was the semi-infamous “junk formula” (covered much better than I ever could elsewhere in this site) that led to a return to riding mechanics, but the vast majority of cars looked not too far removed from Harroun’s 1911 ride.

In 1938, at the end of the “junk formula”, that general appearance began to change somewhat. At that time, the cars began to sit lower than before, as the cars were allowed to comply with European Grand Prix rules. The cars from Floyd Roberts’ 1938 Miller Burd Piston Ring Special through Wilbur Shaw’s Boyle Maserati and up Pat Flaherty’s 1956 John Zink Watson roadster, all looked to be cut from roughly the same cloth, though the post-WWII cars certainly took on a more massive, more powerful stance than the ones that just pre-dated WWII. A slight variation on the front engine cars came in the late-1950s with the arrival of the Belond lay-down roadster and its copycats, but with further wins in 1960 through 1964, the roadster continued its reign.

As well documented in many places, things did begin to change quite rapidly in 1961 with the arrival of Jack Brabham and his rear-engined, Formula 1-based Cooper Climax. This car, of course, would quickly usher in the next era of the Speedway, that of the lightweight, rear engine car. These cars, in their basic form as Brabham’s car appeared in 1961, racked up wins from 1965 through 1968. As with any of the other eras which saw some one-off example cars, this era also saw strange one-offs, but for the most part, the cars were cigar-shaped, rear engine rockets.

By 1969, the cars began to sprout aerodynamic aids on the front of the noses and over the engines in order to assist in grip, the tires were much wider than they were even a couple of years earlier, and the tires now lacked tread of any consequence. This basic look held on for just a couple of years, but the era is most well remembered for Al Unser’s 1970 and 1971 race winning Johnny Lightning Special.

By 1972, the cars all carried full-on wings, as Grand Prix cars had been doing since 1968. With the addition of wings, the cars now lapped far faster than they had even three or four years previous, and some of the cars even moved the radiators to the sides of the cockpit in order to centralize their weight and to maximize the effect of the aerodynamic downforce on the nose of the cars. This basic layout ruled the Speedway from 1972 with Mark Donohue’s Sunoco Special McLaren to 1978 with Al Unser’s 1st National City Chaparral-Lola.

In 1979, the cars began yet another evolution, the third in just over ten years. This time, Roger Penske and Jim Hall borrowed the concept of ground effects from Formula 1 with their cars, and ushered in an era which still carries right through until today. These cars developed aerodynamic downforce via controlling the air flow under the car as well as over the wings and exterior, a practice that is not only still done in IndyCars but to varying effects in open wheel formula all over the world. Since 1979, the cars underwent extensive revisions to the appearance of the wings, the sidepods, the noses and even the engine covers with the introduction of F1-style airboxes in 1997, but the basic layout of the cars has remained more or less the same for over 30 years now.

This brings us right up to this week’s selection of a new car or new car formula for 2012. We’ve all seen designs from five different potential manufacturers, and those designs have covered a wide spectrum of philosophies. Some have been minor variants of what is currently on track. Some have been minor variants of what we’ve seen in IndyCar or other series in the recent past. Some have majorly revised what we have now to look like an “IndyCar” that may or may not look current for at least a few years. And yet others have been like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

What will our next IndyCar look like? At the time of this posting, only the ICONIC panel members know for sure. Whatever they select, though, hopefully we’ll all be able to look back on the decisions and announcement of July 14, 2010 as either the start of a fresh, new era in IndyCar racing or a return to a familiar but glorious past. Either way, it’s a very exciting time to be an IndyCar fan.


Rick Popely, Indianapolis 500 Chronicle (Publications International, Ltd., Lincolnwood, Illinois, 1998)

13 Responses to “The Evolution Of The IndyCar”

  1. Era after era was ushered in because somebody decided there was a better mousetrap and eventually everyone else had to adopt a similar strategy to remain competitive.
    Now we continue into a nonsensical era ushered in by a guy in a suit that has never raced or fielded a car in competition.
    I hope he grasps the long term need for future evolutions to be natural again.

    • The nonsensical era was ushered in because constant innovation was economically prohibitive. I think it’s short-sighted to dismiss Randy Bernard as “a guy in a suit.” Did Tony Hulman ever race a car or field a car in competition?

