Are Engine Failures Always A Bad Thing?

Last week, I was reading Curt Cavin’s Q&A when I noticed a perplexing comment. A gentleman from Hookset, NH greets the announcement that the IZOD IndyCar Series will allow multiple engine manufacturers, with mixed emotions. The reader said he is glad to have some diversification, but says he “hates to see engines detonate and driver’s spinning in their own oil as the manufacturers push the limit to exceed the competition“.


It’s about time there was competition. The current spec formula is the main thing that has made IndyCar Racing so boring lately. Everyone has the same equipment – the same chassis, the same engines and the same tires. Only the tweaks of the engineers and the driver’s right foot determines the difference in speeds from the front of the field to the back of the pack.

I’m ecstatic over this news. Plus, I believe I heard Brian Barnhart say on the Versus telecast that multiple chassis manufacturers may be a part of the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012, as well. If that’s the case, then they will be taking what I think is another giant step in pointing this series in the right direction.

Getting back to what Curt Cavin’s reader said…maybe I’m twisted, but the potential for blown engines has been one of the missing key ingredients over the past few years. When Honda became the sole engine provider for the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2006, they detuned their engines for the sake of reliability. There was no need to push the engines to the limit, since they had no competition. This served the purpose of lowering costs, but also made for some boring racing.

First of all, it goes against the core fabric of racing to not be trying to maximize your equipment. Competition is the very essence of what racing is all about. Honda should be commended that they stuck around after Toyota and Chevy bailed following the 2005 season. They have been a tremendous partner to the IZOD IndyCar Series. They want competition, but their claim on their latest ad campaign that they have suffered no engine failures in so many years rings a little hollow; when you know that they are so detuned that there is no way that they should suffer any mishap with an engine.

The reader in the Q&A mentioned drivers spinning in their own oil. I’m certainly not being a champion for more crashes, but as I recall – when engine failures did occur, crashes were not that common.

However, one variable that has been missing since the engines were detuned, is the question if an engine will last. I don’t yearn for the early days of the IRL, when there was a good chance that none of the Oldsmobile Aurora engines would finish a race. That was too far towards the other extreme. But in the early to mid-nineties, it added some intrigue to a race to consider the scheduled distance of a race to be grueling on an engine – not mundane.

The Buick V-6 at Indianapolis comes to mind. This was an incredibly fast and powerful engine – and notoriously unreliable. Many years went by when they were at or near the top of the speed charts all month, only to blow up early in the race.

The Indianapolis 500 was supposed to be taxing on man and machine – not the engineer. Think how many Indy 500 victories Mario Andretti would have had on his resume, had he been competing against equal power plants that were detuned. He could be hard on his equipment with no regard to consequence. All he would have had to do would be to keep his foot mashed to the floor.

With the high downforce cars of today and a reliable engine that doesn’t even approach the limit – there’s not much for today’s drivers to worry about other than tangling with other cars and fuel-mileage. The rev-limiters and detuned engines have done away with the art of taking care of your equipment.

So with multiple engine manufacturers, comes competition. Unlike the message in youth sports today, where competition is downplayed in favor of self-esteem – competition is good. Competition fuels the desire to improve yourself to be better than your peers. In the end, there are clear-cut winners and there are losers. The winners enjoy the fruits of their labors. It is up to the losers to either find a way to win the next time, or fold up their tent and go home.

Honda is a perfect example. In 1994, Honda entered Indy car racing. They aligned themselves with Rahal-Hogan Racing and produced a very odd-sounding and woefully underpowered engine. They got their head handed to them on a platter. They were so uncompetitive, that Bobby Rahal and Mike Groff had to use year-old Penske-Ilmor’s to avoid being shut out of the Indianapolis 500 for the second year in a row. Although Rahal bailed on them for 1995, Honda regrouped and got their act together and came within a passed pace car of winning the 1995 Indianapolis 500. They have been a force to be reckoned with ever since.

