Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: Street Circuits

One of the NTT IndyCar Series’ major draws and talking points is the diversity of its schedule. Crazy parity and lack of power steering aside, a successful IndyCar driver is, above all else, a driver who can excel on multiple types of racetracks. Perhaps the most challenging of tracks is the street circuit.

Since the days when Indy racing was organized as Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), drivers have been seen manhandling their notoriously uncooperative cars not only around purpose-built circuit, but closed off public roads as well. The layer of adversity added by the nature of a street circuit is rather self-explanatory: no grass, no gravel, no run-off area, no room for error.

The 2023 IndyCar schedule features five such circuits. The most famous would of course be the streets of Long Beach, California. The season opened on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, the Indianapolis 500 was followed by a new street circuit twisting through downtown Detroit, Michigan. In July, Christian Lundgaard took his first career win by conquering the streets of Toronto, Canada’s Exhibition Place district, and this Sunday (Aug. 6) the series will take over downtown Nashville, Tennessee for the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix.

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Five street circuits in two countries for a 17-round season isn’t bad. But if we step back in time a few decades, we can see that the humble street circuit once served as the main source of international flare for the highest-level of American open-wheel racing.

Starting from 1991, the CART paddock ventured to the east coast of Australia to take on the Surfers Paradise streets. An extremely fast and flowing arrangement, the circuit was a staple of the CART – and IndyCar in 2008 – calendar before being dropped from the rotation after CART (by this point known as Champ Car) and IndyCar merged into one series in 2008.

Canada previously played host to an Indy event both in Toronto and Vancouver. The Vancouver circuit went through two distinct layouts, with the original course’s narrow, sweeping nature resembling a secret lovechild between Long Beach and Monaco while the course’s second iteration inspires imagery of the Marina Bay Circuit in Singapore, minus all the right angles.

Vancouver is a criminally unappreciated circuit in the lore of IndyCar, but Mauricio Gugelmin can demonstrate this better than words can convey it:

If Vancouver is criminally underrated, it may be fair to say that Fundidora Park has been sinfully erased from memory.

First visited by CART in 2001, Fundidora, an urban park built on the grounds of an out-of-use steel foundry, hosted the Telcate/Telmex Grand Prix of Monterey until 2006. Though it was often overshadowed by other events on the calendar, not to mention facing competition from Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez starting from 2002, this unique circuit provided an aesthetically appealing backdrop to some decent, and just decent, racing.

On the domestic side some street circuits have stood the test of time and become sacred entries on the calendar; Long Beach and Detroit exemplify this. Some, however, have burned out, faded away, or simply didn’t work.

The Grand Prix of Denver, for example, sat on the calendar from 1990-1991 and 2002-2006, but failed to produce much in the way of memorable racing. The circuit was short, coming in at a meager 1.64 miles, and rather awkward in its layout. That said, it wasn’t all lackluster; Paul Tracy and Sebastien Bourdais made a memory or two during the 2006 running of the event.

Another unfortunate removal, though not without reason, from the calendar was the Grand Prix of Houston, contested 1998-2001, 2006-2007 and 2013-2014.

The circuit’s first layout sprawled the streets of downtown Houston, however in 2002 construction in the city put a lid on that chapter. The circuit returned years later with a layout that centered around NRG Park, home of the Houston Texans.

Before scheduling issues took the circuit off the calendar in 2015, Dario Franchitti suffered a career-ending crash during the second race of the 2013 Houston doubleheader where his car was launched into a catchfence after contact with Takuma Sato. Franchitti suffered two spinal fractures, a concussion and injuries to his lower extremities. He retired from racing after being warned that repeated injuries had put him at risk of permanent paralysis and brain damage; he suffered from memory and concentration difficulties as a result of his Houston crash.

Franchitti’s career in IndyCar isn’t wanting in the achievements department, not by any means. Let us not forget that the three-time Indy 500 winner is also an airport winner.

Yes, an airport winner.

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If there is any event that unduly suffered from IndyCar’s reunification in 2008, it’s the Grand Prix of Cleveland.

Cleveland, Ohio’s Burke Lakefront Airport hosted the Grand Prix from 1982-2007, but the event managed to find itself swimming in controversy when, at the height of the IndyCar Split in 1999, it was announced that the Grand Prix of Cleveland would switch allegiance from CART to what was then known as the Indy Racing League (IRL). However, plans to convert the airport circuit to a flat oval fell through. Being as the IRL only raced on ovals at that time, CART was saved the headache of having to replace the event on the 2000 calendar.

The 2003 running was also the first road course race to be contested at night in Indy racing history.

The attention of IndyCar fans and drivers alike has turned to bringing more ovals to the schedule in the coming years, and for good reason. But with cities like Boston, Fort Lauderdale, even Qingdao, China, having explored the possibility of bringing IndyCar to their streets (a cheaper project than building a dedicated track), the time for more street circuits to pop up on the calendar may nearly be upon us.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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