Business as Usual?

AVONDALE, AZ, February 11, 2004 — It’s business as usual for the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series here in the Valley of the Sun, marking the second of two pre-season tests as the League prepares for its upcoming 16-race 2004 season.

As befits its name, the area is — as it was yesterday — blessed with sunshine, warmth and the smell of methanol is thick in the air. While there are 19 cars and drivers on hand for the test at recently reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway, the one-mile oval known for producing exciting contests, there are some issues in the IndyCar Series paddock.

Although he did not test at Homestead-Miami Speedway late last month, Greg Ray and Access Motorsports are here; the pit box is fully set up, Ray has contracted with Red Bull scholar Matt Jaskol of nearby Las Vegas to be his spotter, but there is no sponsor name on the pit equipment and Ray is, according to Honda Performance Development higher-ups, “day to day with us.”

When Michael Andretti made the statement a few weeks back that he “wished CART would fade away,” he was speaking for many in the IRL ranks who would prefer to see a single series operating open wheel racing. Judge Frank J. Otte disagreed with those sentiments, giving the Champ Car World Series a second chance. That’s what the bankruptcy court is there for, he stated. Second chances.

Of course there is disappointment in this paddock and who could forgive the IRL regulars who once worked in CART for feeling sadness that they won’t – in the near future anyway – be racing at places like Long Beach, Road America, Toronto, Mexico City, et al? But now it’s time to move on.

A larger quandary though, is the question of engines that power the IndyCar Series cars. Over the past week or so, there’s been some discussion about the chance that engine makers Honda, Toyota and Chevrolet/Cosworth might not have sufficient mills to handle the need once the Indy Racing League’s top series arrives back home again in Indianapolis.

Following its second road trip to Twin Ring Motegi in Japan April 18th, all Indy cars must be fitted with new three-liter engines, replacing the 3.5-liter formula that has been in use since the second generation of rules began for the 2000-2002 time frame.

Brian Barnhart, the League’s senior vice president of racing operations announced late last year that the engine size would be decreased in the interest of tighter racing and safety. As the speeds go up, of course, the ability to keep everyone safe goes down. That’s the nature of the beast.

Toyota engines are made in two places: TRD in Costa Mesa, CA and at the Penske Racing shops in Reading, PA. Honda mills are produced at HPD in Santa Clarita, CA and the Ilmor shops in Michigan. The Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 has been engineered in the UK, built by Cosworth in Torrance and by Speedway Engines in Indy.

While it’s a bit too early to say the sky is falling, Chicken Little might have a point. Lee White of TRD has said all along he is a major supporter of the 3-liter formula, yet the logistics of getting a suitable number of power mills available to service however many teams apply to use an engine could be difficult.

TRD’s White is very much aware of the supply-and-demand dilemma with engines and has said all along, “We came into the year planning to supply as many engines as we did last year [14] at Indy.” The only problem would be if teams did not get their plans together within a sufficient period of time. If teams wait too long, another “given” in motorsports, it would create a parts supply logistical crisis.

According to one HPD official, who spoke on the subject only because he was granted anonymity, Honda’s prime thrust at this time is winning at Twin Ring Motegi, the multi-million dollar 1.5-mile oval facility it carved from a Japanese hilltop for the supreme purpose of showcasing its American racing muscle.

Suffice to say that, going into the 2004 season, Honda has yet to win an oval race in either Champ Car or Indy Racing at its own track and that is a priority. A really big priority.

How many three-liter engines has Honda built to date for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in May and beyond to the following 13 IRL IndyCar Series events? The number is zero. Development of the current 3.5-liter formula is ongoing for HPD, even as they wait for suppliers to produce the bits and pieces necessary for the new engine it will utilize when practice opens at Indy the first Saturday in May.

In the Chevrolet camp, no 3-liter engines have run on the dyno yet either, but Joe Negri, GM Racing’s IRL program manager feels confident, as development continues on both the 3.5- and 3-liter mills, that Chevrolet and partner Cosworth in the UK can supply the same number of engines it did at Indy in 2003. Last year Chevy had ten cars in the field.

“At this point,” Negri reminded, “the Indy Racing League hasn’t revealed the aero package for Indy and beyond.” The decrease in engine size is accomplished with “just a shorter stroke,” he said. The new Chevy engine will use the same pistons as the current iteration. The real dilemma for Negri, as well as his compatriots at Toyota and Honda is to optimize their packages, which requires a great deal of analysis and simulation.

“When you take 100 horsepower out, you don’t really know if it’s enough to slow the cars. The IRL does have the option to open the slit,” an airbox aperture the League decreed for the first three races of the year to help slow cars while engine makers beavered ahead on their new mills.

So this year’s IndyCar Series is actually two campaigns: one before the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and one that commences with Indy. The engine maker who best responds to the changes dictated by Barnhart and his rules edicts will be the winners. And so will we, the fans, because the intrigue of the engine makers’ battles to put their best package on the track, before and after the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will give us more interesting stories to follow and watch.

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