INDYCAR engine woes have deep roots

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on May 17, 2012 1:19 pm

Much of the technical discussion that follows is sourced from a wonderfully composed, longer work on these subjects from the website 8W:

It’s time for a reality check.  It’s time for a history lesson.

I promise I’ll be back to my usual blissful May programming shortly, but for now I feel the need to build some understanding of how exactly INDYCAR and its predecessors ended up in the current engine predicament. Those who wish to ignore the Great Open-Wheel Civil War or don’t care to learn about the underlying circumstances that led to The Split may want to check out now.

To set the stage, let’s go back to 1989. After a very long and distinguished career as a car owner, Pat Patrick decided it was time to retire. As part of his succession plan, Patrick sold a portion of his team to former Patrick Racing driver Chip Ganassi.

At around the time Patrick was looking to wind down, long-time Patrick Racing sponsor Marlboro, who joined the team with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1984, wanted to take their money and driver to Team Penske.  A deal was struck between the three entities that would see Roger Penske supply brand new Penske PC-17s to Patrick Racing for the 1989 CART season, including the Indianapolis 500, and Marlboro and Fittipaldi would move to Team Penske starting in 1990.  Additionally, Penske would field a third car at Indianapolis — driven by four-time winner Al Unser, Sr. — in the Marlboro colors, making an odd situation where identically liveried cars were fielded by two separate teams.

Following the 1989 season, new owner Chip Ganassi was to receive the PC-17s that Patrick received from Penske.  He was also to inherit the contract for the team’s Chevrolet Indy V-8 engines, which was the most important piece of the equation at that time for fielding a competitive entry.

All was well until some point during the 1989 CART season when Patrick began to have second thoughts about getting out of racing.  Having already set in stone his business dealings with Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, and Marlboro, Patrick Racing would be forced to restart as a brand new operation if Patrick was to continue his career as a team owner.

As luck would have it, a new player was looking to enter the game.  Alfa Romeo, who had entered Indy car racing to great fanfare but lackluster results in 1989, was ready to overhaul its effort for 1990 and was looking for a factory team.  Patrick Racing seemed a perfect fit.

At some point after Patrick Racing and Alfa Romeo forged their alliance, one of the most controversial events in the modern history of Indy car racing went down.  Before he was required to return his Chevrolet engines to Ilmor (and some sources indicate this may even have happened after the date when the equipment should have been transferred to Chip Ganassi), Patrick shipped at least one of the engines to Italy to be broken down and examined by Alfa Romeo engineers in the hope that they could gain a better understanding of what their engine was lacking.  Obviously, this move was not well-received by Ilmor or the other manufacturers that were either already in Indy car or were looking to jump into the game.  Though the engineers at Alfa Romeo were still not able to produce a successful engine over the next two seasons, the die was cast and Indy car racing was in for a philosophical change that still resonates to this day.

In those days, engine deals were becoming more difficult and complex with each passing year.  While it was relatively easy to present a check to Cosworth and quickly get your hands on a Cosworth DFX engine, the technology was old and the engine was quickly becoming outdated.  By the late 1980s, it was obvious that a team had to have the Chevy Indy V-8 in its car to win.  Unfortunately, Chevrolet and Ilmor held close guard to the contracts and only made engines available to a select number of teams that the manufacturer felt could enhance the product and show off the capabilities of the engine.  By 1989, the teams given contracts included the likes of Team Penske, Patrick Racing, Galles Racing (which fielded Al Unser, Jr.) and Newman/Haas Racing (which fielded Mario and Michael Andretti). All other teams were saddled with the old, heavy, less powerful Cosworth DFX, with the exception of the Truesports team (which was running the Judd engine), Porsche, and a couple of small teams that attempted to use the stock block Buick engine.  Chevrolet teams won 13 of the 15 points-paying races in 1989, including the Indianapolis 500 and the CART PPG IndyCar World Series championship.

Shortly after Ilmor caught wind that Patrick had sent one of its engines to Alfa Romeo, the manufacturer responded with understandable furor.  A new policy was put in place that Ilmor would no longer sell engines outright to its customers —instead, teams would lease engines from Ilmor.  The engines would be sealed, and any team breaking the seal would face dire consequences.  This policy would stand going forward not only for Chevrolet and Ilmor but also for Ford-Cosworth, which was to enter Indy car racing in 1992, as well as Honda, Toyota, Mercedes, and all other manufacturers that have entered the sport in the past 22 years.

Through the mid- to late-1980s and the early part of the 1990s, it was becoming clear that technical innovation, at least in the realm of engines, was falling by the wayside and getting on board with the power manufacturers was the way to be successful.  The manufacturers, however, were more concerned with winning than broadening their customer base.  Ilmor wasn’t interested in supplying engines to one-off programs to run only the Indianapolis 500.  As such, it was nearly impossible for a team to be competitive if it a) wasn’t running the full CART season and b) didn’t have the financial resources to prove its solvency to Ilmor.  As far as Ilmor was concerned, — and Ford/Cosworth and Honda followed suit — whether the Indianapolis 500 had 33 starters was of little concern.  Supporting their own teams and giving the 24-26 full-time entrants the best chance to win, and hence take home all the money, was top priority.

