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Olds Out, Chevy In At Indy

by Larry Roberts

June 11, 2001

Now that Oldsmobile as a brand name is about to take the Deep Six, the question auto racing fans may well be asking is "What name will be on the most-winning engine at the Indy 500?" Since the Indy Racing League (sanctioning body for the 500 and other oval track races around the country) formulated its "stock-block" engine formula in 1997, the Oldsmobile Aurora 4.0-liter V8 has been the class of the field with the exception of a single race. In that one, the winning the car was powered by a Nissan/Infiniti V8 that follows the same construction parameters.

But the decision has been made: next year, the Aurora engine will have the Chevrolet "bow-tie" logo on its cam covers despite the fact that the basic engine isn't used in any Chevrolet passenger cars.

IRL and General Motors spokespeople make much of the fact that Chevrolet has actually been on a hiatus from racing since it left the Indy car program in 1993. But those "Chevy" engines that dominated American big-time single-seater racing from 1988 to 1993 was actually designed and built by Ilmor Engineering of Northampton, England. Chevrolet bought the right to put its name on the spectacular turbocharged specially-constructed V8 engines and held it until 1993 when it stepped away. Ilmor marketed the engine under its own name for a year until 1995 at which time Mercedes-Benz became a shareholder in the company and the Mercedes name went on the units. For several years now, that engine has been a strong contender in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) international Champ Car racing, a second-level series that ranks just below Formula One Grand Prix events.

Now Mercedes has pulled its patronage of CART racing and Ilmor must once again sell its American-designated engines under its own name.

But things move fast in the world of big-time corporate auto racing. The "stock-block" concept of IRL racing that was to make the Indy 500 and other prestigious American races available to small-time teams and up-and-coming young American short-track drivers has been eroded over the past few years. Big money is back in and the front-runners are foreign.

Recently a major rule change has almost entirely changed the characteristics of the racing Aurora engine and it will be further altered for the 2002 IRL season. "The Chevrolet Indy Racing engine we will introduce next year will be significantly different from the current Oldsmobile IRL engine, with improved efficiency and higher output," said GM group manager Joe Negi. "This project will also accelerate our development program as we make the transition to the new IRL engine rules that will take effect in 2003."

The date coincides with the entry of Toyota into IRL racing, that company having recently announced that it is leaving CART racing in favor of the IRL program.

Oldsmobile seems to be dying a slow death on the race track as well as in the market place. As one last parting hurrah, an Oldsmobile was chosen as the pace car of the recent Indy 500. I'm not sure that the choice of a sport/utility vehicle was entirely appropriate but the most insidious aspect of it was that the Oldsmobile Bravada that was used was powered by a Chevrolet engine.