What I Meant To Say…

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In normal face-to-face conversations, I’ve always been accused of being brutally frank and straight to the point – at least, that’s what my ex-wife always said. Apparently, that trait of mine didn’t transfer to my long-winded blathering on this site. I say that because based on some of the comments I saw from this past Monday’s post, I don’t think I made my point clear on engine failures.

Although I meant to address this sooner, decency dictated that I pay homage to Roy Hobbson’s departure from The Silent Pagoda on Wednesday. Now that I’ve done the decent thing, it’s time to get back to the issues of the day – new engines for 2012. Now that Lotus has announced their own intentions, the future looks even brighter than it already did just a couple of days ago. But before we look too far ahead at how Lotus will change the game – more on that next week – I feel the need to go back a few days.

I probably could have chosen my words more carefully on Monday when I said that I welcome engine failures when Chevrolet, and now Lotus, enter competition with Honda in 2012. It seems that some took that to mean I want to see engines blow up for no reason and rob deserving drivers of a win. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When the Oldsmobile and Infiniti engines first debuted in 1997, they were blowing up right and left. It was almost comical. I got no thrill out of that because I felt like we were just watching inferior equipment break down. These were not high-tech engines that were pushing the threshold in search of another tenth of a second. It was just cheap equipment that fell apart regularly. That made for bad racing.

I did point out that there have been virtually no engine failures since 2006, when Honda became the sole engine supplier to the IZOD IndyCar Series. The reason for that is not because Honda suddenly started building bulletproof engines. Instead, it’s because Honda detuned the engine since there was no competition. Why would they run their engines on the ragged edge just to beat themselves? They shouldn’t. It was smart business on Honda’s part.

But the game has changed now that Honda has competition. All competitors will have to take chances, or else they will be playing catch-up. Don’t assume that Honda will have the upper-hand, simply because they have been supplying engines since 2003. The current Honda engine is built by Ilmor Engineering, who will be building the Chevy engine in 2012. Honda will be building their new engine in-house at HPD (Honda Performance Development). Proven engine builder Cosworth will presumably furnish the Lotus engine, although that wasn’t confirmed in Thursday’s announcent. I think it is debatable whether any company will have an advantage out of the gate in 2012.

The point I was trying to make was that the competition would force each manufacturer to take chances. The risk-reward will be how far to go. One reader correctly pointed out on Monday that watching Honda engines race without the possibility of any mechanical problems has removed any on-track drama. The reader went on to point out that the result was a collection of races that had become difficult for even the most die-hard fans to get excited about.

An engine that can run for 1,500 miles is not being pushed very hard. There is nothing sexy about reliability. One of the famous quotes from Indianapolis in the 1950’s came from legendary car builder, AJ Watson (who’s still building cars, by the way). When his winning driver, Pat Flaherty, crossed the line in the John Zink Special in 1956; his throttle linkage broke – preventing him from taking a victory lap. Watson said, “Hey, we only build ’em to run 200 laps”. The thrill of racing is having the car, the driver and the engine pushed to the very limit. Sometimes, they go just beyond the limit. It’s the good drivers that can recognize that fine line.

Beginning in 2012, there will also be some accountability for the drivers. No longer will they be able to just hold their right foot down and rely on a de-tuned engine and a rev-limiter to get them through a race. Drivers will be forced to be disciplined and take care of their equipment. Can you imagine how many Indy 500’s Mario Andretti could have won had he had the luxury of a rev-limiter? Tom Carnegie never would have developed his now famous line; “Mario is slowing on the backstretch”.

There once was a time when taking care of your equipment – your car, engines, gearbox and tires – were all part of being a successful driver. Those that could hold back and save their equipment until the end were usually rewarded. Rick Mears is famous for his line. “To finish first, you must first finish.” He didn’t mean don’t let your car get into the marbles and wash up into the wall. He said this at a time when there was competition on the track between manufacturers and risks were being taken. That’s simply a part of racing.

The notion was put forth on Monday that engine failures shouldn’t take away wins from deserving drivers. Excuse me? Some of the greatest champions at the Indianapolis 500 were beneficiaries of their rivals running their equipment too hard. Had Bobby Marshman not been obsessed with lapping the field in 1964, he could have won instead of AJ Foyt. Although Jack Beckley, his chief mechanic, kept signaling for Marshman to slow down – he kept charging. Marshman fell out on lap 39. Foyt also benefited in 1967, when Parnelli Jones dropped out when a $6.00 bearing failed in his STP turbine on lap 197, handing the lead and the victory to Foyt. In 1977, Foyt was there again to take his fourth Indy victory when Gordon Johncock’s engine failed on lap 184. Was Foyt not a deserving driver?

Bobby Unser benefited in 1968, by having Joe Leonard’s turbine flame out with nine laps to go. Does the first of his three victories have an asterisk by it because he was an undeserving driver? No. I also resent the implication that those that accept engine failures as a part of racing are nothing more than American rednecks that like to watch explosions.

So please understand that I’m not a fan of watching engines blow up. What I am a fan of is competition; and engine failures are a by-product of competition and innovation. It’s all about trying new things and sacrificing some reliability in search of speed. If this offends anyone, I think they might be better served to follow a sport like Tee-Ball – so that everyone can get a trophy and feel good about themselves.

