Since the early 1900s, car enthusiasts have loved to watch open-wheel races. Indy cars, which are characterized by their narrow single-seat chassis, are one of the most popular types of open-wheel cars. The history of these cars offers a glimpse into how open-wheel racing, including the signature Indianapolis 500, began and evolved in the U.S.
The Race Is On
The earliest races involving cars followed late 19th-century car production. By the early 20th century, the first purpose-built racing circuit in the world was constructed in Surrey, England, which inspired a similar track in Indianapolis. Opened in 1911, the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, or Indy 500, the premier Indy car series event.
The Original Open-Wheelers
Passenger car design has changed remarkably over 150 years, with a significant transition from an open-wheel to a closed-wheel layout. The original open-wheel cars simply carried over a design common to carriages, but by the 1930s, fenders began covering the wheels and the wheels themselves were moved underneath the chassis, largely for safety reasons — exposed wheels face an increased likelihood of damage in an accident, which is why the design is limited mostly to race cars.
The Evolving Indy Car Design
The open-wheel race car’s lightweight design and lower center of gravity, though more dangerous, have been key factors in its performance since its invention. The lightweight, aerodynamic bodies coupled with powerful engines make them the fastest race cars in the world with speeds pushing 230 mph, or about 25 mph faster than NASCAR’s closed-wheel race cars. The open wheels are also better for brake cooling, although aerodynamic wheel drag is high at racing speeds.
Since Indy cars were invented, a few of their design elements have changed:
- Engine Location: Originally, race cars had front engines, but beginning in 1963, the first rear mid-engine open-wheeler participated in the Indianapolis 500. Based on a Formula One Lotus design, the new-to-America design began winning races and setting speed records, leading to a shift to mid-engine race cars with rear-wheel drive beginning the following year. Not only was the European design faster, but it was safer, as it placed the engine’s weight immediately behind the driver.
- Added Wings: Indy cars have gained front and rear wings that create aerodynamic downforce and balance between the car’s front and rear.
- Chassis Design: The open chassis is now constructed of carbon fiber and other composite materials. A roll hoop, anti-roll bar adjusters, molded seat and various fueling parts are contained within.
- Sidepod and Performance Features: The sidepod now features engine-cooling parts and provides additional driver protection, while the engine section contains a 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 supplied by Chevrolet or Honda that takes E85 fuel. Firestone Firehawk 15-inch racing tires are universal, while the suspension system includes front and rear disc brakes.
Despite these changes to Indy cars’ design and features over the years, open-wheel racing remains immensely popular, with upwards of 300,000 people on hand for the annual Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend.
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Matt Keegan has maintained his love for cars ever since his father taught him kicking tires can be one way to uncover a problem with a vehicle’s suspension system. He since moved on to learn a few things about coefficient of drag, G-forces, toe-heel shifting, and how to work the crazy infotainment system in some random weekly driver. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.