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Motor Sports


by Larry Roberts

September 19, 1997

Of all the major players in the ongoing saga of the beleaguered Indy Racing League, the only entity that has come out above par is Oldsmobile. That 100 year-old automaker has become the primary (and almost only) supplier of engines to the teams that will challenge the checkered flag at the Indianapolis 500 next Memorial Day weekend.

The IRL, as it's known, is a relatively new organization that was ostensibly formed to make American "big time" racing more affordable. Indy-type championship single seater racing under the aegis of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) had become incredibly expensive with international teams that were fielding cars that cost up to a half-million dollars apiece. CART was also developing an "international" flavor with the majority of drivers being foreign-born and many of its races held outside the U.S.

Indianapolis track owner Tony George (son of former Indy car driver Elmer George) unilaterally decided that to bring things under control, he would have to form a new organization (the IRL), design a new "formula," and limit the chassis to be used to only those approved by the IRL. Also, only "production-based" V8 engines that were developed from 4.0 liter passenger car engines would be permitted to run.

Only two chassis were OK'd by the IRL, and contrary to Tony George's credo that the new IRL would be an all-American effort, the only chassis builders to be accepted were Dallara (Italian) and G Force (British). However, the Indianapolis-based Riley & Scott company is reported to be coming on line with an American-made chassis, but it may take some time before its customers can take delivery.

The same can't be said for the IRL powerplant of choice. OLdsmobile got into the IRL business early on (many say that it was tipped off in advance) and devoted considerable time, money and resources to the development of a made-for-racing twin-cam, four-valve, 4.0 liter, 90-degree V8 engine that is loosely based on the current Olds Aurora passenger car engine. As expected, there were multiple engine failures during early IRL races (somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 percent), but by sheer weight of numbers, the Olds Aurora IRL engine has dominated the series almost exclusively.

The key word here is "almost." Nissan was a late-comer (by about a year) into the IRL poker game with its own version of a twin-cam, four valve, 4.0 liter, 90-degree V8 engine. Based on its Infiniti Q45 powerplant, the Nissan IRL powerplant was built from scratch in Southern California and whether by design (possibly a poor one) or by circumstance (Nissan is reported to not be behind the project 100 percent), the Infiniti engine has been an almost total failure. It started its competitive life tucked into nearly a third of the two dozen IRL racers, but one by one, those early customers have dropped out of the Nissan program and opted for Oldsmobile power. Today, only one IRL car carries an Infiniti engine, and it is driven by a semi-pro whose "day job" is dentistry. Time will tell if Nissan will stay in the game for long, and as yet no other automaker has shown an interest.

So far, Tony George and his band of stalwarts have been relatively true to their pledge of financial conservatism. For the most part, IRL drivers are Americans who may be stars in their own fields (midgets, sprint cars, etc.) but are not racing's superstars. IRL races have only been held on ovals ("...where American racing began!" according to IRL publicity), and some have even been held at night under stadium lights.

The lack of star-status has been an IRL drawback in several ways. Without recognizable names, TV coverage has been spotty and major sponsors have been slow to sign up. Worst of all, no corporate entity has come forward with primary sponsorship like Winston has for the NASCAR Winston Cup series.

But the folks at Oldsmobile are obviously happy. If all the cars in the '98 Indy 500 are powered by an Oldsmobile engine, they can't lose.