We all became fans of this sport at some point in time. Some were bitten in the eighties, while others discovered it in the mid-nineties. I became addicted to Indy car racing in the sixties. It doesn’t really matter, because the one constant throughout every era was the search for speed. That was always the number one goal until the league became a heavily regulated one-chassis/one-engine series. At that point things just sort of stagnated. Now that we’ll have some sense of variety in the chassis and competing engine manufacturers, count on engine failures occurring while the manufacturers continue searching for speed. After all, isn’t that the core principle in racing?

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “What I Meant To Say…”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Great article George…. The other caveat to performance and going ever faster has been the concern for safety. So, while aerodynamics continued to improve and the weight of materials used to manufacture cars continued to decrease, engine power has also actually decreased from the CART and Champ car days.
    In some cases aero packages, primarily front and rear wings were made larger or to create more downforce and drag, which has prevented the speeds from climbing to 250mph and beyond.
    The new chassis and engine combinations look to be lighter and more slippery yet, but it appears that the engines while V-6’s now turbo charged will be boost adjustable based on the type of racing that is to be done. Should make things a great deal more interesting especially when we begin to find out where the various torque and HP bands fall in the RPM range with the three engines at the variety of tracks the IRL races at. These variables combined with the new aero packages should theoretically make for some competitive racing.

  2. The Lapper Says:

    Its not that I want to see engine failure, its that I want to see drivers and teams taking it as close to the edge as they can without having engine failure.

  3. That is the first (and likely the only) time I have ever seen the words “decency” and “Roy Hobbson” in the same sentence.

    PS – I knew what you meant about the engine failures. I totally agree.

  4. I thought you were clear yesterday, George. Competition will push the edge. I do have a question though. If Indycar is going to ensure that all three engines are “equally” competitive out of the factory–do the owners and engineers have any leeway to modify the engines in the shop? Or do they just stick ‘em in the car as is and that’s what they have?

    And also–A.J. Watson is still making cars?

  5. I agree that engine failures are a part of racing and it is a display that manufacturers are pushing the limits to find extra performance (and therefore, I’ve never totally minded them…unless they meant that Paul Tracy was going to win instead of whoever else was leading), but 2012 still may not be a return to the old days of regular engine failures (that phrase reminds me of the CART finale at Fontana in 2000, when every Mercedes engine managed to find its way to the front of the field, only to detonate within two laps, as if somebody were sitting up in the stands and blowing them up James Bond-style). We’re likely, in the interests of holding down engine costs, to see fairly severe mileage requirements for engines, something north of 1,000 or maybe even 1,500 miles per engine. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that there’ll no longer be huge, mosquito-killing grenades, as F1’s similar requirements haven’t completely eliminated engine-related retirements (look no further than the pieces of pistons and con rods bouncing down the back straight after coming out of Sebastian Vettel’s car at Korea last month), but the number of failures has gone down precipitously in the past 3-4 years. We’ll likely see the same in 2012 and 2013. Whatever. I’m just glad to have a variety of engines being reintroduced to IndyCar.

    • billytheskink Says:

      That 2000 Fontana race was insane, it really came down to surviving those 500 miles.
      Not only did all 4 Mercedes starters lose power right after charging to the lead, Max Papis and Juan Montoya also blew engines while challenging at the front, Kenny Brack destroyed a turbocharger while leading the most laps, and Alex Barron charged into the lead in a Dale Coyne car with a few laps to go only to have his Ford-Cosworth explode.

      Of the 25 starters, 19 DNFed. 9 of those blew engines and another 5 had other mechanical gremlins.

      Drivers were really pushing those cars hard, especially the guys who weren’t among the 5 championship contenders. They all wanted the winner’s $1,000,000 share of the purse, I presumed.
      Even with all the DNFs, the high speed 500 mile survival races were thrilling

  6. How high did engines rev in 2002-2004 and in the 1990s?

    • Seems to me that in the CART era, mid-to-late 90s, they were twisting ‘em at about 14000 at their peak. Don’t know about The League. I could barely stand to follow anything other than Indy of the IRL when the split occured.

  7. Nicely said, George. I can’t add anything, other than to say I’m looking forward to seeing some limits pushed again soon!

  8. Brian McKay Says:

    I don’t understand why the leading racer, perhaps a driver who’s been fastest all day, perhaps fastest all weekend, doesn’t deserve to win. I don’t know why $6 parts ought to fail to hand first place to a following racer. I would rather see the second-place racer pass with skill or more horsepower or less drag or better grip. I disbelieve the notion that “watching Honda engines race without the possibility of any mechanical problems has removed any on-track drama” since 2005.

  9. High Drama at the Barzilian GP as Vettels engine blew late in the race. You could see molten parts spitting out the bottom. Red Bull had by far the fastest car on the grid all year long, but it wasn’t reliable enough to take full advantage (Vettel 10 poles and just 5 wins). It was, however, just reliable enough to win both points titles. There is much more to racing than pure speed. A good driver takes care of his equipment.

  10. A blown engine or other mechanical failure just means heartbreak or disappointment for the driver, his crew and sponsor, and his or her fans. I don’t see any upside to that. I would rather see the drivers create the drama using their skill and all the racing tools at their disposal.

  11. Anyone who doesn’t think that saving one’s equipment is a part of racing would have been disappointed for a vast part of its history. For the first couple decades of the Indy 500, it was THE most important skill for the best drivers…

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