Maybe Loosen The Rulebook For IMS
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?