Maybe Loosen The Rulebook For IMS

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With some engine manufacturers doing their best to limit the number of teams that they are involved with, teams successfully defecting from a certain manufacturer while the same manufacturer plays “chicken” with another team to see which one blinks first – it seems the best we can hope for is to have thirty-three cars in this year’s Indianapolis 500. Although there are many more teams and cars available for this year’s running than we would have thought a year ago; the dearth of engines has pretty well killed any chance that someone like Tomas Scheckter, Alex Lloyd, Paul Tracy or Pippa Mann might have of landing a last minute ride in a team’s backup car.

Remember back in the early nineties, when there were allowances made for the Indianapolis 500 that were not available in the other races? Of course, those other races were sanctioned by CART, while USAC still had domain over the Indianapolis 500. The Chevy Ilmor and Ford Cosworth were both required to run a maximum 45-inches of boost, because their engines were considered purpose-built racing engines.

The Buick V-6 was considered a stock block engine with pushrods, and was allowed to run as much as 55-inches – making it very competitive against the purpose built engines. Of course, there was one problem. Whether it was the added boost or a design flaw or whatever – the Buick V-6 was notoriously unreliable. Since its first appearance in 1984, watching a Buick go up in smoke was an annual rite of passage each May at the Speedway.

Contrary to popular belief, the Buick engine was not outlawed in regular CART sanctioned races. Instead, it was required to run the regular 45-inches of boost that its competitors ran. In 1992 (maybe 1993), CART allowed the Buick to raise its boost levels to 50-inches, but it was still woefully uncompetitive on the CART circuit.

But on the long straightaways of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Buick engine was a beast. It shattered the track record when Roberto Guerrero put it on the pole in 1992 at a speed of 232.482 mph. That year, more than a third of the field was powered by Buick. Why did so many teams choose to run the Buick? First of all, it was fast. But perhaps even more importantly; it was available. Buick focused solely on the Indianapolis 500. One-off efforts like the teams run by John Menard, Kenny Bernstein and Ron Hemelgarn didn’t have to do long-term deals with Ford or Chevy if they were only running one race – they would hook up with Buick and get ready for May.

Of course, the Buick V-6 never won and it seldom finished – especially in the early years. Jim Crawford was the first to finish the Indianapolis 500 in a Buick engine, when he finished sixth in 1988. Before that, the box scores were littered with Buick casualties. Al Unser gave the Buick its best finish, when he ended up third in 1992 behind his son and Scott Goodyear in the closest finish ever.

By 1994, the Buick engine began to morph into the Menard engine. Buick was moving out of the sport and Scott Brayton, whose family had initially developed the Buick V-6, had moved to John Menard’s team. The last appearance of the Buick/Menard V-6 in the Indianapolis 500 was 1996, the last year turbochargers were used prior to this year.

The Indianapolis 500 has always been known for innovation. It wasn’t until 1997, when the formula became so restrictive that innovation was effectively outlawed. One reason that USAC allowed the Buick V-6 to run at Indianapolis was to encourage additional manufacturers to take part in the Indianapolis 500. Of course, Roger Penske exploited a loophole in this rule with his pushrod Mercedes, but that’s another story for another day.

In today’s economic climate, it may not even be feasible – but wouldn’t it be great if there was an alternative engine out there that was allowed a little leeway with the caveat that it could only run the Indianapolis 500? It would not only encourage additional manufacturers to enter competition in the month of May, it would encourage more one-off efforts to return to the Speedway.

This year, almost every additional entry for the 500 comes from an existing team that takes part in the full IZOD IndyCar Series schedule. They just added a second car. The lone exception to that in Jean Alesi’s program. Roberto Guerrero won the pole in a one-off effort for Kenny Bernstein in 1992. Dan Wheldon won the race last year in a one-off. Unless Alesi pulls off the unimaginable and wins the race, the one-off concept is practically dead for this year’s 500.

I’m not a gearhead and I wouldn’t begin to suggest what technical modifications the rules committee could make to the engine formula. I don’t even know if such an engine program is economically feasible. But I do know that when the Indy-only Buick V-6 was an option in an age when there were new engines coming out practically every year – car count was never an issue. This could give the Michael Shank’s and Jay Howard’s of the world, a viable option to run the Indianapolis 500.

So maybe the powers-that-be might consider loosening the restrictions for this one race per year and allow some companies to come in and play by a slightly different set of rules. They would have to keep the price low and make it a workable model. But it could help speeds to go up, fan interest to go up and car count and entrants to go up. The result would be that overall interest in the event would go up. After all – isn’t that the number one goal ahead of everyone involved with this race, right now?

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Maybe Loosen The Rulebook For IMS”

  1. As far as I know, the Indianapolis 500 pretty much pays the freight for the rest of the series. Consequently, what’s good for Indy, should therefore be good for the series, right?

    I’m sure we all hope that this years’ engine dilemmae are a “one-off” in their own right. But, who’s to say?

    If I am Lotus, I’m beginning to wonder if there is a future, other than perhaps building an aero-kit. We’ve seen in just two days of practice that that Lotus may well have problems running 10 laps at over 210 to allow Jean ALesi to complete his “rookie” test

    Perhaps adding a “one-off” option might be s good workable alternative until the engine inventory cathes up with demand.

  2. bent wickerbill Says:

    I would be willing to bet that Cosworth has an engine that would fill the bill…

  3. There are two parts of qualifying that draw interest; Who wins the pole, and who gets bumped. Anything that can increase the excitement at either end of the field of 33 is a good thing for the fans.

    Unfortunately, they need to consider more than the fans when writing the rulebook. While the 500 does pay the freight for the whole series, the difference between the USAC/CART days is that IMS is now running the whole series. Therefore they have to take into consideration the politics of attracting engine suppliers, teams and sponsors for the whole season. It doesn’t do the series any good if they allow one offs to come in and bump one of their series engine partners, and full time teams from the big show.