      • B.s. The 500 still has a large enough attendance to make an open spec completely feasible. It only becomes cost prohibitive when you schedule 16 additional events that lose money and use up all of the revenue that the 500 produced. If you don’t blow the money running races that nobody watches or attends you suddenly have boatloads of cash to spend on development.

        They want to compromise Indy to allow the series to continue and then they cant understand why nobody is excited about the watered down event anymore.

      • The 500 would soon die off if Indy was the only OW event of the year. Every pro series has their Crown Jewel. NAPCAR has Daytona, F1 has Silverstone, Monza & Monaco. sports cars has LeMans 24.

        Those series also give their fans plenty of other venues to watch them race. 💡 Indy Only would make American OW as irrelevant as horse racing, non olympic track & field, or hydroplane racing in this country. I understand restoring the 500, but it need a series to truly restore it to levels you are speaking about ❗

      • With a 0.2 rating and 30k fans in the stands, what does running series really do for Indy?

        The “we need a series” credo is the party line, but there is no evidence to support it.

        The race made it’s mark in history without a series, but you want to convince me that it can’t survive if they don’t continue to run events nobody even cares about?

        The 500 has been neutered to the point of irrelevance because the series is a financial anchor holding it down.

        Newsflash. OW racing is already less relevant than horseracing. The announcement yesterday will not change the course.

      • Ah, good times. Another discussion of…something, anything, descends into a chorus of “Irrelevent! Nobody cares about this series! It’s going straight down the toilet!” How I love internet discourse sometimes.

  2. Andy!! LET ME IN!!!! I know where George hides the Percoets!!

  3. Assuming they can get manufacturers on-board the new “system” could work. I hope we see several smaller manufactures step in so that there are 4 or 5 different aero packages running a given race. This Mr Potato head style approach to car assembly with interchangeable parts will either result in a field of identical cars like we have today or the possibility to have a field of vastly different cars. Unfortunately I don’t think they will allow the use of manufacture A side pods, manufacture B rear wings, and manufacture C front wing. Allowing that level of interchangeability could result in all 33 cars in the Indy 500 running different packages. As a side, I foresee Penske developing a Penske aero package (assuming that fits within the rules and regulations).

    • As more information comes out it appears that Penske will be able to produce their own aero kits — but they have to share it with others and sell kits for $70,000.

      The limit on 2 aero kits per car each season I think will limit the variety of packages on the track (at most tracks). Although the 2 aero package limit might give some of the teams that only run a couple races each season an “advantage” on the tracks they do run because they can choose the optimal package for that specific track opposed to an optimal package for a whole season of oval or road courses. We might see a smaller team come into Indy with an aero package that is perfect for Indianapolis but would be terrible at Texas. I would be shocked if somebody didn’t come out with what they deemed the optimum Indianapolis aero package designed to work wonderful at the Speedway but forced you to drive like Milka Duno elsewhere.

      • Penske will have no incentive to develop aero kits. Doing so yields no on track advantage because he would have to make the package available to everyone. Penske’s largest advantage exists when fewer aero package options are available because the team can then lean on their setup skills that currently make their cars run faster despite having the same components. The eventual equilibrium of the strategy announced today is very much what we see today.

        If penske does develop a package it will be because there is an opportunity to sell enough to profit off of it, not because it will benefit the team on the track.

        First movers will have a huge advantage with the potato head parts. After the fields are full, the cost caps and limited customer base will make it difficult to recoup the cost of producing an aero package and bringing it to market.

  4. Obviously Dallara has a huge advantage in the aero package. And I understand how the limited amount of packages to be sold might not make it profitable for manufacturers other than Dallara.

    But the fact that you could design just an aero package and basically have your own whole chassis, with all the marketing that entails, might be attractive to some. A way to have your own chassis for much less money than a real chassis would cost.

    I really like the idea, but like everyone, I have tons of questions. I guess the main one would be–why limit the cost of the aero package? If a team wants a “cheap” one they’ll just buy it from Dallara. If you (and by you I mean Penske) want to design and build your own, who cares how much you choose to spend? And I think Dallara would need to stay (at least) competitive with their design.

    Man. Lots to think about. I think some folks are disappointed they didn’t just allow all the cars, but that was never in the cards. And if they have to have one spec car, this might be the coolest way to go about it. Look forward to your thoughts, George. This is me shuttin’ up now.

  5. f1 forum…

    […]The Evolution Of The IndyCar « Oilpressure[…]…

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