The grip of the engine manufacturers over the teams was tight and continuing to grow stronger.  Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and USAC (which was at the time the sanctioning body of the Indianapolis 500 but not the remainder of the schedule) sought to maintain an open-engine policy and allow all competitors to participate on a somewhat equal playing field.  Additionally, to ensure that the Indianapolis 500 had 33 starters and that those one-off operations had a fighting chance, USAC allowed production-based pushrod engines 10 inches (of mercury) more boost — 55 inHg versus 45 inHg– than the bespoke engines the multimillion dollar full-season operations were using.

The most common of these engines was the Buick V6.  The altered regulations gave the Buick pushrod engines a tremendous horsepower advantage.  Unfortunately, the stresses of running that horsepower through a stock block proved to be more than the engine could handle.  Only twice, with Al Unser, Sr. at the wheel in 1992 and with Arie Luyendyk piloting in 1995, did the Buick V6 or its successor, the Menard V6, complete the entire 500-mile distance.

In an effort to diversify the field and allow more engine manufacturers to create an engine that would qualify for the 10-inch boost advantage, USAC removed the requirement that such an engine be production-based.  The hope was that creating a pushrod engine based on a purpose-built racing block would create the same horsepower output while significantly increasing the reliability.

For a few years, the rule lied dormant without anyone willing to devote the effort required to capitalize on the new, more lax regulation.  Then, 1993 happened.

In the wake of the many serious accidents in May 1992, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway underwent a massive facelift.  The most significant among the changes was the removal of the 10-foot warm-up apron that was on the inside of all four turns.  USAC had long tried to prevent drivers from using this part of the track as an extension of the racing surface, but years of inconsistent enforcement did little to keep drivers from turning the 60-foot wide turns into 70-foot wide turns.  As a result, many accidents were starting lower on the track, giving cars more time to rotate when losing control and often leading to vicious, head-on collisions with the outside walls.  Rookie Jovy Marcelo lost his life and several drivers, including Nelson Piquet, Mario Andretti, and Jeff Andretti, suffered debilitating foot and leg injuries from crashes in 1992.

By 1993, the apron was gone, and so was the second line that allowed the bulk of the passing through the turns.  A new breed of racing was formed that often required drivers to make passes on the long straightaways instead.  To make this happen, powerful engines were necessary that could quickly shoot out of turns 2 and 4 and complete a pass before getting to turns 1 and 3.  Though Penske Racing won the 1993 Indianapolis 500 with an updated version of the popular Chevrolet engine, the writing was on the wall that a new type of engine would be required if Penske wanted to remain on top.

This new type of racing was borne in the Mercedes 500I, the famous (or infamous) Penske 209 cubic inch, purpose-built pushrod engine that dominated the Month of May in 1994.  Though questions of its reliability lingered until the checkered flag flew over Al Unser, Jr.’s second Indianapolis victory, the power of this engine was on full display throughout the month, even when mated with a chassis that wasn’t as stable as the results would indicate.  It was clear that this engine was the next generation of power at Indianapolis.  Ilmor knew it.  USAC knew it, too.

Within days of the 1994 Indianapolis 500, USAC amended its rules to lessen the advantage the 500I had over the field.  By reducing the boost advantage from 10 to 7 inches, USAC felt the engine could still be utilized and would perhaps even maintain an advantage but would not be as dominant as it had been in 1994.  The ruling was expected by Ilmor, and while it wasn’t excited about losing the advantage, it graciously played along and looked forward to 1995 when more teams would have access to the engine.

Unfortunately for Ilmor, its own greed became its undoing.  The relationship between USAC and the CART teams and manufacturers was already tenuous.  Though many people talk of The Split starting in 1996, the real open-wheel split began in 1978 when CART was formed as a rebellion against USAC.  Many team owners in CART felt that too much emphasis was placed on the Indianapolis 500 and that USAC was not doing a good enough job of paying purses and promoting the remainder of the championship schedule.  After a few years of trying to come to a resolution of sorts, the two entities eventually settled into an agreement that saw CART sanction the majority of the top-level open-wheel championship season while USAC maintained control of the Indianapolis 500.  While the specifications were generally consistent between the two bodies, CART refused to allow the same turbocharger advantage for pushrod engines during the balance of the PPG IndyCar World Series schedule.  As such, engines that were developed to that specification were relevant at only one race every year:  the Indianapolis 500.