    So while they say they want competition, I don’t think anyone in IMS or the Series wants to see Lotus, or one of the full time teams that is just scraping by, miss the 500 and decide to drop out of the series.

  4. George,

    The reliability issue with the Buick V6 was the result of trying to push a mild mannered passenger car engine to perform at a level equivalent to a pure racing engine like a Cosworth or Illmor V8. The teams had to wind the RPMs up well past what the pushrod valvetrain was designed for. Don’t forget that along with boost advantages, turbocharged stock block engines had a displacement advantage (209 CID vs 161 CID) over racing engines. At 231 CID stock the Buick V6 was easier to adapt to turbocharging than the equivalent 305 CID (5.0L) Chevrolet small block.

    One thing to note regarding one off programs back in the 1980’s and 90’s is that the teams that had the most success with the Buick V6 (Menard, Bernstein, Hemelgarn) also had plenty of resources to invest in the program. While you make it sound like the programs were “Hey everybody, let’s get an engine and a car and run Indy! What do ya’ say? It’ll be fun!”, Menard and Bernstein spent plenty of time and money focusing soley on the Indianapolis 500. They were looking to win, not simply to show up. Remember after years of working on again, off again with Buick V6 powered cars, Ron Hemelgarn switched to Reynard Fords by the mid 1990’s. It certainly helped Buddy Lazier in 1996.

    Personally, my take is that there’s probably plenty of Honda Indy V8s that are giant aluminum and magnesium paperweights sitting around, and the DW12 DOES have an airbox, so maybe we should see if an enterprisng team or two could shoehorn one into a new chassis. Of course, it would probably embarass the turbo V6s, so we’d have to have an equivalency formula . . . .

    • The Lapper Says:

      Hold on there big man, I have no doubt that George understands that Menard and Bernstein were ther to win. He has been following the race since childhood. I will agree here with George and state that at no point did his blog make it seem like to me that he was claiming an easy engine free for all.

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    There’s an issue with the spec chassis, too. I initially thought that they could run some of the Honda engines they ran for the past 8 years. There are certainly plenty of them. However, it is probably way too big to fit in the DW12 without making modifications to the safety cell and engine cover – which is prohibited. So any engine that they use needs to be purpose-built for this chassis, and that is a very expensive proposition just for an Indy-only run.

    Maybe next year with aero kits they’ll introduce some flexibility with the body work and safety cell to be able to fit other engines. I’d love it if they ran some normally-aspirated engines next to the turbos. Also, it will add variation to the look of the cars, which would also be a plus. There are lots of other engines used in other series that could potentially be dropped into an Indycar chassis, they wouldd probably just need to make sure of the equivalency formula.

    • Carburetor Says:

      While it will likely never happen, I wholeheartedly agree with this post. I think it would be great to see normally-aspirated engines compete with turbo-charged. You would really begin to see creative attempts at gaining competitive advantage. Isn’t that what the Indy 500 used to be about?

  6. Open it up and hope that an Andy Granatelli type finds their way into an Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage.

  7. There are no more engine manufacturers coming this year. The leases are actually less expensive for the teams. The answer here is to let Lotus have more boost to raise their hp. If they blow the engines, big deal. They have plenty of them now with only two cars using thme.

  8. I just get confused when the specifics of engines is discussed. but I read Cavin’s column today and they were talking about the 107% or 105% rule or Milka rule or whatever. And how Lotus might not make it. Barfield said he’d deal with it if it happens.

    Here’s the thing about rules, something I learned when I was teaching. Rules do more harm than good unless they are consistently and fairly enforced. And the more rules you make, the more you have to enforce. So I’m not sure the rules for Indy should be any different than any other track. All this adjusting of rules and making it up as they go is just confusing to me.

  9. What TurboGate has taught me: an incremental change in policy results in an exponential increase in litigation.

  10. Ron Ford Says:

    I believe a common thread running through George’s post and many of the comments above is “Isn’t that what the Indy500 used to be about?” Well, yes it was at times and to be sure those were interesting times.

    In today’s economy and circustances I am not sure we will ever see that again. I remember 25 cents per gallon gasoline (yes I am that old), but I am quite sure we will never see that price again. While it is true that BHA won the 500 last year as a “one-off”, the engine and chassis had been developed long before that.

    It would be great if Ford can be induced to join the fray. They have a long and distintuished history in racing and seemingly would have the money to develop an engine.

    At least perhaps the rules could be tweaked to allow normally-aspirated engines to compete with the turbo-charged engines. (on an additional nostalgic note, I would like to be normally-aspirated once again myself)

    Thanks for generating this discussion George. Many good comments per usual.

  11. Steve K Says:

    Ok so this year equipment is limited. If we have the same issues next year, then we need to find a solution. I am not ready to call this a long term problem.

    Innovation? We really can’t safely go faster anymore. How about going green. Try using less fuel for the 500 miles. That would have some prectical value.

  12. Soooo….you’d like for them to introduce the Delta Wing as a potential one-off option, then? OK. I’m game.

  13. I think it is engines and not chassis that George was referring to. However, a chassis that fits the rule requirements or can be refitted to meet them (i.e. the Delta Wing) is something that I would agree to.

  14. I do think it might be interesting to see a boost allowance to entice a four cylinder entry that were allowed for in the spec concept released a year and a half ago.

    • JIm in Wilmington Says:

      The reason you haven’t seen four cylinder engines is the center of gravity is too high and the block isn’t rigid enough compared to a V-6. A short track like Richmond would probably be the only place a four might make sense, but they don’t race there any more

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