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Ford, Honda, Toyota at Swords Points

by Larry Roberts

July 9, 2001

There was a time within living memory when open-wheel auto racing was a sport and not a venue for corporate promotion and avarice. The drivers were free agents, the engine builders sold their products to rich car owners who bought their chassis from small shops in Los Angeles.

It was a close-knit society and legal activity was non-existent. Drivers like Bob Veith and Elmer George could show up at the track, helmet in hand, early in May without a "ride" and eventually find one by Memorial Day.

But those days are over and nothing proves it so much as the legal problems that have risen over a small piece of engine equipment that stands less than an inch high. And the litigants are some of the most prestigious heavy-hitters in the business world; Ford, Honda and Toyota.

Technically, the center of the legal confrontation is a device that raises the supercharger "pop-off" valve of a CART racing engine three-quarters of and inch above its intake manifold. As it's name implies, a pop-off valve opens at a predetermined pressure, bleeds-off some supercharger pressure and supposedly keeps the engine power at a predetermined level. The higher the pressure, the higher the horsepower.

The problem arose when CART technical officials believed that Ford and Honda technicians had found ways to "fool" their pop-off valves into delaying their openings and thus raising their horsepower by as much as 100. CART mandated the installation of the disputed pop-off valve extender on the first day of practice at the Detroit race and both Ford and Honda felt that they had insufficient time to reengineer their engines to compensate for the change for the next series of races.

But then things really got nasty. Both Ford and Honda felt that Toyota had brought up the "riser" issue to CART and had advance notice of the change. This lead to unproven charges that CART officials had colluded with Toyota to raise that engine maker's competitive level by giving them enough lead-time to implement advantageous engine changes.

And that's when legal action came into play. Honda Performance Development protested the short notice involving the implementation of the device to a CART board of inquiry and its request was turned down. Honda then went to a three-judge appellate panel and after an all-day hearing, the panel voted to hold off the mandated use of the riser until early in August.

None of the affected parties are happy. Toyota is unhappy because it would have to go back to square one and give up its perceived technical advantage. Ford and Honda are upset with the way the change was announced, claiming it was actually a rule change made without the prescribed prior notice time.

Lastly, CART officials are no doubt unhappy since the legal brouhaha is another black eye for the organization, a black eye that looks bad to Wall Street investors as well as racing fans.

The days of professional auto racing as a true sport are over and more's the pity. But I'm glad that I was around for those wild, imperfect, but exciting days of a half-century ago. We'll never see them again.