Highs and lows at 100

Updated: August 27, 2004, 4:18 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

With 99 races in the books since forming in 1996, the Indy Racing League has certainly given open-wheel racing fans some exciting moments over the last eight years. Who can forget some of the remarkably close finishes the IndyCar Series formula has produced, not to mention some of the lighter moments that have occurred on and off the track?

While the IRL has grown exponentially in many respects, it hasn't always been smooth sailing for Tony George's league. With that in mind, here is a look back at some of the high and low points of the IRL as it celebrates a milestone this weekend at Nazareth Speedway.

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Given the controversy that the formation of the Indy Racing League stirred up and the sheer difficulty of starting a major racing series from (almost) scratch, it was a major victory for the IRL just to stage its first event at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 1996. The stands were full (albeit helped by substantial ticket giveaways, a tactic still utilized by the series and its sponsors) and the so-called cast-off racers put on a pretty good show. More importantly, a new star was born in the form of Tony Stewart.

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One of the IRL's original goals was to increase American participation, especially from the USAC sprint and midget ranks. Stewart proved to be a perfect example of what was possible for those circle-track racers, yet he was lured to NASCAR after three years in the IRL. No other driver who came up to IndyCars the old fashioned way has come close to the level of success Stewart achieved in the IRL, which included the 1997 series championship, though Billy Boat won a race and nine poles and Davey Hamilton finished on the podium several times. But what about Steve Kinser, Dave Steele, Jason Leffler, Jack Hewitt, J.J. Yeley, Brian Tyler, Andy Michener and Donnie Beechler, none of whom really ever got a fair chance?

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Yes, but not all American drivers come from an oval-track background. Sam Hornish Jr. and Buddy Rice were both products of the Toyota Atlantic Championship, and when they couldn't get the support to find a ride in Champ Cars, they looked to the IRL. It turned out to be a perfect match. Hornish ran a partial season in 2000 with the low-buck PDM Racing operation, but a third place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway brought him to the attention of the IRL's bigger and more established teams. Signed by Panther Racing in 2001, Hornish won two consecutive IndyCar Series championships to become the series poster boy. That role has been taken over by Rice, who won the Indianapolis 500 this year and emerged as a strong championship contender.

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Cynics, IRL-bashers and conspiracy theorists speculate that Hornish was given a helping hand in his sudden rise to stardom because the IRL was desperate to mint a new American star. Those same nay-sayers (most of whom occupy space in the Champ Car paddock) believe that Rahal Letterman Racing and Fernandez Racing "got the call" this year as a reward for abandoning the Champ Car ship at the 11th hour to join the IRL.

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If side-by-side, wheel-to-wheel action is the be-all and end-all of racing, then the IRL has succeeded brilliantly. Since the League introduced its formula in 1997 (normally aspirated engine, high downforce chassis), IRL races on speedway tracks of 1.5 miles and longer have produced tight packs of cars similar to a NASCAR restrictor plate race. Fans were flabbergasted when Tony Stewart and Buddy Lazier completed four complete laps locked together side-by-side at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997, an image that has become commonplace in the IndyCar Series. A new standard was perhaps set earlier this year at Kansas Speedway when Rahal Letterman Racing teammates Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira spent the last 11 laps in lock-step, with Rice emerging victorious by 0.0051 second, the second closest finish in series history.

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Many observers consider extended side-by-side racing to be extremely dangerous in open-wheel cars because one vehicle can get launched in the air if it locks wheels with another. That image was hammered home in a vicious multi-car accident at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2001, and more recently in the 2003 season finale at Texas when Kenny Brack's car nearly flew into the grandstands after touching the car driven by Tomas Scheckter. Brack suffered grievous injuries and 10 months later, he is yet to race again.

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Major accidents in 2003 involving Brack and Tony Renna (who was killed when his car got airborne while testing at Indianapolis) aside, the IRL's safety record has improved considerably since the latest generation of cars was introduced in 2003. The 1997-99 car featured a battering ram of a gearbox that produced a pendulum effect in rear impacts, leading to a spate of neck and back injuries. Improvements were made to the second-generation (2000-02) cars, and there have been (knock wood) no major injuries in the IndyCar Series in 2004, thanks to efforts to slow the cars by the League. Tony George was also instrumental in funding development for the SAFER Barrier, a soft wall system that has made drivers in every series that races on ovals sleep easier at night.

