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What is now known as the IndyCar Series was the first international racing championship in the world, and for most of the century it was North America’s leading competition. However, the 1996 split between then organisers CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) and the Indianapolis 500 severely weakened open-wheel racing in North America.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) organised races from the start of the 20th Century and Anglo-Italian Dario Resta was crowned Champion in 1916, the only non-American to win the series before CART became the sanctioning body in 1979. A series has been contested every year since 1920, except when suspended due to world wars.
The Indianapolis 500 has always taken centre stage during the month of May with qualification, practice, and the race taking the whole month until recently. During the 1950s and 1960s the championship also encompassed a hillclimb (Pikes Peak), road courses, and short ovals (both paved and on dirt), making it the most versatile of competitions.
The United States Auto Club (USAC) replaced the AAA as the governing body in 1956, a period in which front-engine Offenhauser roadsters dominated. However, a British invasion of new cars with engines behind the driver began in the early 1960s and culminated with Indianapolis 500 victories for Jim Clark's Lotus and Graham Hill's Lola in 1965 and 1966 respectively.
The European influence continued into the 1970s as McLaren joined Lola as a chassis supplier. However, disenchanted with USAC's organisation by the end of the decade, the teams formed their own breakaway series under the Championship Auto Racing Teams banner in 1979. USAC also tried to continue to run its series that year but it was an uncompetitive affair. CART sanctioned the undisputed Indycar championship from 1980 but those roles were eventually reversed.
After a couple of decades of upheaval, the Hulman-George family and Indianapolis Motor Speedway eventually regained control of the championship as well as running its centrepiece race. The Indy Racing League was the brainchild of Tony George – Anton Hulman jr's grandson. IRL was launched as an oval-only rival to the established CART World Series in 1996.
The IRL was initially very much the poorer cousin, albeit with the Indianapolis 500 the annual highlight. However, the importance of that event eventually proved pivotal as commercial considerations at first prompted CART's leading teams to race at Indy and then finally switch series on a fulltime basis.
Having endured 17 years without running the series, the IRL IndyCar Series was now North America's predominant open wheel championship, but at what cost? Fan and sponsor interest had waned during a decade of open wheel "civil war", just as stock car racing forged ahead in the ratings.
The renamed Champ Car Series eventually folded after the 2007 season with its competitors transferring at late notice to Indycars. That resulted in a unified series with teams run by erstwhile Champ Car team owners Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske and Michael Andretti to the fore. Twelve years after the reunification of open wheel racing in North America, Penske acquired the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 from the Hulman-George family on 4 November 2019.
NOTE: In 1926-27 the AAA’s Arthur Means, overseen by Secretary of the Contest Board, Val Haresnape, retrospectively announced champions for 1909-15 and 1917-19 based on all AAA races, whether they be a 5-mile dash, class result, or city-to-city marathon. The confusion was compounded in 1951 when historian Russ Catlin further revised the official AAA records. He published new champions for 1902-08, amended the 1909 Haresnape champion from Bert Dingley to George Robertson, and gave the 1920 series to Tommy Milton rather than to true winner Gaston Chevrolet. His calculations were again based on all AAA races and not just championship events.
A championship awarded 49 years late cannot be considered genuine but for completeness sake and to explain some championship listings published elsewhere, we have included all relevant race results since 1909.