IndyCar Basics: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

IndyCar is one of the fastest motorsports on the planet and it’s also one of the most well-known. This is despite being relatively young in its current form. It provides a lot of excitement, but it can be difficult to get to grips with if you have never watched an IndyCar race before or are new to the sport.

The 5 IndyCar essentials that any beginner should know are:

  1. Some IndyCar history
  2. The teams and the cars
  3. The tracks and locations
  4. IndyCar racing
  5. The rules and regulations

There is a lot to learn about any motorsport but getting the basics down about each of these topics will prepare you for any IndyCar race. Whether you are going to the race itself or just watching on TV, you will know exactly what is going on after reading this article!

5 IndyCar Essentials Beginners Should Know

1. Some IndyCar History

IndyCar is a motorsport that has been around in many different forms and has only existed in its current form since 1996. However, it has been around for much longer than that under various different names, and it gets its current name from the nickname for cars that were competing in the championship open-wheel racing competitions, where the main event was the Indy 500.

This event has been held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1911, which is why it is such a well-known and popular race. The cars that raced on the track back then however were very different to the ones that race there now. Before the early 1990s, the cars competed in the CART championship, which stood for Championship Auto Racing Teams.

After various legal disputes, the current IndyCar Series was founded in 1996. However, even then it took on various different names, with the Indy Racing League becoming IndyCar only in 2011. Although IndyCar has had a somewhat messy and confusing history with regard to the name and structure side of things, it has nonetheless proved to be extremely popular.

2. The Teams And The Cars

There are lots of different teams in IndyCar, and some of them are full-time teams while others are part-time. The full-time drivers take part in all of the races within the season, and they are therefore the ones usually in contention to win the championship. Part-time drivers and teams don’t compete in every event, and so have fewer chances to earn points but still get to compete in the races.

Teams Come & Go

The number of teams that take part in an IndyCar season varies from year to year, and in 2019 there were 21 teams in total taking part. In 2020, there were only 17 teams taking part, while 16 entered in 2023. The teams can each put forward several drivers, with some teams opting for as many as six drivers, and some only putting forward one. They don’t all have to race in every event.

Key Fact: 34 drivers entered the 2023 IndyCar season

When it comes to the cars used, IndyCar operates with a spec system. This means that all of the cars run to the same basic specifications and so all use the same chassis. This means that all of the teams are running essentially the same car, with a few different engine suppliers making way for some differences, and then the actual tuning of the car can help them suit certain drivers.

Note: IndyCar isn’t a true spec series, as there are some differences between the cars (like engine choice and setup). However, it’s more of a spec series than the likes of F1.

Very Fast Cars

This makes for some very exciting racing as it is almost all dependent on the skills of the driver, as they don’t have any major advantages in the bodywork over other teams. The engines are all 2.2-liter, twin turbocharged V6s, capable of putting out around 550-700 horsepower. These engines allow the cars to regularly top 200 mph (320 kph), with top speeds of 230 mph (370 kph) common at races like the Indy 500.

The brakes used in IndyCar are made out of steel in most cases, which is not the most efficient stopping material, but it still does a good job of slowing the cars down from 200+ mph. The cars do use carbon fiber brakes instead on the 2.5-mile speedways, which I will discuss more below, as they demand much higher speeds and so the cars need the best brakes possible.

One thing that sets IndyCar apart from its competitor motorsports like F1 is the use of the aeroscreen. This serves a similar purpose to F1’s halo, but with the addition of a windscreen. Because all of the cars are made to certain specifications, the parts can all be mass produced. Although this keeps costs relatively low, a car can still cost several million dollars to put together.

3. The Tracks And Locations

IndyCar takes place almost exclusively in America, with one race in Canada as well. There have been races all across the globe in places like Brazil and Australia, along with Japan too. However, these races are not part of the regular season, which usually starts in March and ends in September. There are 17 races in an IndyCar season, with events taking place on a mix of road, street and oval tracks.

The Indy 500

The most famous of these oval tracks is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and this is where the series gets its name. It attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators every year, with millions more watching from their homes. It is a 500-mile race, made up of 200 laps of the oval speedway.

The Indy 500 is part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, along with the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix in Formula 1. Only Graham Hill has managed to achieve a victory at all three. There are other oval tracks in IndyCar, with these tending to be the shortest and fastest in the series. The Iowa Speedway is just 0.8 miles in length (1.3 km), with others around the 1-mile mark too.

