Three-Liter Blues?

Anne Proffit
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INDIANAPOLIS, April 8, 2004—

In the name of safety, the Indy Racing League is slowing its premier IndyCar Series cars by lowering the internal size of engines from the current 3.5 liters to an even 3-liter capacity.

Changes to the bottom end of Chevrolet/Cosworth, Honda and Toyota power mills are intended to reduce speeds—particularly here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—and stop the occurrences of flying cars that attacked the League last season.

While all but one aerobatic instance occurred when a car was either touched or ran over debris, the League believes it necessary to lower speeds and add stability to the cars it puts on varied tracks 16 times this season.

In the first on-circuit test of the 3-liter engines held Saturday, April 3rd on the Brickyard's flat 2.5-mile oval, two cars from Chevy, four each from Honda and Toyota worked to get baselines of performance for the new formula that takes over when IMS opens for practice. There will be an open test at the end of the month that all teams will attend to get their own feel for the veracity of the 3-liter modules and attendant aero changes.

Held on a cool and blustery spring day, the closed test met many of its objectives, allowing teams to try out different chassis adjustments and aerodynamic devices to discover what combinations worked on the historic oval.

While most hardcore race fans in the stands—no media were permitted in pits or paddock so we hung at the south terrace grandstands in front of the Speedway Museum —believe that slowing cars is an abomination and that "run what ya brung" variety should be restored to the 500, this didn't stop many from making a field trip for the day from Ohio, Michigan and even Phoenix.

Once the testing was done and numbers crunched, it appeared the Indy Racing League's ideas of how to lower speeds and still have the tight competition it's known for might have worked out pretty well after all.

Before leaving the track, Pennzoil Panther Racing co-owner Doug Boles explained that their Dallara/Chevrolet team with Tomas Scheckter at the controls had turned about 400 miles—in mostly long runs—and was pretty pleased with the way the car worked.

Panther Racing weren't searching for outright rapidity, a smart move as speeds were down into the mid-teens. Apparently nobody's going to come close to Helio Castroneves' MBNA pole-winning 231+ four laps from 2003's qualifying session. Top laps were in the low 217mph range—in the late afternoon with a tow.

Kelley Racing's Paul Harcus, whose leadership sets the demeanor for this IRL stalwart admitted the team, using Sarah Fisher's #39 Dallara/Toyota this day when Scott Sharp's two tubs were under intense preparation for departure to Twin Ring Motegi on Tuesday, didn't make too many changes to the car throughout the day.

"Scott said the car was more difficult to drive, which is what the IRL wants," Harcus noted. In addition to the engine modifications, the Indy Racing League ordered vertical wicker of about one-quarter inch in depth and also mandated a rounded underbody, both of these items devised to plant the cars better on the track, Harcus said.

Even so, he believes "if cars touch wheels they'll fly," but that's a consequence of action. "A single car airborne under these rules is far less likely," Harcus explained.

Kelley had two engines to try, but with both of the #8 Delphi cars being prepared to defend Sharp's 2003 victory on the 1.5-mile Japanese oval, they only used one. "We had no engine problems and really, we spent the day working slowly up to speed," normal for this type of exercise.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing had two cars on the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval, one for reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and the other for Briton Darren Manning, who joined the team following the death of Tony Renna in practice here ten days after the 2003 IIRL Chevy 500K season finale at Texas Motor Speedway October 12th.

Mike Hull is pretty positive about the changes wrought by IRL race operations. "This package looks good for the superspeedways," Hull advised. "I think the League was looking to restore aerodynamic balance" along with the internal engine changes that reduce displacement.

"I think it'll be more like 2000, the first time we came back to Indy," and subsequently won the race with Juan Pablo Montoya at the wheel of their Panoz G Force/Oldsmobile. In that 84th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, qualifying speeds topped out at 223mph and the race, although delayed by rain was completed within three hours.

Hull really thinks the Indy Racing League has "a strong commitment to make the right decisions. They'll listen to everyone but they are not influenced" in their choices. That kind of even-handed rules making is "great for a team like ours. The IRL has demonstrated it knows how to make the right decisions."

Dixon and Manning ran about 550 miles between them over the day's test, which was interrupted only for track inspections for debris, cut tires and for the occasional tow-in as drivers ran to empty their 30-gallon tanks of methanol.

Ed Carpenter wasn't in his #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet at Indy last Saturday; he was there to assist teammate Alex Barron's about 200 miles of testing. The Cheever transporter left the track about half an hour before the test was complete. "We had a list and we got it done with no hiccups," Carpenter detailed.

The 33-year-old Barron spent much of the morning getting the car ready for long runs in the afternoon and reported, just before the lunch break a car "really neutral with just a slight understeer," just what he wanted.

After lunch Barron was stringing together laps in the 42-second bracket when race control noted a strong brake smell and, at the same time Barron reported a sticky throttle, bringing him into the pits. Still, Carpenter said, "Alex didn't report any real difficulties out there" with the new package.

Andretti Green Racing had 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year Dan Wheldon and last year's "super sub" Bryan Herta on the track in their Dallara/Honda entries. Herta did the yeoman duty, racking up 420 miles in lots of long runs, reported engineering whiz Peter Gibbons, who recently joined AGR after a long stint with Newman/Haas Racing in CART.

Wheldon's job required about 250 miles as he worked the chassis settings more than did Herta, who focused on engine reliability. The newest chassis add-ons, Gibbons believes "are there in case the car gets sideways," which nobody on Saturday managed to do.

Other Honda drivers were in Panoz G Force chassis, as Buddy Rice brought Team Rahal's car out to the test and Greg Ray's Access Motorsports squad had their sole G Force car out on the circuit. Access used their 200-mile test to "work bugs out" of their car and find a good compromise for Ray, the 2000 Indy polesitter.

Rahal's current substitute driver, Buddy Rice summed up the experience for just about everyone: "I think we'll go faster when we come back here after the engineers work on the chassis and the manufacturers work on the motor."

Indy Racing League officials will have a bit of time to evaluate the data from this session—which racked up more than 3100 miles—prior to the open test set to take place April 27-28. Practice for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing begins May 9th; the race is May 30th.

From this vantage point, it sure looks like Brian Barnhart, Phil Casey & Co. rolled the dice and hit pay dirt again. The 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race ought to be safe, fast and fun.

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