A milestone moment that forever changed American open-wheel racing took place on Sept. 14, 1970, when the United States Auto Club’s board of directors met in Indianapolis.
The board approved a four-pronged proposal to revamp the USAC National Driving Championship by forming two new racing divisions. The sweeping changes, envisioned by USAC Executive Director Bill Smyth, included:
1. Cutting the number of championship car races from 20 to 12.
2. Raising the minimum purse to $50,000 or $500 per racing mile.
3. Creating a “triple crown” championship computed on the results of the three 500-mile races at Indianapolis, Pocono, Pa., and Ontario, Calif.
4. Spinning off the championship dirt and road races by creating two new racing divisions for each of those separate types of cars.
In discussing the plan prior to the board’s vote, Smyth said, “I really have a feeling that racing is at a point that under good management it could find its place in the sun, a place it never had before.
“Fans have been a rather parochial group in the past. I feel that road racing has had as much to do with bringing in a broader segment of the public as any other factor,” Smyth added. “It’s about time we stop preaching in the monastery and start going out to the highways and byways.”
USAC President Charles Brockman announced the changes.
“USAC will be sanctioning eight to 10 road-course races next season,” Brockman said. “There will be a separate point system for the road courses and a separate road-course champion.
“USAC is also planning at least four championship dirt races next year with the hopes of expanding the schedule further if several tracks improve the safety aspects of their facilities,” Brockman concluded.
As a result, Al Unser won what many consider the last true USAC National Driving Championship. The 1970 schedule featured 10 paved ovals, five dirt tracks and three road courses. Unser won 10 of the 18 events, including the Indianapolis 500 and all five dirt races.
The 1971 USAC-Marlboro Championship was comprised of 11 races and Joe Leonard won the title. There were four dirt-track events with George Snider the inaugural champion while the road-course crown went to Jim Dittenmore after only two races on a single day.
It was several years before the impact of the USAC board’s action on that September day was fully realized, but it eventually ended the era in which sprint cars and midgets served as the road to the Indianapolis 500.