An example in the other direction was Alfa-Romeo. From 1989 to 1991, they tried to be competitive in CART and failed miserably. Danny Sullivan, driving for Pat Patrick, gave Alfa it’s best CART season – an eleventh place finish in points. The Alfa-Romeo engine was underpowered and unreliable. They finally left the series at the end of the 1991 season with their tail tucked between their legs.

Engine reliability has always been a factor in racing – until recently. It throws a wild-card into the mix. It is part of the intrigue and the allure of motorsports. Ralph DePalma is remembered almost as much for his loss in the 1912 Indianapolis 500, as he is for winning the event in 1915. In the 1912 race, DePalma took the lead after the second lap and led the next 194 laps in complete domination. Yet, his car broke down on lap 197, which led to Joe Dawson taking the win. More recently, Michael Andretti had similar domination in the 1992 Indianapolis 500 before mechanical failure ended his day on lap 189; creating the now-famous Little Al/Scott Goodyear battle.

Without the pesky mechanical gremlins, 1912 and 1992 would both be remembered for nothing more than total beat-downs by one driver over the rest of the field.

So, I welcome the competition and the potential for engine failures as manufacturers push themselves to the limits. Seeking the limits is what racing is all about. The ensuing competition will mean that manufacturers will be trying to beat their competitors on the track and on Madison Avenue – which will ultimately make the IZOD IndyCar Series the eventual winner.

George Phillips


17 Responses to “Are Engine Failures Always A Bad Thing?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Couldn’t agree more George…. In the Mario Andretti years, power plants were designed to last for 501 miles at Indy. These engines were hand built by engine builders who selected, modified and assembled each individual component. There was relatively little time spent on track running lap after lap after practice lap. The engines simply were not built to last, and most teams had little additional budget to purchase additional engines. Reliability, rev limiters and economical operation are fantastic selling features for passenger cars, but do not lend themselves well to competition on the track.
    The prospect of the inclusion of multiple power plants and chassis, if they materialize, will definitely bring back a host of racing variables not seen in open wheel racing in many years. These various combinations will mean that different teams will be good better or best from one week to the next on each racing circuit on the schedule …. It will no longer be a matter of everyone taking the limited combinations of aero and handling packages they have been given and polishing the BB to get a few tenths here and hundreths there….

  2. Frank Roales Says:

    Right on! But let us remember that its not only different manufactures that create the possibility of failure but also the fact that the engines need to be OWNED by the teams and the teams must have the freedom to do what ever they wish with these engines within the rules (no rev limiters please) they have to be able to push the engine envelope. Back in the day many a 500 saw nothing but Offys but they were far from a “spec” engine. Put the proving ground mentality back in OWR. Sometime you got to take a chance to win.

    • Gurney Eagle Says:

      Excellent point, Mr. Roales. Engine leases need to be eliminated, period.

      • Didn’t the IRL go this route when they went to the stock block engines in 1997? Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the teams had mostly migrated back toward the leasing model by ’99 or ’00 or so because it’s generally cheaper to pay somebody else to do your development for you (you don’t have to pay a guy or guys to do it in-house and you don’t have to run your own dyno cell), plus if you blow a leased engine that is traced back to the fault of the leasing company, they’ll replace it for free or at a prorated cost.

        I appreciate the throw-back sentiment of the teams being able to develop their own stuff, but I’m not sure that that’s the best way to contain costs or for somebody like a Penske to come along and obsolete everybody else’s stuff basically overnight.

  3. It’s not just you, George. The chance that an engine will frag does bring an extra element to the sport that I miss.

  4. A. J. Foyt didn’t win four 500s because he was the fastest. He won because he was in front of everyone else when those in front of him had a problem late in the race. He could drive hard but he also knew how to take the equipment to the limit without pushing it too hard.
    If drivers have to drive like that again, the value of a truly skilled race driver will go way up versus the value of someone who brings sponsor money. That is what the true drivers want and that is what the fans want. That is what the series needs.

