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by Larry Roberts

March 12, 1999

One of the reasons that the NASCAR Winston Cup races are so popular is that there are three distinct brands competiting. Chevrolet, Ford and Pontiac fans can identify with "their" make and root for "their" favorites. This is true for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck races too, but in this case, Dodge fans have the opportunity to be part of the action.

The same could be true of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Champ Car series, except that in the case of these sophisticated and high tech single-seaters, they all look very much alike. Most owners of Hondas, Mercedes-Benz, Toyotas and Fords don't realize that these international giants will also be slugging it out this year on 20 tracks in five countries. At stake are bragging rights and product promotional advertising that they hope will help persuade buyers to line up in showrooms to buy their products.

But although all the engines used in Champ Car racers carry the logos of these four automakers, they are in no way related to those found under the hoods of cars available in showrooms. They're narrow- angle (around 60-degrees) turbocharged V8s that are designed to actually be a major structural part of the chassis. They all conform to an engine "formula" that regulates their displacement (2650 cubic centimeters) and the amount of "boost" pressure that the turbocharger is allowed to put out. Engine horsepower is greatly dependent on this pressure and in those rare cases of an on-track failure of the unit, the horsepower can instantly drop from its 800-plus horsepower to around 100 - just enough to limp back into the pits.

The engine makers are very protective of their designs and the proprietary technology that they've spent millions of dollars to develop. Although the engines that Ilmor builds for the CART teams now carry the Mercedes-Benz name, in the past Ilmor contracted out its racing engines to Chevrolet. Several years ago an Ilmor-Chevrolet engine found its way to Alfa Romeo's racing development department in Italy which, needless to say, upset the folks at Ilmor Engineering. This lead to the current universal practice of leasing out engines rather than selling them outright to their clients. This way the manufacturers always know where their products are at any given time.

While most of the engine makers are going with their engines of last year, Honda has developed an all-new unit for '99. That company won the CART manufacturer's title last year, winning 13 of the 19 Championship events, but has come out with its state-of-the-art HRS engine looking for lighter weight and increased economy.

Last year Mercedes fielded its all-new IC108C engine, but it had niggling problems that kept it from the winner's circle at all but two Champ Car events. This in spite of winning the title in '97. Mercedes has spent big money solving these bugs through its Phase 3 program.

Ford was rumored to be leaving the CART series but did an about-face last year and bought Cosworth Racing Engines, its long-time engine contractor, from BMW. That German company had acquired Cosworth through its purchase of Roll-Royce from the Vickers aircraft company of England last year. The Ford-Cosworth has undergone considerable reliability upgrading at the end of '98. The power was there, but drivers had trouble keeping that power on the pavement.

The dark-horse CART engine builder is Toyota. After four years of struggling with a myriad of difficulties, Toyota Racing Development believes its also-ran days are over and its current RV8D engine is able to keep Toyota Racing's pioneer All-American Eagle cars competitive as well as two other teams that have opted for Toyota power in '99.

The only way I can think of for you owners of Hondas, Mercedes', Fords and Toyotas to be able to become boosters for "your" Champ Car teams is to either watch the 20 races on TV or attend them in person. But you'll have to have a very big screen or take along binoculars. The engine maker's names are on those cars in very small letters.