Politics & Alliances

Anne Proffit
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INDIANAPOLIS, March 25, 2004—

If anyone needed more proof that open wheel racing needs to unite once again to provide great racing around the North American continent, a look at the many recent changes to the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series grids is in order.

The Champ Car defections keep coming. And there's more to them than the simple idea that "business concerns" are weighing heavily on team owners. I believe that business concerns are a valid part of the recent decisions by Adrian Fernandez, Bobby Rahal—and this weekend by U.E. "Pat" Patrick to vacate the Champ Car World Series; I also think there are other pervasive rationales for the swaps.

The news of Team Rahal's decision to place his second front-line team in the Indy Racing League rather than with the Champ Car World Series came last Thursday afternoon via teleconference and press release. The plans had been leaked well before then, but the particulars needed explanation.

Rahal and partner David Letterman will have three Panoz G Force/Honda cars at the next IndyCar Series round in Japan, the better to help Honda achieve victory in the one race they've never won—at the company's Twin Ring Motegi 1.5-mile oval that was expressly built to show off Honda's oval expertise.

In five tries with Champ cars, Honda won zero times on its home track. Last year Scott Sharp took victory for Toyota at Twin Ring Motegi—even as Honda driver Kenny Brack (who won at Motegi in a Ford-powered CART car in 2001) came second in the IRL's first overseas race, wishing there might have been a couple more laps to achieve the win.

For 2004 Honda has upped the ante with the addition of Rahal's second full-time car (driver and sponsor yet to be announced) starting in Japan and a third Rahal car for Japanese/American driver Roger Yasukawa at Twin Ring Motegi and Indianapolis. Buddy Rice continues to drive the #15 Pioneer/Argent Mortgage entry in relief of Kenny Brack.

(Unfortunately, Michel Jourdain Jr. and Mexican sponsor Gigante will not be making the change to Indy Racing League competition. The duo decided to continue with the Champ Car World Series, in part because it offers two opportunities to race in Mexico. They now have the estimable job of finding the right team to campaign Jourdain, who looked to be on his way to the 2004 title with Rahal's outfit.)

Add to the fire the fact that Mexican opinion-maker/national sports hero Adrian Fernandez jumped ship from Champ Car the week before Rahal and will be running a Honda-powered Panoz G Force in his second IRL race at the same Japanese track where he won twice (again, with Ford power) and the whole story becomes a lot more clear.

Honda learned something from Toyota, which earned its sole Champ Car crown in 2002 with Cristiano da Matta and Newman/Haas Racing. The engine- and car-maker decided there was a better chance to achieve that title with more competent cars on the grid and proceeded to offer incentives to teams to join the Toyota family. Toyota was successful in its endeavors, locking Honda out of the CART driver's title for the first time since 1996.

Last year Honda came late to the Indy Racing League and results showed, even as Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta each gave the firm a victory over the 2003 season and Kanaan was in the title fight until being taken out in the final race by Helio Castroneves.

At that time, Honda had the three-car Andretti Green Racing ensemble wearing their colors, a single Rahal/Letterman entry for Brack, Yasukawa in a Super Aguri Fernandez Racing car and a single, late-arriving entry from Greg Ray, first to mate a Panoz G Force chassis to a Honda engine. Those teams/drivers competed the entire season.

There's racing success in numbers, which is why the Honda family is growing, with the addition of the second full-time Rahal/Letterman car, an entry for Fernandez and, who knows what other wheels will come out of the woodwork for Indy?

Every one of the three engine purveyor in the League must be able to supply teams entered in all 16 events, a ruling that is just and fair in decree, but in practice has a tendency to come out a bit different.

For instance, Chevrolet and partner Cosworth Racing don't have a goodly number of cars in competition this year: Panther Racing's two entries for Tomas Scheckter and Mark Taylor, Red Bull Cheever Racing's two American boys—Alex Barron and Ed Carpenter, and Robbie Buhl's Dreyer & Reinbold car.

Now Chevrolet adds a sixth Dallara/Chevy entry, starting at the Indy 500 for Mr. Patrick and Al Unser Jr. Citing contributions from Chevrolet during his Sunday press conference in Phoenix, Mr. Patrick never did name his new sponsor (having lost Visteon's backing from the 2003 CART season) but did say he'd have more to announce in that area "soon".

As for Toyota, the 2003 IRL engine champ has its new NASCAR Craftsman Truck competition to look forward to. There doesn't seem to be the same emphasis on Indy competition after winning the series and the 500 last year; it would be easy to imagine them pulling out of the open wheel arena as fortunes in tin-top racing advance.

If Toyota does go away—when it goes away?—Honda will follow, because they both pretty much exist to defeat their Japanese rivals.

In the meantime, there's competition between the three engine makers in IRL, the two chassis builders, and with the very high competence level of the current crop of teams, it all makes for interesting alliances, doesn't it?

Tony George and the Indy Racing League have opened the door wide to all interested parties. It appears that many are, indeed, very interested in competing on the IRL's terms.

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