INFINITI LEAVES THE DOLDRUMS
by Larry Roberts
April 30, 1999
In 1996 when Nissan/Infiniti first announced that it was entering the new Indy Racing League (IRL) program with a 4.0 liter V8 engine to power single-seat racers, the hype that accompanied it would have done justice to a Hollywood production. The multi-colored brochure expounded on the fact that the Southern California-based operation utilized 80 percent local enterprises to fill the hardware and technical needs of the project. It was California hot-rod technology come of age.
But at its introduction, there was one major flaw in Nissan's planning. The engine was overweight, underpowered and no match for the Oldsmobile Aurora-based V8 that was its competition. In its initial outings in 1997, it was obvious that the Infiniti engine was probably 70 to 80 pounds heavier than its General Motors opposition and down on power by as much as 50 horses. Infiniti then had the proverbial egg on its face.
In retrospect, it was fool-hardiness for Nissan to undertake the project without doing extensive homework. Oldsmobile and General Motors had considerable experience in keeping stock-block racing engines together and had entered the IRL program by supplying its individual independent client teams with the bits and pieces to assemble their own finished powerplants. This gave Oldsmobile the luxury of finding out from several unassociated sources what would work and what wouldn't. Finally, the Aurora-based engine was honed down to the point where it was reliable as well as powerful.
On the other hand, Nissan did all its research and development in-house, which narrowed its field of experience considerably. And in some cases, decisions were made for corporate political reasons rather than from a sound engineering standpoint.
After the Indy 500 of that year, the teams that were using the Infiniti engine switched over to Oldsmobile power one by one. It was a matter of survival. The only team that carried on was Crest Racing, which was partially financed by Jack Miller, a dentist who also did the driving chores. Miller's talents were OK, but not in the same league with the rest of the pros in the IRL.
To its credit, Nissan didn't give up on its IRL program and faced some bitter defeats over the past two years, but things may well be looking up for the beleaguered auto maker. Some of its recent credits include Roberto Guerrero, who made an astonishing show late last year when he lead the race at Texas Motor Speedway for 22 laps and finished fourth. In Round Two of the '99 IRL season at Phoenix International Raceway, Robbie Buhl drove his Dallara to an amazing third overall with Scott Harrington finishing fifth in a similar car. It was the first podium finish ever for an Infiniti-powered IRL racer. Now several other prominent teams have opted for Infiniti power, including last year's Indy 500 winner, Eddie Cheever.
The company is reported to be going back to the Memorial Day race with increased power and more reliability. It may not be enough to beat back the horde of Oldsmobile-powered cars but it's just possible that the egg-on-the-face situation that Infiniti suffered two years ago may well turn out to be a tasty California omelet after all.