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A Different Sound Will Go With the Fury at Indy

May 02, 1997|SHAV GLICK

The days before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track opens for practice for the Indianapolis 500 have always been marked by anxiety and anticipation, but seldom has there been such apprehension as this year.

Last year left fans with culture shock when such familiar drivers as Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Paul Tracy and Emerson Fittipaldi were missing, victims of the feud the Indy Racing League provoked with CART.

This year, the shock is even greater.

Not only will most of the more popular drivers still be missing, but so will be the recognizable Indy car names such as Lola, Reynard and Penske, and the screaming turbocharged Ford Cosworth, Ilmor Mercedes and American Honda engines. Last year, even though most of the CART teams refused to run at Indy, the cars in both series were the same.

When practice opens Saturday for the 81st 500 on May 25, with only rookies being permitted on the track until Tuesday, the whole scene will be different. Even the sounds will be different.

It will be as if Tony George, president of the Speedway and the man behind the IRL revolution, took a clean sheet of paper and said, "Let's start from scratch."

All chassis will be Dallaras from Italy or G Forces from England. No others will be allowed.

But the biggest difference will be in the engines, and it is one of the biggest causes of the apprehension.

The engines are derivatives of non-turbocharged four-liter production-based passenger car V-8 power plants, and they are designed to produce 650-plus horsepower with a limit of 10,500 RPMs. They produce a sound more like a stock car's than an Indy car's.

"I like the change, especially the sound of the V-8," former Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk said. "The normally aspirated engine really rumbles. I think it will appeal to the fans."

Only an Aurora engine from Oldsmobile or an Infiniti from Nissan will be acceptable, and there is a question if enough will be available to permit adequate practice and qualifying for a 33-car starting field. And there is a question, too, as to how many can last 500 miles.

With the first day of qualifying only a week away, Oldsmobile hopes to have 100 Aurora engines on hand. Nissan, however, may have as few as 30, which would equip only seven or eight cars for the month.

The Aurora project was announced Jan. 4, 1996. Nissan agreed Feb. 14, 1996, to furnish engines for IRL, starting with the Indy 200 at Orlando, Fla., last Jan. 25.

"Eleven months is just too short a time to accomplish what had to be done," said Frank Honsowetz, Nissan motorsports manager and the point man on the Infiniti Indy engine project. "What I wouldn't have given for four more weeks."

Luyendyk tested the first Aurora engine on Nov. 13, but Mike Groff did not get the first Infiniti on the track until Jan. 8.

Only three Infinitis started the Orlando race, but Groff finished second and Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier fifth behind winner Eddie Cheever. The other Infiniti driver, Roberto Guerrero, dropped out because of a faulty fuel pump.

With Indy practice about to start, there remains a disparity in testing. Aurora engines have 8,000 miles of testing, including five which have gone 500 miles at Indianapolis. Nissans have been tested only 900 miles, with only one engine having gone 500 miles.

"Bad weather, even some snow, cut short our practice time at Indy, so next Tuesday we expect to start running as much as possible," Groff said.

The Infiniti program also took a severe blow in March during practice before the Phoenix 200 when seven engines were lost to connecting rod bearing failures.

"Fortunately, we were able to address the problem and make the race, but it set us back," Honsowetz said. "Reliability is our main concern. We must develop the drivers' confidence in the engine. We can't have them worried about engine failure."

The lack of engine development has been reflected in a disappointingly small entry list.

"It's difficult to find sponsors to furnish a car until the engine situation is squared away," said Cary Agajanian, United States Auto Club vice president for IRL. "I don't think there will be a problem getting 33 qualifiers, unless there is a big blowup of engines.

"This year is a huge transition, completely different from past years, when the field could fill up with older cars. This year there aren't any older cars, but if 35 make an attempt to qualify, it should be enough."

Only 64 cars, the smallest number in 22 years, have been entered--nearly half of them backup cars.


Don't be surprised at next year's Long Beach Grand Prix if some drivers appear to deliberately run into other cars. Being fined or put on probation at Chris Pook's street party seems to be a lucky charm.

It happened to Andretti last year when he was put on probation for rough driving and immediately won three of the next four races. Tracy followed suit this year, winning at Nazareth, Pa., in the race after Long Beach, where he was fined $25,000.


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