This has been a lively week in American open-wheel motorsports.
In Michigan, GM Racing debuted its Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 in the ultra-capable hands of Sam Hornish Jr. and Pennzoil Panther Racing. Neither the power mill nor its delivery system skipped a beat as Hornish qualified fourth, ran first much of the way and lost by .0121 seconds to Alex Barron. It was great racing.
Please note that both drivers were born right here in the USA and both have an immense amount of talent. Hornish and Barron are veterans of the Toyota Atlantic series, which has been a primary supplier of driver talent for 30 years. Barron was Atlantic champion in 1997 and has driven for Toyota almost exclusively since that time, including a stint with Dan Gurney's All American Racers.
Hornish has said he will check out the crystal ball and figure out where to go and what to do for the next few years after spending the month of August thinkingand racing in three IndyCar Series events.
Reigning IRL champ Hornish has the world on his plate; he can do whatever he wants and go where he desires. Anyone who doubted the Defiance, OH native's talents after the past two seasons has no right to do so now: using the lousy Gen III Chevy Indy V8 engine, Hornish has managed to squeeze everything out of his package and run to the front when he truly had no chanceor right.
Few in the Indy Racing League paddock begrudged Hornish his return to the front of the pack. One vocal dissenter was Greg Ray, who drives for a team he helped to form and in which he is a partner. Ray's mount this season is a Panoz G Force chassis powered by a Honda engine.
Now, folks, just as Hornish's Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 has its genesis in the skunkworks of Cosworth Racing Ltd. in Northampton, UK, Ray's Honda comes from Ilmor Engines, those good folks who make Mercedes-Benz engines for Formula One.
Ray joined the IndyCar Series campaign at Twin Ring Motegi, the track owned by Honda, where the company still has not recorded an open wheel victory. The Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 made its debut near Michigan, home of General Motors after much debate on the validity of its roots. See a corollary?
Next week Buddy Rice gets to try out the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 per Indy Racing League rules. He'll be the only driver at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis to use the mill in the Emerson 250, forcing Hornish back into the Gen III.
As the Gateway 1.25-mile oval is pretty much a handling track, this week's test should aid Rice in learning how to get the Gen IV working. On and off the throttle a lot, with two differing ends of the track, the Gen IV might not be the savior it was for Hornish at Michigan. But we will see.
It's just strange that the Indy Racing League decrees only one driver will have benefit of this motor at each of these two events prior to every Chevrolet driver having that option in Kentucky for the Belterra Casino Indy 300 on August 17th. Why not get the feedback from having both Hornish and Rice using the Gen IV? That would appear to be a better test of the engine.
In other Indy Racing League news, chassis and engine makers were advised by the League to prepare their tubs and blocks for road/street racing configurations in the 2004 season. It isn't known at this time whether a road course will be on the 2004 IndyCar Series schedule, but Brian Barnhart wants to make sure the suppliers are ready for whatever happens, lessening financial intrusion should opportunity present itself.
One guy who doesn't want the League to change into a CART clone is Roger Penske, who expressed reservations prior to the Firestone Indy 400 last weekend in Michigan. It's taken a long time for the IRL to build its all-oval series fan base and competition, Penske noted, and to include a couple of road/street races would be okay, but not six or seven, he implied. That would take away from the expressed plan of the series.
On the other side of the border, CART held its second of three Canadian street/road races this past weekend, the Molson Indy Vancouver. Paul Tracy won the first event at Toronto two weeks earlier and came to Vancouver on a roll.
He also came under fire, after the sanctioningsorry, marketing organization fined the Champ Car titlist-in-waiting for his sartorial gaffes at Cleveland ($15,000 US for cut-off shorts!), something they've never done to Jimmy Vasser, whose clothing choices have been similar to Tracy's.
Tracy also has been miffed at certain competition calls at the hands of CART chief steward Chris Kneifel and his appointed flagger, J.D. Wilbur. Tracy was penalized at Portland for a contretemps with Michel Jourdain Jr. at the Festival Curvesa regular gathering place for carbon fiber, rubber and anger.
Tracy wondered at the late race caution in Toronto when he was leading by more than 30 seconds and the cause of said caution was swiftly removed from the racing surface. Was it a NASCAR yellow?
The outspoken Thrill from West Hill was also not amused when he was accused of blocking in Friday qualifying at Vancouver, had his fast time removed and had to regain top slot in final time trials the following daysomething he said he intended to do anyway, but not forcibly. The shit hit the fan after Tracy took his second consecutive Canadian pole position and he let loose with a verbal barrage that was heard from British Columbia to the Irish Hills of Michigan.
Tracy had things go his way in the 100-lap Vancouver race, being jumped before the start by Bruno Junqueira, who's been hounding the Canadian all season and will likely continue to do so until Fontana in November. Junqueira passed before the green came out and went on to lead for 21 laps before forced to cede to Tracy, who then ran away to a 17.820-second margin of victory.
Tracy has been a good spokesman for CART this yearand before nowand angering him manages to make him race stronger. He's stuck with Champ Car when he could have gone to the Indy Racing League because he believes in the series and because he finally has the ride of his life with Team Player's this year, before the cigarette maker has to bid adieu to motorsports marketing.
Paul Tracy holds a 20-point advantage on his Brazilian contender for CART's Vanderbilt Cup. Michel Jourdain Jr. lurks 36 points behind.
Three points separate the Indy Racing League's top drivers, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Gil de Ferran.
The question is whether policies and politics currently afflicting both series will excite or alienate their fan base. And that's a big question for both CART and the IRL to examine with care.