IRL FANS WANT ACTION!
This message is for died-in-the-wool Indy Racing League fans: do not give up hope.
Yes, your IndyCar Series has been invaded by two former CART engine makersToyota and Hondaand yes, they've brought along all their favorite teams and drivers for battle.
The die was cast, folks, when Marlboro Team Penske, Team Target and Mo Nunn Racing dipped their collective toes in the all-oval ocean last season.
When CART changed its modus operandi, the floodgates opened and now you've got, in addition to those teams, Honda's Super Aguri Fernandez Racing (nee Fernandez Racing), Team Rahal and Andretti Green Racing, the first two double-dipping with players in both Champ Car World Series and IndyCar Series competition.
But don't forget that Toyota was brazen in compelling Kelley Racing's two-car squad for Al Unser Jr. and Scott Sharp to come on board early in the engine feeding frenzy.
Toyota also collected the most stalwart of Indy Racing League owners, A.J. Foyt Jr.'s team at the last minute for A.J. Foyt IV in the #14 Conseco car. Foyt has a rotating selection of Shigeaki Hattori from Japan, Airton Dare of Brazil and the US's Jaques Lazier, currently driving his second #5 car.
Honda garnered start-up Access Motorsports a couple of races into the season. Access' opening salvo with Greg Ray came at Honda's own track, where the company still has zero open wheel victories, Twin Ring Motegi.
And then there's Chevrolet. Wherever there's been an Indy Racing event, Chevy has been there. The ads say, "Wherever there's a Winner's Circle, we'll be there" but in 2003, Chevrolet is zero for seven.
This dubious record has prompted quick calls for action, as it's no fun being a Chevy driver or team languishing at the rear of the pack. Remember, Chevrolet and, before them Oldsmobile powered all IRL champions. The world's largest automaker, General Motors can't live with that kind of put-down by Toyota and Honda.
Toyota, of course, has won all but one of the races held to date, including the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race; Honda has but one victory with Brazilian Tony Kanaan who leads the points lead in the season-long chase.
What is Chevrolet to do? A Gen 4 engine is in the works for Chevy and could be the proper fix.
For insurance, GM's largest division's motorsports group looked outside its corporate entity for assistance, going so far as to talkand workwith Cosworth Ltd., the wholly owned (by Ford) engine firm currently supplying all motors for the Champ Car series, in addition to Cosworth's front-line work in Formula One and World Rally Championship.
Strange bedfellows, perhaps, but this deal is not yet struck. Remember, Cosworth has a 3.5-liter aspirated engine, built for CART competition before that sanctioning body decided to stick with 2.65-liter turbocharged engines. Cosworth hasn't entered IndyCar Series competition despite the powerplant's approval by the League, lacking one important item: a brand name on the motor.
Nobody's talking about what will or will not happen, at least not today, but suffice to say Chevrolet will not stand pat for the final nine events of the 2003 IndyCar Series season.
It hasn't mattered much the last two races, both held on short ovals. Sam Hornish Jr., Indy Racing League champion over the last two years has managed to get his Dallara chassis handling well enough to push through the power deficit and run toward the front of the field, even as Toyota-powered Scott Dixon has won two in a row.
Hornish has been one of the bright lights for the IRL's staunch fans, providing the type of cut-and-thrust activity for which the series has been known.
For those who have forgotten, Hornish began his IRL career with PDM Racing in 2000, running eight races with a best finish of third (at Las Vegas) and was "discovered' by Pennzoil Panther Racing's John Barnes, who knew talent when he saw it.
This year, despite a boat anchor in his Dallara, Hornish has not given up hope as his finishes of fifth at Pikes Peak International Raceway on June 15th and fourth in last weekend's shortened night race at Richmond International Raceway will attest. Sam is still the bravest guy in the IndyCar Series paddock, a man who will pass high or low at any race track.
Unfortunately, he had pit problems at Richmond with one guy who has been trouble in the pits these last two races. Ordered out of the stall a wee bit early by Kevin Blanch on his first stop, Hornish collided with Felipe Giaffone and lost time, falling down to 14th at the 75-lap mark.
He also brushed the wallfor the second time in 24 hoursbut this hit didn't harm his car. The Pennzoil Panther crew had worked from 10AM Saturday morning until it was time to grid cars just before 7PM making repairs to Hornish's yellow car after he rode the Turn 4 wall to end final practice Friday night after qualifying fourth.
That ol' #4 magic at play, don't you think? Driving #4 he started fourth, hit the fourth turn wall, managed to finish fourth on guts, talent and savvy. That's Sam Hornish. He did test the Cosworth engine, by the way, but nobody's talking about it officially quite yet and we don't make suppositions here.
There was another feel-good story for Chevrolet at Richmond, but it only lasted two laps. Sarah Fisher placed the #23 GMAC/AOL Dallara/Chevrolet second on the grid, but she went out and plunked the car against the Turn 2 wall during final warm-up.
That was a bummer, forcing Fisher's crew to do the same yeoman duty as Hornish's. Their repairs didn't suit the driver as well as Hornish's and she faded into the way-back zone, the penultimate driver to finish the 206-lap contest, in 19th, six laps down.
Buddy Rice, too, has been coming on in the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy as the Arizona boy has taken two ninth place finishes in a row for his 12th consecutive finish in his 12th race. And Rice, never one to mince words, thinks some problems are not just engine-related.
The Indy Racing League changed chassis this year, requiring new Dallara or Panoz G Force tubs for everyone, necessitating a large learning and spending curve. Rice's team owner Eddie Cheever expended a good deal of time during pre-season and initial races putting emphasis on acquiring the former TWR engine facility in England and, perhaps, chassis work was neglected?
While the CART emigres might have a better handle on chassis development, the Indy Racing stalwarts are not standing still. There have been sufficient open tests for all to get their quacks in a row and it appears that tub parity is taking over.
If Chevrolet solves its power problems, the IndyCar Series of 2003 could start looking more like it did the last three or four years. And that, my friends, would be a very good thing. Millisecond finishes are the calling card of the League and, sorry Scott Dixon, that's what the fans come to see.
The more than 50,000 of them gathered at Richmond gave a few catcalls to Dixon, unchallenged for 206 laps. Unfortunately, the Kiwi wasn't about to slow down for their pleasure. He was there to win.