The Indy Racing League hopes it has its answer to NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
In the most sweeping change since it was formed 15 years ago, the IRL announced Tuesday that it is instituting oval and road title championships within the overall IZOD IndyCar Series championship, effective this season.
Randy Bernard, the IRL's new chairman of the board, announced the new format that calls for:
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* An Oval Championship for the eight races on ovals — including the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway on Saturday. The oval champion will be crowned at the Twin Ring Motegi race in Tokyo, on Sept. 19.
* A Road/Street Course Championship for the nine races on non-oval courses, that will conclude at Infineon Raceway in California on Aug. 22.
* An Overall Champion, based on points accumulated in both disciplines through the 17-race season, culminating in the final event on Oct. 2 at Homestead.
The change was a result of Bernard's desire to create more "major" races in the series beyond the Indianapolis 500 and compete with NASCAR and other sports during the second half of its season.
"You have the Indianapolis 500, and then you have a bunch of events," Bernard said. "We need to have two or three majors that stand apart and make big, big events.
"You're never ever going to out-do the 500 because it is so big. But the oval and non-oval championships will have a tremendous amount of potential from the standpoint of the demographics and excitement and the story lines we'll be able to build more than just once."
Drivers will compete for bonuses presented to both category champions, with the purses to be announced at a later date.
"We think it will build stars," Bernard said. "Certain drivers are better non-oval drivers than oval, and we think that will help them become a bigger stars."
The immediate reaction from drivers was positive, though as Ryan Hunter-Reay said, nothing will replace winning the Indianapolis 500 and the overall series championship.
"I think this is great to highlight the fact we do have two completely different disciplines of racing within one series," said Hunter-Reay, who won the most recent IndyCar race on the street course at Long Beach. "It's the only racing series in the world that does that with the street courses, the road courses, mile-and-a-half super speedways and short ovals.
"It's great to highlight that and give it recognition, but really what matters, is winning the Indy 500 and winning the series championship. It's not like anybody's primary goal is to win the road-course championship or win the oval. It's kind of a side note, like, 'Congratulations, you are the best in that category,' but what really matters is the series championship and the Indy 500."
Had this system been in place last year, Dario Franchitti still would have won the series championship in addition to the road course title, having won three road-course races and two on ovals. Scott Dixon, who finished second overall in the points standings, would have won the oval championship based on his four oval wins. He won one road course race, at Mid-Ohio.
Bernard believes the oval and non-oval championships will appeal to different parts of the country.
"People in Kansas and Indianapolis and in the Midwest are going to have a much greater desire to see the oval championship and the overall championship," Bernard said. "If you come from an international background, or are on the East and West coasts, you may be much more interested in watching the non-ovals.
"It will help us play to different demographics in different regions of the United States and the world as well."
Veteran driver Tomas Scheckter is glad to see drivers of each discipline recognized.
"When I first came to the IndyCar series, it was just ovals and mostly big ovals, so you really had to be good in one area," Scheckter said. "Now from one weekend to the next, you really have to adapt... it is kind of cool if you are running well on the ovals, that you get rewarded.
"Certainly the person who wins the championship at the end of the year will be the most complete driver in America."
Through the first four road course events — Brazil, St. Petersburg, Birmingham, Ala., and Long Beach — Will Power leads the road championship over Helio Castroneves and Hunter-Reay.
This week's race at Kansas Speedway will be the first oval race of the season and only oval leading into the Indianapolis 500, which is one of the reasons the IRL decided to announce its change this week.