Getting it right now more important than ever

IndyCar commentary — By on November 15, 2010 7:49 am

Those readers of More Front Wing who have followed me for very long will know that I am a huge fan of the history of open-wheel racing and get as much enjoyment talking about the sport’s past as I do talking about today’s stars and cars.  While it seems that I may be one of the few people who actually enjoys the look of the current IndyCar machine (at least in its high downforce configuration), I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the cars that raced at Indianapolis from 1988 through about 1997 or 1998.  (My fellow MFW contributor Bash will gladly tell the story of how I nearly wept at the sight of Nigel Mansell’s 1993 Newman/Haas Lola/Ford-Cosworth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum basement tour last year.)  You see, I first came to love the sport of IndyCar racing in those years, and it’s always what you start with that you eventually consider to be the iconic image of a race car.  My father attended his first race at Indianapolis in 1954.  If you ask him, he’ll tell you that a proper race car should look like the Pink Zink or the Belond Special.  A whole generation of fans that was introduced to the sport in the 1960s would likely tell you that the Watson Roadster is the epitome of the Indianapolis racing machine.  Those fans that were initially drawn to the spectacle of the Snake Pit in the 1970s will tell you that cars are supposed to look like a Gurney Eagle, a McLaren, or a Wildcat.  And then there is my generation.

My first year at Indianapolis, 1988, was the start of a new era in IndyCar racing.  Roger Penske had hired a race car designer away from Lola by the name of Nigel Bennet.  Bennet’s first creation for Penske was the PC-17 that won the pole and swept the front row at Indianapolis, won the race, and then won the CART PPG IndyCar World Series.  Powering these achievements was also a new player in town:  the new Chevrolet Indy V8.  Sure, the Chevrolet engine had been around for a couple of years, finding little success in 1986 and then suffering a gut-wrenching loss at Indianapolis in 1987 at the hands of Mario Andretti.  But in 1988, Chevrolet dominated the season and essentially kicked the old Cosworth DFX to the curb.  By 1989, anyone who wanted to be successful in IndyCar racing knew they had to have the Chevrolet power plant.  The “Bowtie” was on top of the racing world, and as an eight-year-old kid, I saw that Chevrolet was the essence of IndyCar racing.  Those memories are hard to lose.

Rick Mears took Chevrolet to the victory at Indianapolis in 1988. (Photo courtesy of IMS)

Rick Mears took Chevrolet to victory at Indianapolis in 1988. (Photo courtesy of IMS)

As the years progressed, the Chevrolet engine made winners out of drivers.  Arie Luyendyk and Scott Goodyear, among others, became race contenders immediately after getting Chevrolet power plants.  The speed was consistent regardless of which chassis it was put in.  Penske’s chassis in 1989, 1990, and 1991 continued to win races.  In 1990, Al Unser Jr. drove his Lola/Chevrolet to victory in the Michigan 500 at a speed of 189.727 mph, a record that still stands to this day as the fastest 500-mile race in history.

Within a few years, new challengers sought to take over Chevrolet’s position at the top, but the iconic American nameplate was not to relinquish the throne easily.  By 1992, Cosworth was back in the game, this time being badged as the Ford Cosworth XB.  Though smaller, lighter, and more powerful, reliability issues kept it from being a consistent winner.  Chevrolet fought back with its own updated engine, the Chevy Indy V8 B, relegating the four-year old classic to “A” status.  The older Chevy A model kept on winning, claiming victory at Indianapolis with Little Al in the closest finish in Indianapolis history as well as the 1992 IndyCar World Series with Bobby Rahal.  For 1993, Chevrolet was back with yet another update, the Indy V8 C, and walked away from Indianapolis with yet another victory.

Unfortunately, Chevrolet’s success was to end, and Chevrolet bowed out following the 1993 season (though Ilmor would continue on to design and produce the “Ilmor D” engine that powered Al Unser Jr. to his second IndyCar championship in 1994).

