by Larry Roberts
April 7, 1997
After analyzing the first couple of races run under the new rules and specifications of the Indy Racing League, I'm very apprehensive about the upcoming Indy 500. It's only a couple of months away and the cars that are destined to make up the field have proven themselves to be unreliable and in short supply, to say the least. In the recent Phoenix 200, there were only nine cars running at the end and to make it worse, only 22 cars were on the line to take the starter's flag when the race started. But at that, it was an upgrade from the previous race a couple of weeks ago at the Walt Disney World mile track were only 19 cars made the grid.
With this in mind, consider the fact the Indy 500 has had 33 starters as long as most of us can remember.
Please don't misunderstand me. I have a lot of respect for IRL boss Tony George and his plan to make big-time racing affordable to smaller teams who don't have access to the multi-millions that large corporate sponsors throw at that elusive and fickle emotion known as spectator loyalty. In restricting the acceptable cars to two types of engines derived from production line 4.0 liter powerplants and excluding turbochargers, he has gone to bat for the little (relatively speaking) guy. He has made it possible for that all-American favorite, the underdog, working with a volunteer crew and living on beans, to overcome adversities and win "the big one." Jim Guthrie played out that Hollywood scenario when he took the checkered flag at Phoenix.
But the toll on equipment was pretty high in the Arizona sun. Fourteen of the Olds Aurora and Nissan Infiniti twin-cam, 32-valve V8s broke during the race week, eight of them during the race itself. And we can't blame the problems on the engine designers and builders. They had a little more than a year to get the engines off of the drawing boards and into the engine compartments. The folks at Nissan were so rushed that they weren't able to supply enough units to satisfy their customer's needs at Walt Disney World. The attrition rate there was also high and only half the field finished the race.
I often hear the Aurora and Infiniti V8s referred to as "stock-block" engines and that too makes me nervous, since I'm a bit on the superstitious side. The use of "stock-block" passenger car engines at Indy enjoyed a vogue during the Depression Days of the '30s and the results were not great. At that time, they were instrumental in filling up the field when it was feared that the economy wouldn't support full fields of "pure" race cars. It was a stop-gap measure.
But the new IRL field at the 1997 Indianapolis 500 won't have the luxury of filling the field with spear-carriers. They're the whole show and if 33 cars do make the grid in May, a third of them will have never turned a wheel in competition, since there are no IRL races between now and May 25th. Tony George seems adamant about not vitiating the field with cars other than those built to the new IRL specifications.
The "spec" cars themselves are new too, being produced by G Force of England (a company that has made race car components for many years but never completed rolling chassis) and Dallara of Italy which has made a reputation building championship-winning international Formula 3 cars. Riley & Scott are now delivering their own IRL car, the Mark V, and while they have had lots of success in World Sports Car racing, their single-seaters will enter the 500 unproven in competition.
Thirty years ago, the so-called "rear engine invasion" took place as British-built rear-engined cars started a trend that changed the course of Indy history. The day of the front-engined Indy Roadster was ending and in a few years, they were gone. But it was a gradual thing and the remaining dinosaurs filled out the field for a while. The IRL formula won't have that luxury and it's now on its own.
I hope that those spectators and enthusiasts who live for the Indianapolis 500 aren't in for a disappointment.