Motorsports

OLDSMOBILE, NISSAN RACE ENGINES TO CHANGE

by Larry Roberts

November 21, 1998

The ongoing struggle to control American big-time open-wheel racing has gone into another phase and this time to major factor affects both the Oldsmobile and Infiniti racing programs.

You might remember that a few years ago, Tony George, scion of the Hulman family that has owned the Indianapolis Speedway track since the end of World War II, decided that Roger Penske and his group of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) owners were taking control of the track away from the family. George also felt that CART cars and their spiraling costs were veering away from what he perceived as the purpose of Indy car racing: a goal which up-and-coming but less notable stars of the American short-tracks could strive towards. It would mean recognition and entry into The Big Time.

In pursuing this end, George got into a jurisdictional dispute with CART, tossed them out of the Indy 500 and set up his own Indy Racing League (IRL) with its own rules, regulations and most importantly, a new "spec" race car design. After its first year of existence, an IRL car had to be one of three chassis designs and powered by one of two ostensibly stock-block four liter engines, the Oldsmobile Aurora or the Infiniti (Nissan) Q45. Both powerplants are 90 degree V8s with chain-driven camshafts and no turbochargers.

Besides the Indianapolis 500 race, George lined up a schedule that included races on other big paved oval tracks around the country.

The first year was disastrous for many of the new teams. Inexperienced drivers produced a plethora of crashes, the tracks were strewn with blown engines and there was even a televised fist fight between the feisty A.J. Foyt and former Indy 500 winner, Arie Luyendyk. The Oldsmobile engine was a success but the Nissan/Infiniti was so far down on power and so unreliable that by the end of this season, only two Infiniti-powered cars were in the IRL chase and they are both back- markers.

I truly think that George and the IRL expected several other auto manufacturers to enter into the IRL series with production-based engines of their own. It was thought that BMW might come on board, since it has a V8 that would fit the formula. There were a couple of other European marques that were in a position to compete, but most expressed little, if any, interest. The Mercedes-Benz motorsports contact that I was finally able to talk to gave me a terse "not interested."

It's universally agreed that the schism between CART and the IRL is a bad thing: bad because it splits up sponsorship money; bad because it keeps CART drivers (arguably the best drivers in the U.S) out of the prestigious Indy 500; bad because it divides spectator loyalty; bad because it detracts from the TV appeal of both. At the last IRL race of the season at the 1.5 mile oval at Las Vegas, the stands were only a third filled and exactly half of the 28 cars entered failed to finish.

Change may be in the wind, however. Recently we received a fax from the public relations manager of the Indianapolis-based IRL. It states that for the five years between 2000 and 2004, the engine displacement of IRL race cars has been reduced from 4.0 liters to 3.5, a change relatively easily made by modifying the current Oldsmobile and Infiniti engines. In addition, newly-built engines need no longer be based on production car engines, but still must be submitted by an auto manufacturer. This should make the cars more reliable and less temperamental.

But the most interesting item came in the last line of the communique. "I have sent the details to CART for consideration for their new engine formula," said Leo Mehl, executive director of the IRL. Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Honda are already involved in CART racing.

In that one line, I see a small but important olive branch being extended.

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