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    Hear, hear George! Part of the enjoyment of watching racing is the possibility of something random happening. There’s always the possibility of a crash, but engine or mechanical failures come into play as well. I remember that 1992 race being really boring because Michael was leading by more than a lap pretty much throughout. However, you stuck around because you didn’t know if he was going to be able to finish (especially since he was setting fast lap every lap for laps 180-189). So he burns out his car and we get one of the great finishes to the 500 ever. In 2008 and 2009, Dixon and Castroneves took the lead in the last 20 laps and you just knew that nobody was catching them. It would have been much more exciting if there was a real possibility of something happening beyond their control.

    When I see the Indy 500, I want to see driver and technology pushed to the limit. An engine built to produce 800 hb that’s been detuned to produce 650 hp is not at the limit. I want to see the best technology available being pushed as hard as it can. That’s what the Indy 500 is all about. Bringing that back will help to revive the prestige of the race.

  6. Leigh O'Gorman Says:

    There’s a brilliant story that Niki Lauda used to tell years ago. He would always say that “if a driver had one retirement, that was unfortunate. If a driver had second retirement, that was very unusual. However, if a driver retired with the same problem for a third time, then the driver was doing something wrong.”

    It makes sense when – as you said George – these parts are detuned to such a degree, that the drivers can abuse and destroy their equipment and not be punished for it (for the most part) and I if the machinery isn’t being pushed right to the edge, then there are drivers out that are potentially not being punished for drives that tear most equipment apart.
    I’m not saying that I want races to finish three cars, but there is an inherent skill in getting your machine when you may have shoved it over the edge,

  7. Speedgeek,

    The engine leasing program started when Honda and Toyota appeared in the IRL in 2003. Prior to that you built or bought your own engine. Many IRL teams, like teams do in NA$CAR, bought an engine from an engine builder like Brayton Engineering, Comptech, or Roush.

    • mmack,
      I was thinking that one or two of the Aurora builders had quietly switched to more of a lease-style model before Toyota and Honda had even showed up. I could be wrong here, though. Specifically, I thought that maybe Speedway Motors and (more likely) Roush had gone to that model, to limit the number of people who’d buy an engine of theirs, open it up and let a competitor take a look at the internals. I had a contact or two at one of those places a few years ago, but it’s probably been too long for me to get much in the way of info now.

  8. In the World Superbike Race at Miller, one rider checked out in both races. He had the race won, then suffered mechanical failure, twice! It meant that for people watching there was a reason to keep watching, because there was potential for the runaway leader not winning. In an Indycar race, he’d have had no challange, unless his pit crew messed up.

  9. Steve K Says:

    Engine failures would give is another way for us to not see Moraes finish a race!

  10. Case in point: 1987 500 (which I saw on ESPN classic for the first time this May)

    Mario Andretti’s a lap ahead of the field, but don’t get too excited – he’s driving one of the new Chevrolet engines, which, as the announcers have discussed, is more powerful but less reliable than the tried and true(ish) Cosworths used by the majority of the competitors.

    This ain’t idle chatter, either, as one-by-one we see cars exiting the race with mechanical problems, more often than not due to failure of – you guessed it – a Chevy powerplant. With every lap the tension increases. IS MARIO GOING TO MAKE IT?

    The threat of failure on every lap has, until very recently, been an essential trait on the Indianapolis 500. Tell me one fan has been added because of the reliability of the engines. Tell me one fan WOULDN’T be added if, say, Ryan Briscoe’s engine had blown 20 laps from the end of last week’s race.

  11. One of the things I used to enjoy watching in the early IRL days were the Mendards Team drivers (Arie Luyendyk and I think Scott Sharp), who’d have rocket ships–until the engine let go. Wondering whether this would be the year they’d make it all the way (or betting on when they’d let go) was great fun.

  12. From your post to Randy’s ears, George. This series needs the competitors to be pushing more than the limits of their tire grip.

  13. […] and most insightful IndyCar blogs out there, and one of my personal favorites. Check out “Are Engine Failures Always a Bad Thing?” for an example of the high quality posts on the […]

  14. […] and most insightful IndyCar blogs out there, and one of my personal favorites. Check out “Are Engine Failures Always a Bad Thing? ” for an example of the high quality posts on the […]

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