IndyCar's First Proper Foray Into South America

CART 1998 Rio 400 Automobilista 2 Fernandez Rahal.png
The wild history of American open-wheel racing has left IndyCar struggling to recover its former popularity. The current series is trending upwards, and rumor has it that it may return to South America in 2024 to stage an event at the Autódromo Termas de Rio Hondo, a purpose-built circuit in Argentina. IndyCar's first proper foray into South America had a much weirder circuit, however, when CART visited Rio de Janeiro.

In the first season of the infamous split, CART was still called IndyCar, and as the series was filled with popular Brazilian drivers like former Formula One drivers Emerson Fittipaldi, Maurício Gugelmin or Raul Boesel, it was time to bring the action to their home crowd. In total, eight Brazilians would compete in the 1996 season.

Argentina Was First​

Now, this was not the first-ever appearance of US open wheelers in South America, to be exact: In 1971, the USAC Championship Car series opened its season at the Autódromo de Rafaela oval in Argentina, but would never return after that. Just ten days before the green flag flew, the event was upgraded from non-championship to points-paying status - a decision that did not prove to be popular with many teams and drivers. The two back-to-back races on the 3-mile oval were won by Al Unser Sr., who would also go on to win the Indianapolis 500 later that year.

24 years later, the Rio 400, as it was called, was never considered to be a non-championship race, instead hosting the second round of the season. Held at Jacarepaguá, the same venue that hosted the Brazilian Grand Prix ten times between 1978 and 1989, the circuit used had a rather unique layout: To bring oval racing to Brazil, a new oval course was constructed that incorporated the road course's back straight.

racingcircuits.info map Jacarepagua Oval.png

The roval layout of Jacarepaguá overlaid with the road course for comparison. The unusual shape with two heavy braking zones made for spectacular manoeuvers in the CART cars. Image credit: racingcircuits.info

The Rio Roval​

The final result, however, was somewhat in between an oval and a road course: The track was shaped like a trapezoid and featured four turns, but hardly any banking - this meant that turns 1 and 4 saw the drivers braking heavily and going down through the gears like they would on short ovals like Gateway, for example. At 1.864 miles (3 kilometers) in length, the oval was not exactly short, though, so despite the short oval aero package being used there, cars hit rather high speeds approaching turn 4 in particular.

Its unusual layout led to the circuit being called a roval, and with good reason: The track felt less like an oval, but rather like a road course with only left turns. It was run to oval rules, however, making it a rather unique challenge that led to exciting racing.

CART 1998 Rio 400 Automobilista 2 Franchitti Zanardi Vasser.png

The view going into turn 1 was not bad at all at Jacarepaguá - not that the drivers would have had time to admire it.

The high speeds on the back straight and through turns 2 and 3 were almost immediately demonstrated by Mark Blundell just ten laps into the inaugural Rio 400: The Briton lost the brakes of his Reynard 96i going into the final turn, slid across the grass at the apex of the corner and hit the concrete wall (no SAFER barrier or tire bundles) at enormous speed, splitting his car in half. Remarkably, Blundell only suffered a broken foot in an incident that could have been much worse.


Despite the early incident, the race itself was a popular one, especially for the local fans as André Ribeiro took his second-ever victory ahead of Al Unser Jr. and Scott Pruett. This would be the only win by a Brazilian in the event, which lasted until 2000 (having been run as a 200-kilometer race in 1999 and 2000). Other winners were Paul Tracy (1997), Greg Moore (1998), Juan Pablo Montoya (1999) and Adrián Fernandez (2000).

Olympic Games Spell the End after CART Departure​

The race was set to return for 2001 as well, but was canceled after the municipal government failed to provide guarantees regarding the payment of sanctioning fees. This spelled the end CART and IndyCar racing at the venue, as the Indy Racing League - unlike with other tracks like Nazareth Speedway - did not take over the running.

Unfortunately, racing in general has ceased at Jacarepaguá in the years following CART's departure. The 2016 Summer Olympics were to be hosted on the site the track stood on, and construction beginning in 2006 meant that only a shortened version of the road course was still raceable - until that got torn down starting in 2012.

Rio Olympic Park Google Maps.jpg

The former site of the Jacarepaguá circuit years after the Olympic Games - not much hints at the racing track that originally occupied this space anymore. Image credit: Google Maps

Ironically, many of the venues constructed for the Olympic Games have been sitting mostly abandoned since the event, and some of them are being dismantled or repurposed.

As is often the case with former tracks, sim racing allows us to still experience them. Jacarepaguá is available in both its road course and roval form in both Automobilista titles, and the road course is available in its 1980s guise as an Assetto Corsa mod here on RaceDepartment.

Meanwhile, IndyCar has returned to Brazil: The reuinified series raced on a street circuit in Sao Paulo from 2010 to 2013, which was laid out the district that Ayrton Senna was born in - although it could have been considered Will Power's back yard as well, as the Australian took three straight wins there from 2010 to 2012, with the final victory going to James Hinchcliffe in 2013.