When the Indy Racing League debuted a normally aspirated engine formula for the 1997 season, GM decided to badge their engine as an Oldsmobile, presumably in an attempt to tie the performance of their race engines to the new Aurora sedan.  It wasn’t until 2002, when GM made the decision to phase out the Oldsmobile marquee, that Chevrolet returned to IndyCar racing, picking up where they left off and capturing the Indianapolis 500 and the IRL Championship.  The glory, however, was short-lived as Chevrolet was unable to match the spending levels of incoming Japanese engine makers Toyota and Honda.  Following the 2005 IndyCar season, Chevrolet finally bowed out, citing a lack of return on investment.

So, why do I think this little history lesson is important (other than the fact it gave me the chance to write about my favorite cars of all time)?  The reason is two-fold.  First, it emphasizes just how important the return of Chevrolet is to the IZOD IndyCar Series.  From a number of perspectives — the return of a once-dominant engine, the return of an American manufacturer, the return of manufacturer competition, etc. — Chevrolet’s return signifies another new era in IndyCar competition.  Even following the IRL/Champ Car unification of 2008, many wondered how long the merged series could exist.  Some speculated that the merger was too little too late, that the irreparable damage was already done, and that it was only a matter of time until American open-wheel racing as we know it would become but a footnote in racing history.

On the contrary, last week’s announcement proves that IndyCar racing is once again relevant and that manufacturers are again optimistic for the success of the IICS.

I also emphasize the history of Chevrolet in open-wheel racing because there is an important lesson to be learned about the need to control competition.  Between 1988 and 1991, there was no engine that was even close to competing with the Chevrolet — at least not one that could do so reliably.  Once Ford entered the race with Cosworth in 1992, the price of poker went up.  Suddenly, new engine designs became the norm almost annually.  The original 1992 Ford Cosworth XB was surplanted by the XD in 1996, then the XF in 2000, and then XF-E in 2003.  The GM/Ilmor engines were even more fickle with the first update coming in the form of 1992’s Chevy Indy V8 B, followed by the “C” in 1993, the Ilmor “D” in 1994, and the Mercedes in 1995.  None of these updates came cheaply, and budgets of the top teams spiraled out of control.  (Some rumors put the cost of competing at $12 million annually.)  Admittedly, it didn’t help that chassis manufacturers Lola and Reynard were also churning out new designs every year, but most of the support came from the engine manufacturers of the day — Chevrolet/Ilmor/Mercedes, Ford, Honda, and Toyota.  Within two years, Chevrolet went from being the dominant, must-have engine to getting out of the game because they could no longer afford to compete.

The team in charge of overseeing the future of the IICS competition (Tony Cotman, Brian Barnhart, and others) will need to ensure that the rules put in place for 2012 and beyond protect the manufacturers from themselves.  If the manufacturers are allowed once again to develop and implement at will, the era of competition will be short-lived and the IICS will revert back to being a spec series in no time at all.

Sam Hornish's IndyCar championship in 2002 would be the last for Chevrolet before leaving the IndyCar Series following the 2005 season (photo courtesy of IMS)

Sam Hornish's championship in 2002 would be the last for Chevrolet before leaving the IndyCar Series following the 2005 season. (photo courtesy of IMS)

I think that the Indy Racing League in its original form had a good development policy.  The original intent was for development to be frozen on three-year cycles.  The original equipment ran from 1997-1999, which was followed by the second-generation IRL cars from 2000-2002.  Unfortunately, in 2003, Honda and Toyota brought a new, much more expensive game.  By having factory teams that were privy to all the latest tricks and gimmicks, each manufacturer spent an obscene amount of money propping up a few high-level teams.  By 2006, when a new equipment cycle should have started, Chevrolet and Toyota decided they could no longer justify the amount of money required to keep up with Honda, and Honda was suddenly left as the sole supplier to the entire Series (a role, I might add, that they have filled very well).  Even worse, there were very few teams that could have afforded to purchase an entirely new set of equipment, so the decision was made to hold off on a new cycle.  With costs continuing to spiral out of control, teams to this day — eight years following its introduction — are still concerned about how to afford new equipment.

More than ever, it is critically imperative that the competition committee develop rules that encourage participation but shield the manufacturers (and teams) from costly development wars that drive expenses to unsustainable levels.  The reintroduction of Chevrolet into the open-wheel fold can be rightly seen as a mulligan for INDYCAR.  If the rules aren’t written correctly this time around, it’s hard to imagine INDYCAR getting another free pass.

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