The tracks reach the upper end of the scale as well, with the Road America circuit clocking in at more than 4 miles (6.4 km). Most of the tracks are between 1 and 2 miles (1.6-3.2 km), which makes for high-speed, high intensity racing.

4. IndyCar Racing


IndyCar racing takes place over the course of a weekend, with the first stage being qualifying. Like other motorsports, this is used to determine the starting grid positions on race day. There are various different qualifying processes used in IndyCar, and it depends on the track.

For the road and street circuits, the cars are split into two different groups. They take to the track to try and record as fast a lap as possible. The first segment acts as an elimination round, similar to that of F1’s Q1 and Q2, which we discuss in more detail in our F1 beginner’s guide. The fastest six drivers from each group then progress to segment 2.

Of these 12 drivers, another elimination round takes place leaving just six drivers in segment 3. As before, the drivers try to get the fastest lap they can in the allotted time, and the times of the three segments are used to put the cars into their grid order for the race. However, this format changes significantly for the oval races, and also for the Indy 500 in particular.

For these races the cars have two warm-up laps, and then they go for two hot laps. These laps are when they try to go as fast as they can and set as fast a time as possible, and the total of these two times is what is used to decide their starting position on the grid. For the Indy 500, there are four hot laps instead of two, with the total used once again for the starting positions.

Race Day

On race day, there are up to 33 cars on the starting grid (usually around 26-28 outside of the Indy 500). They go for one or more parade laps around the track behind a safety car and must maintain their order. Then the safety car will designate that the race is about to start, and the cars take a rolling start as they cross the starting line. From there, it is all about going as fast as possible.

During the race, drivers will make several pit stops. These are used to change the tires on the car and to refuel as well. This can take between 6 and 10 seconds, with several mechanics all working together to change everything as fast as possible. Only six mechanics are allowed over the pit wall at one time, which is in contrast to the fast F1 pit stops of around 2 seconds, which may involve 20 people.

IndyCar races can go on for two or three hours, and this is why refueling is needed on the pit stops. The race length will depend on the track, but it will also depend on whether or not there are any delays or periods of caution, which are often a result of crashes or similar incidents.

5. The Rules And Regulations

There are lots of rules and regulations regarding the cars and the drivers in IndyCar, as there are with any motorsport. As most of the car components are specified in these regulations, there aren’t many technical regulations teams can breach in this department. This is unlike in Formula 1, where the teams need to produce their own chassis, and so need to be careful that they do not infringe on any of the rules.

Safety Is A Priority

There are a lot of safety restrictions in place as well, including the 6-point safety restraints and halo/windscreen combination that arrived in 2020. These safety regulations continue into the flag and penalty system used during races, which act as a way of telling the drivers what to do when there are incidents or when they need to take certain action.

The most common flag you will see is the yellow flag, which indicates that there has been an incident or other reason to drive with caution. This usually involves lower speeds and no overtaking while the incident is cleared before the green flag is waved to commence the racing once again. A red flag signals that the session has stopped as the track is not safe to continue racing.

Different Flags

There is also a blue flag, which is used to indicate that a faster car is trying to pass a car being lapped. If the driver ignores these flags and doesn’t let the faster car go past, they may be shown the black flag, which means they must go to the pits immediately to consult with officials. There are various other flags, but these are the most common.

The penalty system in IndyCar is similar to that of F1, with the majority of penalties being given to drivers that are deemed to have driven in an unsafe or unfair manner, or for breaking any of the rules. Some penalties come in the form of hefty fines to the driver or the team, and there are grid penalties for using extra or unapproved engines throughout the season.

The IndyCar Points System

The points system used in IndyCar is the way that the championship is decided. There is a championship for the drivers and for the engine manufacturers, with both earning points depending on where the cars finish in each race. Every driver in every race receives points, with the winner getting 50 and those in the last 9 drivers each getting 5 points.

There are bonus points available for those that take pole position during qualifying, and there are also bonuses for those that lead one lap of the race, and for those that lead the most laps of the race. The Indy 500 brings more bonus points, with extra points going to those that manage to qualify in positions 1-9 for the race. The winner is the driver with the most points at the end of the season.

Final Thoughts

IndyCar is one of the fastest and most exciting motorsports in the world. It is unique in that it’s an open-wheel racing competition, and one that runs using broadly spec cars. This means the competition is fierce, and the races are often won by just fractions of a second. There is a large variety of tracks raced on throughout the year, making it one of the hardest motorsports as well.

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