Your Thoughts​

What do you think about this unusual oval? Have you watched the CART races at the track back in the day? Let us know in the comments below!

CART 1998 Rio 400 Automobilista 2 Zanardi Vasser Herta de Ferran.png

Full grandstands, hotly-contested races: The Rio 400 (later Rio 200) was quite the spectacle until 2000.
About author
Yannik Haustein
Lifelong motorsport enthusiast and sim racing aficionado, walking racing history encyclopedia.

Sim racing editor, streamer and one half of the SimRacing Buddies podcast (warning, German!).

Heel & Toe Gang 4 life :D

Comments

I think the first time I came across the track was in Newman Haas Racing, the game that repurposed the Psygnosis F1 game engine into IndyCar (though I think they only licensed the tracks and drivers!)
 
Premium
I only remember that track for the car splitting crash Blundell had there in the late 90's.
 
This place has personality and it's quite fun with CART at AMS2. Like it more than the road course for F1 actually!
 
I was there when André won the race. I must say, one of the coolest experiences I had on a race track. The crowd was absolutely mad. I have thrown one of those hats you can see flying in the celebrations in the official broadcast, at the end of the race:

It was not long after Senna's death, and for the first time in a while, there was not a Brazilian doing so well in F1. That's part of the reason for such a celebration.

Andre passed away himself not long ago, unfortunately, because of cancer.

About what happened to track because of the Olympics, I rather not talk about it, it's such a shame. It's great that we can at least drive there in simracing. I find both tracks amazing, particularly the road course TBH.
 
Last edited:
Jacarepagua was demolished with the promise of building a new race track in RJ, which never happened, corrupt politicians here are like that!

Both tracks were challenging and both F1 and IndyCar drivers enjoyed it, it's a shame it ended up like this.

Interlagos is another track that almost every year fights not to be demolished, the Autódromo Internacional de Curitiba was last year.

I like unusual tracks that challenge drivers and engineers.
 
Jacarepagua was demolished with the promise of building a new race track in RJ, which never happened, corrupt politicians here are like that!

Both tracks were challenging and both F1 and IndyCar drivers enjoyed it, it's a shame it ended up like this.

Interlagos is another track that almost every year fights not to be demolished, the Autódromo Internacional de Curitiba was last year.

I like unusual tracks that challenge drivers and engineers.
Jacarepagua 1988 is one of my favorite tracks in AMS2. With the Formula Classic Gen 1-2 or the Formula Vintage gen 3, it's a blast.
 
To make Indy more popular it’s very wise to expand the Indy to S-America, maybe also Japan & Australia. China and Russia is a bit difficult these days, while here in Europe I guess there is zero interest in Indy.
 
To make Indy more popular it’s very wise to expand the Indy to S-America, maybe also Japan & Australia. China and Russia is a bit difficult these days, while here in Europe I guess there is zero interest in Indy.
About Europe: really?

Even with a Spaniard on the top of his game and dominating the whole thing?

Not to mention how "exciting" F1 is these days :rolleyes:

This baffles me a bit.
 
OverTake
Premium
Unfortunately, it is not really that well known here in Germany, it seems. Usually, people either confuse it with NASCAR or, if they are casual racing fans, still think that the series exclusively races on ovals and is therefore boring. Add in those F1 fans that think IndyCar is super easy because former mid-tier Formula One drivers are doing well over there, and it is quite clear that its popularity over here leaves a lot to be desired. Might be different in Sweden, for example, as I think Marcus Ericsson's Indy 500 win last year even made the front pages there.

I think the problem then is how they would market their return to Europe. On one hand, their USP are high-speed oval races, but outside of enthusiasts and the odd curious group, people will not exactly flock to that. On the other hand, if they go to a road course, people would likely think of it as a lesser series because of its spec nature and it being slower than F1.

I think that is an enormous shame, because I am certain that anyone who would actually go to an event would have an unforgettable time. It is far less expensive than a lot of series, much more open and approachable and mind-bendingly fast on ovals. Having been to Pocono in 2016, I simply could not comprehend how fast they were flying down the front stretch.

Plus, the racing is much, much better than F1 in my opinion, and you rarely (if ever) get the track limit discussions that seem to plague almost any form of modern motorsport these days due to the nature of the circuits they race at.

So personally, I would buy tickets to a European IndyCar race the second they become available. Sadly, I don't think it is going to happen anytime soon, though.
 
From what I see here in Brazil, Europe is very closed to American motorsport, they turn up their noses even at American teams that enter F1, they make light of Michael Andretti's request to put a team there, since that would be more money and more audience coming from america. I think the media also fails because instead of teaching that they are different concepts of competition, they make simple comparisons.

