IndyCar: A New Dirt Connection


Before the current iteration of the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, Indy-style racing meant going wheel-to-wheel on asphalt and dirt. The United States Auto Club, or USAC for short, was the governing body of the sport and as such it included championship points races on dirt tracks like the Indiana State Fairgrounds among others. Since USAC’s departure from Indy-style racing, the sport has seen a wider gap growing between grassroots sprint and midget car racing and the Verizon IndyCar Series. One family is moving, albeit slowly, toward closing that gap.

Younger fans of the Verizon IndyCar Series may not know about the legendary stories of drivers like Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, the Unsers, and Parnelli Jones doing battle on dirt high-banks around the country. They also may not know that Ed Carpenter is the last remaining pure dirt open-wheel driver to make the leap to the IndyCar level.

Enter the Byrd family, of Jonathan Byrd’s Cafeteria fame, and its love of the Indianapolis 500. The Byrd family is most recently known for bringing USAC star Bryan Clauson to Indy.

May 24, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar Series driver Bryan Clauson during the 2015 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
USAC champion driver Bryan Clauson during the 2015 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Now they are opening the door just a crack to other dirt track racers looking to make a run at the Borg-Warner Trophy and the Indianapolis 500. They’ve set up the Jonathan Byrd’s Indy Challenge.

The challenge is focused on USAC’s National and Western midget racing championships and it rewards a dominant driver with rides in the 2017 Indy Lights Freedom 100, all the oval races in the 2017 Indy Lights Series season, or a ride in the 2018 Indianapolis 500.

The challenge is made up of seven races in the current USAC midget season. They are at Lawrenceburg, Belleville, Lincoln, Calistoga, Eldora, Granite City, and Ventura speedways. If a driver manages to win five out of the seven events, then they get the 2017 Freedom 100 ride. If they win six events, then they get a ride in all of the oval events in the 2017 Indy Lights Season. And if they win all seven races, then they get all of the 2017 Indy Lights ovals as well as a ride in the 2018 Indy 500.

There are two ways to look at this “Indy Challenge”. First, it’s a great way to get local grassroots tracks from across the country to help promote the Indianapolis 500. It’s also a good way to revive the dirt connection to the Verizon IndyCar Series. But, on the flip side, it may be time to move away from the sprint and midget racers and start focusing on the current roots of Indy-style racing. The days of Steve Kinser and others running the Greatest Spectacle in Racing are likely long gone.

It would make much more sense to target drivers who are already in the pipeline for the Verizon IndyCar Series. The Mazda Road to Indy ladder program needs the extra boost. There are plenty of drivers who, along with the various scholarships available in the ladder program, could combine an “Indy Challenge” win to catapult themselves into the top series and possibly move closer to a full-time ride in Indy Lights or the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next: IndyCar Race Control Needs To Step Up

What do you think? Is this “Indy Challenge” a good idea? Is it worth it to revive the decades long (and old) connection between dirt racing and the Indy cars? Or should programs like this be focused on the ladder series connected to the sport? Let us know in the comments.