IRL and GM need each other

LAS VEGAS, November 2, 2004 – Here in the city that never sleeps the annual SEMA show is taking place and, for the most part taking over the town, with eye candy for anyone who loves things mobile.

Motor sport plays a large part in the SEMA show, held since 1967 (at Dodger Stadium the first time round) and there are plenty of racing cars and stars here in Las Vegas for the occasion. Three generations of Andretti family racing members are on-site to sign autographs for Bridgestone/Firestone USA and talk about their programs past, present and future; you can’t turn a corner without running into racers looking for jobs and/or celebrating championships.

This morning Doug Duchardt, director of GM Racing talked about the automotive giant’s future motorsports programs, which include advanced participation in the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series. Grand Am celebrated the end of its 2004 season with a banquet that felt almost like old times with its convivial un-banquet-like nature last night at Caesar’s Palace, one day after the series completed its multi-faceted season.

Duchardt, talking about the sports car emphasis his large company intends to utilize over the next few years also spoke a little bit about Chevrolet‘s current Indy Racing League IndyCar Series contract with Cosworth Racing that is set through the 2005 season.

In the rumor mill over the past week, there’s been talk about Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven buying the assets of UK-based Cosworth, recently put up for sale by current owner Ford Motor Co., which is also divesting itself of Jaguar Racing, the lackluster F1 group it acquired (inherited?) from Stewart Grand Prix.

Jaguar, of course, hasn’t done much since Jackie Stewart left but then, neither has Cosworth performed as well as expected in Formula One, if one discounts the “win” by Giancarlo Fisichella at Brazil last year, which he was awarded post-race after a rather messy competition.

Kalkhoven, together with most operatives in Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford are adamantly against any affiliation with the Indy Racing League programs. Duchardt believes any buyer of Cosworth will honor the contract in place with Chevrolet and GM Racing, but I’m not so sure.

The folks working with Champ Car are going out of their way to quash IRL and want nothing to do with anyone in that arena. They’ve banished people who choose (or must) work both sides of the fence; snide remarks by team members pretty much shocked me when I attended the Champ Car race here in Vegas this September.

Even if the affiliation does continue between Cosworth and GM Racing, it’s evident the IRL IndyCar Series GM teams have their work cut out for them. Even as Honda and Toyota, new entries in the 2003 season came and conquered, Toyota last year and Honda in 2004, Chevrolet had some bright points.

Unfortunately all of Chevy’s good IRL karma went away when Sam Hornish Jr. left Panther Racing and the GM family and went to Toyota-based Marlboro Team Penske. Sure, Sam won the season opener and teammate Helio Castroneves scored the 2004 closer with Toyota power, but that was, effectively it for them. Hardly anyone else came close and 2003 champ Scott Dixon had a single podium visit at Phoenix, race #2.

That doesn’t bode too well for Chevy next year, unless the folks at GM Racing intend to kick up the dollar and manpower figures they commit to open wheel racing, together with their stated aim to succeed in sports cars.

Duchardt admitted that most of the successful Honda teams and Toyota competitors received their power mills without having to contribute to the engine makers’ bottom lines. He didn’t want to talk about GM’s financial contributions, but it’s obvious they weren’t as strong.

That idea paid off for Honda with 14 victories – including three in five races for IndyCar Series newcomer Adrian Fernandez, who came kicking and screaming to the IRL family but felt much more at home once the season moved along. Call it relationship building, which is something GM Racing needs to do if it intends to be successful in IndyCar Series competition as it once was.

Of course when GM was thriving in IndyCar Series racing, its sole competition came from Nissan‘s Infiniti house of cards that fell away after 2002. Then GM had it their way, selling parts to racers who would then contract for others to build their mills. It was a much simpler time, even two seasons ago and one that, thanks to the insurrection of Honda and Toyota won’t happen again.

Bringing in engine leasing rather than buying, an original tenet on which the IRL was constructed, the two Japanese manufacturers continued programs they’d used in the former CART series, resurrected this year as Champ Car. Is this theory working?

For the folks from Honda and Toyota it works pretty well but for the balance of GM entities the same doesn’t hold true. While Hornish took Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 to Victory Lane toward the end of last year, nobody stepped up to continue that winning tradition in 2004. Tomas Scheckter and Panther Racing tried, but with the black cloud that follows Scheckter he was unable to even finish most races, much less win them.

Alex Barron managed a third place result at the first Texas race in June, not to be heard from again for the balance of the season. And that was just race #5!

Knowledgeable people from Cosworth Inc. in Torrance note the teams contracted to GM Racing just didn’t have the resources to succeed. They didn’t have the best engineers, the best crewmembers, the best teams and drivers. It just wasn’t there.

And therein lies the quandary for GM Racing, Doug Duchardt and the Indy Racing League. To have balanced racing, one must weigh the haves versus have-nots a bit better than has occurred over the past two campaigns.

It behooves IRL senior vice president of racing operations Brian Barnhart to consider the possible loss of GM and what it would mean to the racing fans that support both the series and the manufacturer. GM may be larger than life but it’s obviously not big enough to beat two Japanese engine makers that live to defeat one another. And that’s a big ol’ shame, isn’t it?

I hope Duchardt and Barnhart get the opportunity to sit down and figure this whole mess out during the winter. I also hope the purse strings get sufficiently loosened to allow GM to purchase of manpower sufficient to get back in the win column. Competition drove GM to invest in NASCAR; it’s driving the General to put money behind Grand American road racing.

The three or four hundred thousand remaining American open wheel racing fans hope General Motors will see fit to continue its Indy Racing League program to fruition, with or without Cosworth Racing. Taking it on the chin from the Far East doesn’t cut it. Not now; not ever.

Addendum: Doesn’t it figure? One day after I pen this piece, GM announces it’s pulling out of IRL IndyCar Series competition after 2005 because it doesn’t make good business sense. What a darn shame, eh?

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