In America they try to equalize the cars as much as possible, of course this will increase competitiveness and in F1 each one making their own car, the disparity will be greater, as we have seen in recent years when a team hits the car, destroys the competition and take the history of F1, the category has always had a big difference between teams, one year or another with greater disputes, 90% of the seasons had glaring disparities, even greater than we have today.

Add to that the fact that in Europe, car equalization is only used for base categories, so you should look at Indy on the step of an F2. Who knows with the new engines in Indy, where they say they will reach 900hp, it will awaken more interest in other parts of the world, like the old CART with its nervous cars that challenged the pilots.
 
Last edited:
I honestly thought IndyCar would venture abroad somewhere a little closer to home. They have a street circuit in Toronto, but no road courses. Mexico City, Montreal, Mosport come to mind.
 
Unfortunately, it is not really that well known here in Germany, it seems. Usually, people either confuse it with NASCAR or, if they are casual racing fans, still think that the series exclusively races on ovals and is therefore boring. Add in those F1 fans that think IndyCar is super easy because former mid-tier Formula One drivers are doing well over there, and it is quite clear that its popularity over here leaves a lot to be desired. Might be different in Sweden, for example, as I think Marcus Ericsson's Indy 500 win last year even made the front pages there.

I think the problem then is how they would market their return to Europe. On one hand, their USP are high-speed oval races, but outside of enthusiasts and the odd curious group, people will not exactly flock to that. On the other hand, if they go to a road course, people would likely think of it as a lesser series because of its spec nature and it being slower than F1.

I think that is an enormous shame, because I am certain that anyone who would actually go to an event would have an unforgettable time. It is far less expensive than a lot of series, much more open and approachable and mind-bendingly fast on ovals. Having been to Pocono in 2016, I simply could not comprehend how fast they were flying down the front stretch.

Plus, the racing is much, much better than F1 in my opinion, and you rarely (if ever) get the track limit discussions that seem to plague almost any form of modern motorsport these days due to the nature of the circuits they race at.

So personally, I would buy tickets to a European IndyCar race the second they become available. Sadly, I don't think it is going to happen anytime soon, though.
Honest question: have people in Germany forgotten that CART actually raced there, in an oval? It was quite a tragic one to forget easily (Zanardi lost his legs there, and was right after the 9-11 events).
 
OverTake
Premium
Honest question: have people in Germany forgotten that CART actually raced there, in an oval? It was quite a tragic one to forget easily (Zanardi lost his legs there, and was right after the 9-11 events).
Mostly, yes. It's been over 20 years, and I don't think that The Split still being a thing at that point helped matters. Casual racing fans often haven't even heard of the two races there, especially younger ones. F1 was and is still the only thing most people think about here when motorsport is mentioned, maybe some of them have Le Mans or the DTM on their minds as well, but that is basically it from my experience :(
 
  • Like
Reactions: pai
I honestly thought IndyCar would venture abroad somewhere a little closer to home. They have a street circuit in Toronto, but no road courses. Mexico City, Montreal, Mosport come to mind.
The driving force behind this is Ricardo Juncos, an Argentinian guy who's a team owner in IndyCar.

Apparently, in order to make it worth it, Juncos and his sponsors would need to pay all the other teams to ship the cars to South America. And because it will STILL not make financial sense for some of the smaller teams, if this happens, it will need to be a non-championship round.

If Juncos was Mexican, the race would be in Mexico City.
 
That Blundell crash is one of those where I just simply don't understand the physics involved, but would love to. It really does seem like the car breaking apart stopped Mark from suffering more injuries, but the SPEED of the thing. It's still so shocking to watch.
 
My favourite south american track was Fundidora Park, there was a track for Rfactor1 which was good to race with the 90's Cart cars, and the track itself had stunning surrounding scenery with the mountains in the distance and the huge old steel works in the infield
 
It's a really interesting challenge to set up a car for...

You either go all out for the ability to pass or you go for lap time...

Overall though it's the type of oval I enjoy racing on... The type of oval that drives uniquely...
 
That Blundell crash is one of those where I just simply don't understand the physics involved, but would love to. It really does seem like the car breaking apart stopped Mark from suffering more injuries, but the SPEED of the thing. It's still so shocking to watch.
I can't decide whether he was lucky or unlucky to touch the grass/dirt prior to the impact. I mean, it slowed the car a bit but also meant the angle was worse.
 
How convenient that Autódromo Termas de Rio Hondo is already in AMS 2 along with a generic version of the current Indycar.
 

Latest News

Article information

Author
Yannik Haustein
Article read time
4 min read
Views
3,966
Comments
20
Last update

What would be the ideal raceday for you to join our Club Races?

  • Monday

    Votes: 35 15.6%
  • Tuesday

    Votes: 28 12.4%
  • Wednesday

    Votes: 31 13.8%
  • Thursday

    Votes: 29 12.9%
  • Friday

    Votes: 79 35.1%
  • Saturday

    Votes: 129 57.3%
  • Sunday

    Votes: 92 40.9%
Back
Top