The Indianapolis 450

American Driver

A few years ago, we had dinner with Tony George in an Italian restaurant not far from the Automobile Magazine offices. Tony was in the process of launching the Indy Racing League, and he was on the muscle. He was sick of being treated like a kid by people like Roger Penske. He was sick of being pushed around. He was sick of foreign drivers. He was sick of street circuits like Long Beach, and he was sick of airport circuits like Cleveland, and, though the jury was still out on road circuits, he was clearly leaning toward speedways and superspeedways.

He was going to show the world just how important the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was, and he was going to create a racing series that was “American” in its purest and most classic form. The IRL would be tailor-made for the aspirations of all those fine young American racing drivers then working their way up from local bullrings and super-modified races. Well, as of the 2004 running of the Indianapolis 500, it appears that he was about half right.

There were three fine young Americans and twelve foreign-born drivers in the first five rows on the starting grid at Indy this year. In the last six rows, Americans outnumbered foreigners fifteen to three. One of the Americans, Buddy Rice, won from the pole position and seemed to dominate the field with ease. He drove for Bobby Rahal, the 500 winner in 1986 and one of the wisest men in modern motorsports. You may recall that Rahal briefly ran Ford’s Jaguar Formula 1 team, got fired, and subsequently has done better than either Ford or the terminally lame Jaguar racing circus. Just imagine how many Jaguars Ford might sell if it killed the feckless F1 program and spent all those hundreds of millions of dollars on personal visits to Jaguar prospects by senior Ford executives and Ford family members.

I have come to a conclusion about the vivid presence of Latino drivers in the field. There aren’t really all that many South Americans, but their bouncy good humor and wide grins make them seem somehow omnipresent. To no one’s surprise, the whole field of drivers in this year’s 500 is far more colorful and interesting than the original band of Americans who filled out Tony George’s early 500 fields. And the Brazilians have become the most interesting guys sitting in racing cars anywhere on the planet. Their spirit of fun is infectious, and they lighten things up for everybody, regardless of nationality. Happily, Rice is cut from similar cloth. He’s less sophisticated than the Brazilians, but sophistication comes with winning at Indy. Unless your name is A. J. Foyt, and then you just find other ways to entertain the crowds.

Tony George has three things going for him. First is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the two (with Le Mans) most important and best-known racing venues in the world. Second is the presence in the Indy pits of former CART teams fielded by men like Rahal, Penske, Chip Ganassi, and Michael Andretti. And third is access to his family’s apparently endless revenue stream.

But there’s also a fourth important factor working for Tony, and that would be the IRL’s new three-liter V-8 engine formula, expressed to perfection by Honda’s engineers. Eight of the top ten finishers were Honda-powered, and they were the class of the field. It seems only a few weeks ago that the Cosworth Chevrolet was the engine to beat, and now-once again-Honda has identified a universe with interesting possibilities and has set out to dominate it.

Today’s rules for Indy engines decree that the three-liter V-8 engine will have thirty-two valves and double overhead camshafts and will be normally aspirated, limited to 10,300 rpm, and running on methanol. The 3.66-inch bore measurement from the previous formula is retained in the three-liter engine, reducing the new engine’s stroke to 2.17 inches. No compressed air or other exotic valve actuation is allowed. All teams appeared to be running “flat” (180-degree) crankshafts. This configuration effectively turns a V-8 into two four-cylinder engines and explains why the engines don’t sound like V-8s. The mandated minimum engine weight is 280 pounds (dry) without filters, headers, clutch, or electronics. The cylinder block and the cam covers are stressed chassis members. Fuel economy amounts to 1.3 gallons per lap, which works out to about 2 mpg. Horsepower is somewhere between 650 and 700. It was no great surprise that the Honda version of the IRL-mandated three-liter engine overwhelmed the Cosworth Chevy, which started life as a Cosworth Ford, but it was somewhat startling to see the Toyotas out of the hunt.

The race had plenty of passing and lead changes and was generally an exciting contest, even with the interminable rain delays. Now, if they want to make this a truly great race and return the driver to his rightful place as hero, all they need to do is fit narrower tires and eliminate aerodynamic downforce.

BY GEORGE Buddy Rice wins the Indy 500 (far left); IRL chief Tony George wins friends, such as actor Morgan Freeman (left).