Formula One teams always threaten it, but American open-wheel racing did split into two. It all started in 1996, when cheaper series was set up under the name of the Indy Racing League, or IRL for short. The Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) had been in effect since 1979, it itself due to a breakaway split, and had become dominated by richer teams, much like F1. With the IRL offering cheaper racing on ovals only, many smaller teams jumped ship. The IRL then managed a masterstroke by getting the exclusive rights for the jewel of American open-wheel racing, the Indy 500. CART tried to start their own premier race, the US 500 at Michigan, but it didn’t take off.

As the years passed, the IRL began to expand it’s calendar, and larger CART teams began to cross over to save money (and race at the Brickyard – imagine F1 with no Monaco). This spelled the end for CART, which had to re-launch itself as Champ Car due to money worries before its ultimate demise and absorption by the IRL in 2008, forming what we now know as IndyCar.

The series suffered. NASCAR overtook it as the most watched motorsport on US soil, and teams still struggle to seal sponsorship deals in comparison to their stock car rivals. It is slowly re-building itself though, and with there being a few Indycar fans at Badger we’ve decided to take a look through the reasons to get on board with this soon-to-be-mighty-once-more series.

Photo: Dan Helrigel/Indycar.com

It’s current champion is a Brit. Bar a brief foray into NASCAR in 2008, Scotland’s Dario Franchitti – cousin of F1 racer Paul di Resta – has been a regular in American open-wheel racing since 1997. He finished runner-up in the 1999 championship to rookie Juan Pablo Montoya (thanks a higher number of wins for the Colombian after they tied on points), but after 10 seasons in the US it all came together with a championship in 2007, including an icing-on-the-cake victory at the Indy 500. The NASCAR disaster followed, but heading back to IndyCar with the awesome Ganassi team in ’09 resulted in another title, and last year he repeated the championship/Brickyard double.

It plays host to ‘the greatest spectacle in racing.’ Okay, you may not agree that it’s the greatest, but the Indy 500 is unquestionably one of the most prestigious races in motorsport. Boasting a 33-car field, the 500 is a month-long festival of speed, suspense and all-American pomp. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the first running of the race, and there’s plenty planned to make this momentous occasion one to remember.

Takuma Sato gets to strut his stuff there. With Honda supplying the engines it was a given really.  Racing for the Group Lotus-sponsored KV team (in a car that looks like a Team Lotus F1 effort) Taku is usually found swapping paint with an armco barrier and/or another IndyCar.

It has some mega drivers, too: Forget Sato, the aforementioned Franchitti, Penske’s Will Power (beat that for a name), and Ganassi man Scott Dixon are all good enough to win F1 races – fact!

The polarizing Danica Patrick - love her or loathe her she's done wonders for the series profile in the U.S.Photo: Chris Jones/Indyacr.com

One of the series leading drivers is a woman. And Danica Patrick is pretty good too, earning a win in the Japanese round of 2008. Now combining IndyCar with NASCAR (and likely to go full-time in the latter next season), she is trailblazing her way through the States: first woman to lead a race, score points in IndyCar and NASCAR, first to lead the Indy 500 – you name it, she’s done it. Add fellow female Indycar runners Simona de Silvestro, Ana Beatritz and team owner Sarah Fisher and you’ve got a series that’s streets ahead of F1 in terms of female participation.

The series has one chassis for all, and one engine for all. Dallara and Honda have been the sole manufacturers for teams since 2006. The withdrawl of other major names on both the engine and chassis fronts means that every driver is sat in exactly the same machine. Don’t get used to it though – Dallara will still supply the basis of a car from 2012, but with teams allowed to modify aero parts there will be plenty of competition up and down the field. There will be a bigger choice in engines too, with Chevrolet and Lotus joining the party.

Indycar can proudly boast one of the best motorsport-themed podcasts on offer. Trackside with Cavin and Kevin (which is actually a radio show on Indianapolis-based station 1070 The Fan) is essential listening for anyone following the series or looking to get into it. Indianapolis Star journo Curt Cavin and radio presenter-turned-TV-man Kevin Lee provide a well-informed but always accessible weekly look at Indycar, complete with top-notch interviews and plenty of musing. They’re on nightly throughout the month of May, and we have to recommend any Indycar fans who don’t already tune in do so in the run up to the 500.

Ovals, street circuits and racetracks – Indycar has ’em all. From the hallowed tarmac of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the mega blast around the streets of Long Beach and the superb permanent facility at Barber Motorsports Park, Indycar has an unbeatable mix of tracks. Not a fan of ovals? No worry – the series handily runs the races in blocks, so the season opens with four twisty races followed by four ovals, then five twistys (with an oval in the middle) before closing with three ovals. But, to be honest, they’re all worth watching.

Family Ties You can call it nepotism or tradition, but just as F1 has its Villeneuves and Hills Indycar too has some great dynasties: the Andrettis, the Unsers and the Rahals to name just three. In fact Indycar can go one better than F1 in this respect: Mario Andretti – 1984 Indycar champion and three-time Indy 500 winner – is father to Michael, who took the title in 1991, and grandfather to current racer Marco. We’ll skate over the fact that the talent levels seem to have been diluted with each passing generation.

This year’s season finale could net someone a cool five million dollars. That’s right, the series has a huge cash prize on offer for the Las Vegas season closer – but only for a non-Indycar driver who can come in and beat the regulars. Primarily aimed at tempting over a bigname NASCAR driver (Juan Pablo Montoya would make a lot of sense) those currently interested include 1997 F1 champ Jacques Villeneuve and former World Rally Champion Petter Solberg. But could anyone do it? They’d have to land a seat at either Penske or Ganassi if they wanted to stand a chance.

*Apologies to Mike Conway for making a photo of his horror shunt at Indy last year the thumbnail for this article, but it gives us a golden opportunity to congratulate the Englishman on his breakthrough win at Long Beach a fortnight ago – here’s to many more!