The United States Auto Club (USAC) began from necessity when the American Automobile Association (AAA) unexpectedly announced on Wednesday, August 3, 1955, that its Contest Board would be dissolved at the end of the year. The board had been the nation’s leading auto-racing sanctioning body since 1902.

USAC headquarters in Speedway, Indiana in 2016.
USAC headquarters in Speedway, 2016 Credit: Doctorindy via Wikimedia Commons View Source

Members of the AAA board cited the disaster that occurred at the April 1955 24-hour LeMans auto race in France, which killed 84 people and injured nearly 180 others, and the death of Indianapolis 500 racecar driver Bill Vukovich as reasons for its withdrawal. Until then, the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race had been part of the AAA National Championships Trail. With the AAA announcement, the Indianapolis 500 suddenly had no sanctioning body to set and enforce rules.

Two days later, on August 5, 1955, before any rival group could react, Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) president Anton (Tony) Hulman Jr., unveiled a plan to a handful of influential participant friends in a private meeting at the track offices.

While he believed the 500 conceivably could stand on its own merit for years to come, Hulman thought it should continue to be a part of a seasonal national championship. He also endorsed the concept of less expensive forms of racing to serve as a training system for potential 500 drivers and suggested that a new group could be formed to assume AAA’s long-established role.

Hulman’s plan was announced publicly five days later and USAC was officially formed on Friday, September 16. Work began immediately on a new rule book for 1956. Indianapolis businessman Tom W. binford served as USAC’s first president from 1956 to 1969.

The organization sanctioned its first Indianapolis 500 in 1956 and established the United States National Championship for American “open-wheel” racing (vehicles with wheels outside their bodies rather than under fenders). During its first year, other USAC National Championship races took place at the Darlington Speedway in South Carolina, the Langhorne Speedway in Pennsylvania, and several state fairgrounds.

USAC Properties, Inc., was established in 1970 for the purpose of conducting impartial tests on automotive and non-automotive products. USAC became internationally known for numerous advancements in safety, not only in the structure of racing cars but in protective participant apparel and racetrack construction requirements as well. Over the years, many national advertising campaigns have utilized USAC’s Seal of Approval to assure the public that the claims made for a product are justified.

In 1978, eight USAC officials were killed in an airplane crash returning to Indianapolis from a race at the Trenton Speedway in New Jersey. The plane crashed in a thunderstorm 25 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

The USAC National Championship ran until 1997. In 1996, Tony George, then IMS owner, founded the Indy Racing League (IRL). In 1997, IRL took control of the Indianapolis 500 and established its own oval-based racing series. USAC’s reign as sanctioning body at the Speedway thus came to an end. Binford oversaw the transition to IRL with George.

News on the plane crash that killed 8 USAC officials in 1978. Credit: IndyStar View Source

USAC is governed by a nine-person board of directors and supplemented by various competition commissions and leadership roles. It continues to operate as a not-for-profit sanctioning organization that conducts a wide swath of automobile racing events annually. USAC’s role is to establish sets of rules and regulations at events for which its services have been retained by race organizers. Operating capital is derived from participant licensing and race organizer sanction fees.

USAC serves this role for land speed record attempts at the Bonneville (Utah) salt flats and other locations for the worldwide governing body, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile. The USAC Silver Crown Series is a national circuit of dirt races. It also sanctions the National Sprint Car Championship and the National Midget Championship.

While there is occasionally some confusion between USAC and the United States Auto Club, Motoring Division, Inc., the latter is in fact a multi-benefit automobile service organization for the general public. USAC licenses the Motoring Division, and its logo is similar in appearance.

Revised February 2021

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