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Back in the USAC era of the '60s and '70s, open-wheel oval races were often won by a margin measured in laps, not seconds. During CART's stewardship of the sport in the '80s and '90s, parity and more reliable cars led to closer finishes. But the IRL has set a new standard for close open-wheel finishes, topped by Sam Hornish Jr.'s 0.0024 second margin of victory over Al Unser Jr. at Chicagoland Speedway in 2002. That works out to about four inches! And who can forget the sight of three cars (driven by Hornish, Scott Dixon and Bryan Herta) crossing the line together at Chicagoland Speedway in 2003? In all, more than 40 of the 99 IndyCar Series races since 1996 have been decided by less than a second, making the IRL the world's indisputable leader for close racing.

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The IndyCar Series also produced the fastest major motor race of all time in the 2003 California 400. Many observers wondered when a race average would exceed 200 mph, and the magic mark was broken at Fontana when Hornish won at an average speed of 207.151 mph.

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A.J. Foyt didn't win an Indy-style race during the last 11 years of his driving career, but he was a staunch supporter of the IRL from the start as a team owner. Foyt's cars have won seven IndyCar Series races and two championships (Kenny Brack in 1998, Scott Sharp as league co-champion in 1996) and Brack won the 1999 Indianapolis 500, giving Foyt an unofficial fifth victory at the Speedway. Foyt memorably misspoke the words, "I'm so wonderful!" in Victory Circle after Brack's Indy win.

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United States Auto Club officials botched the scoring in the 1997 Texas race and Foyt's driver Billy Boat was waved to Victory Lane. Arie Luyendyk rightfully believed he had won the race, but when he showed up at Victory Lane, Foyt lunged at the Dutchman and half-slapped, half-punched him. The following day, Luyendyk was declared the victor and USAC was ousted as the IRL's sanctioning body. However, many of the same officials remained, albeit now wearing IRL uniforms instead of USAC.

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With the open-wheel war between CART and the IRL at its peak, Chip Ganassi broke ranks from CART and entered his drivers Jimmy Vasser and Juan Montoya in the 2000 Indy 500. Montoya famously put his foot to the floor and never lifted in his first test of an IRL car at Indianapolis, and he went on to score a remarkable rookie victory in the 500. IMS Public Address legend Tom Carnegie mysteriously did not call the final laps of the race.

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Penske Racing followed Ganassi back to Indy and scored a 1-2 finish with Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran in 2001. Making matters worse for the IRL regulars, Michael Andretti finished third and Ganassi entered four cars, three of which which finished 4-5-6, leaving seventh place Eliseo Salazar as the top finishing IRL pilot.

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Most of the established drivers, teams, sponsors and manufacturers that contributed to the success of CART in the '80s and '90s are now affiliated with the IRL, giving the series a huge boost in terms of marketing clout and credibility. The public perception of those constituents leaving Champ Cars in favor of the IndyCars has also been a boon for the IRL.

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Most of the original IRL teams and drivers have been forced out of the series by the budgets, work ethic and technology that the newcomers brought to the League. Chevrolet was forced to turn to Ford-owned Cosworth Engineering for a new engine when its homegrown product proved no match for Toyota and Honda.

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Jim Guthrie scored a memorable victory for the "Little Guy" in the second race for the dedicated IRL formula at Phoenix in 1997.

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Where is Jim Guthrie now? Not to mention Allen May, Dr. Jack Miller, Jeret Schroeder, Scott Harrington, Vincenzo Sospiri, Niclas Jonsson, Doug Didero, Bobby Regester, Ronnie Johncox, John Hollansworth Jr., Jon Herb, Zak Morioka, Rick Treadway, George Mack, Joe Gosek, Racin Garder and 'Bronco' Brad Murphey? For that matter, has anybody seen Sarah Fisher lately?

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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