Of course, the Indianapolis 500 was still the race that teams wanted to win more than all the rest combined.  To give its teams the best chance at winning, Ilmor was planning to make the Mercedes 500I available to a select number of its teams in 1995.  (By this point, Chevrolet had departed following the 1993 season, and after running under the Ilmor name in 1994 the engines were to be badged by Mercedes-Benz in 1995.)  However, this new engine would come at a great cost for the teams.  Reports indicated that Ilmor was planning to charge its teams $1 million to use the engine during the Month of May in addition to the lease payments for the “standard” 2.65L engine used throughout the rest of the year.  USAC saw this maneuver as an engine company forcing teams (and only those teams it deemed worthy) to purchase an opportunity to win the Indianapolis 500.  This went against everything that USAC and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway wanted for the 500.  In response, USAC amended its rules again later that summer and reduced the allowed boost from 52 inches to 48 inches.  The advantage of the purpose-built pushrod was gone.

However, the damage was done.  Many people point to the 1994 Month of May as a pivotal moment in Indy car history and hold the Mercedes 500I up as a cause for the formation of the Indy Racing League.  In fact, the IRL had already been announced two months prior to the 1994 Indianapolis 500.  However, while the business dealings of Ilmor did not directly lead to the formation of the IRL, the fallout certainly gave justification to Tony George that something needed to be done to protect the Indianapolis 500 from interest beyond the control of the people at 16th and Georgetown.

Combining these stories together, it’s easy to see the current engine situation in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and the effect it has had on the Indianapolis 500, from both sides of the aisle.  The irony, of course, is that in making the Indianapolis 500 the centerpiece of the Indy Racing League and creating the League as a low-cost alternative to the tech-heavy, foreign-dominated CART series, the Indy Racing League locked down the engine formula to remove all innovation and variety, the very goal that USAC had tried to preserve throughout the years of equivalency formulae.  In turning the Indianapolis 500 over to the sanctioning body that conducts the other 15 races on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is in a difficult position where it can no longer create a separate set of technical rules to allow other manufacturers to create innovative designs.  The days of the Indy-only specials like the Buick/Menard V6 are gone and show no signs of returning.

The engine manufacturers today don’t appear to be as cutthroat as they were in the early 1990s.  Honda has bent over backwards over the past six years to ensure that the traditions and integrity of the Indianapolis 500 carry on.  After Toyota and Chevrolet bailed following the 2005 season, Honda stepped up to supply engines to every team in the Series, not because they wanted to be in that position but because INDYCAR needed them to be.

The 12-year war fundamentally changed Indy car racing as a sport, and trying to reclaim its lost glory isn’t nearly as simple as saying “Let’s turn the calendar back to 1995.”

Perhaps the biggest impediment to long-term growth of the Indianapolis 500 is that the race is now inherently linked to the IZOD IndyCar Series.  While it is certainly special and stands on its own, in many ways it is now just another race.  When the race was sanctioned by USAC and operated separately from CART, USAC was able to make a special set of rules that allowed entrants that weren’t season-long CART participants to be competitive.  It is much more difficult for INDYCAR to walk that line today.  Manufacturers not participating in the full IZOD IndyCar Series season are currently not allowed to make an engine specifically for Indianapolis.  It took INDYCAR the better part of three years to develop the current engine specifications, which are essentially uniform throughout the season.  Developing a completely different standard for the Month of May that allows other manufacturers to be competitive (if not giving them a bit of an advantage) would be a technical and — perhaps more importantly — a political nightmare.  Now that INDYCAR has linked the Indianapolis 500 with the Series that provides a vast majority of its entrants, they cannot unring that bell for now.

Unfortunately, for the Indianapolis 500 to retain its position in the Triple Crown of international races, INDYCAR really must find a way to consider such an option for the next engine cycle beginning in 2016. It must find a way to invite the best in the world to participate with a realistic chance of winning the race.  It must somehow create a separation from the powerful engine manufacturers that often control who gets the opportunity to run.

To their credit, both Honda and Chevrolet, along with their technical partners within INDYCAR, have done a commendable job this year of assuring that all participants receive equally powerful engines and that teams under their umbrellas are not being “tiered” into different engine categories.  Target Chip Ganassi Racing does not seem to be getting more powerful or more reliable engines than AJ Foyt Racing or Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.  That certainly hasn’t always been the case, and credit should be given where credit is due.

Unfortunately, the parity only exists within teams that have access to the engines.  Neither Honda nor Chevrolet was willing to make engines available to one-off teams this year at Indianapolis.  The story of Michael Shank Racing has been well-publicized and is a perfect example of teams being locked out by the engine manufacturers.  By all accounts, Shank appeared to have the funds to support an Indy-only effort, but he was unable to secure an engine deal because the manufacturers were unwilling to remove support from their full-season entrants to accommodate his team this month.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.

As the most recent INDYCAR era dawns today, the sanctioning body must already begin to look forward to its next technical era, currently slated to begin in 2016.  If luck is on INDYCAR’s side and its hard work pays off for the next several years, perhaps INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can begin to open up the rule book again for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.  Both entities must ensure that they learn from history, both good and bad, to understand what worked, what didn’t work, and how changes can to made to return the Indianapolis 500 to a career destination.  It won’t be an easy task, but with a solid foundation in place, all hope is not lost.