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A New Engine Swims in an Indianapolis Fishbowl

May 23, 1997|SHAV GLICK

The name is Japanese, but the Nissan Infiniti Indy engine that is part of the Indianapolis 500 this year is strictly Southern California hot rod.

Nissan Motorsport manager Frank Honsowetz, himself a one-time drag-racing hot rodder from El Segundo, put together a package of designers, manufacturers and suppliers, most of whom are located within 75 miles of Nissan USA headquarters in Gardena.

Six teams in Sunday's 500 will be using four-liter, 32-valve, normally aspirated Infiniti engines

that produce 650-plus horsepower under the new Indy Racing League regulations. The other 29 will have similarly designed engines from Aurora of Oldsmobile, the work of GM Motorsports and Midwestern engine builders.

"Looking back, it is really remarkable that we're here at all with the short lead time we had, the unexpected problems that cropped up and the lack of development testing," Honsowetz said. "We didn't get a go-ahead from Nissan until February [1996], which meant we had to have engines ready to run in 11 months."

The first race with new IRL engine regulations took place Jan. 25 in Orlando, Fla.

"Eleven months was just too short a time," said Ed Pink, a well-known engine builder from Van Nuys.

"To build any engine, even if it's a copy of the Infiniti passenger car engine, takes time, at least a year and a half to two years. This is a monumental task, and when Nissan decided to jump into the Indy picture, there was only one person involved--Frank Honsowetz.

"He put the program together. He rounded up the people, some he knew and some, like myself, he didn't know."

The first person Honsowetz contacted was Clayton Cunningham, a longtime owner of Nissans and Mazdas competing in International Motor Sports Assn. GT long-distance races.

In addition to his input to the engine design and engineering, Cunningham is co-owner of the Jonathan Byrd/Cunningham team that has Mike Groff of Pasadena as its driver.

"Clayton was my first pick, then Trevor Harris," Honsowetz said. "I knew Harris could act as a liaison with people from Olds, Dallara and G Force. When Tony George started the IRL, all of us understood that all the competitors would cooperate to the fullest."

Harris, who lives in Sunland, designed Datsun and Nissan race cars that have won 15 national championships in IMSA, Sports Car Club of America and SCORE off-road desert racing, starting with the first Datsun 510 driven by John Morton in the early 1970s.

"Watching a new car on the race track for the first time is kind of like giving birth," Harris said when the first Infiniti-powered G Force left pit lane for the first time. "At the beginning of any project, a high level of excitement can be found with a low level of execution."

Next came Pink, who had experience at the Indy 500 when Cosworth Engines of England contacted him about developing the 2.65-liter turbocharged Ford Cosworth for drivers such as Arie Luyendyk, Chip Ganassi, Al Unser and Tom Sneva.

More recently, Pink created a new midget engine for car owner Steve Lewis that Tony Stewart used to win U.S. Auto Club championships in 1994 and 1995.

"Building an engine is a touchy job," Pink said. "First you design it, then you make the parts, fit the parts together and run it on the dyno. You can test all you want on the dyno, though, but you never know what you've got until you take it to the race track. That's where you find out where the quirks are, where the problems are. The dyno only points you in the right direction."

The dyno-race track relationship was the cause of one of the Infiniti program setbacks.

"We'd done our homework on the dyno before Phoenix [the second IRL race with new engines], but when we got on the track we had bad rod bearings and had to scrap seven or eight engines," Honsowetz said.

"Fortunately, we were able to address the problem and make the race, but losing all those engines was a severe setback. We were pleased with the race because Mike [Groff] finished without any more difficulties."

Groff, the IRL points leader, is one of only four drivers to have completed every lap this season. The others, all with Aurora power, are Phoenix winner Jim Guthrie, Davey Hamilton and Marco Greco.

Another team member is Hans Hermann of Aliso Viejo, an expert in the areas of camshaft, valve trains and cylinder head designs. Hermann moved to Southern California in 1974 from his native Denmark to work at Drake Engineering, home of the famed Meyer/Drake Offenhauser Indy car engine. His work helped Johnny Rutherford and Bobby Unser win the 500 in 1974 and 1975.

Part of Hermann's expertise is in the area of fuel. Although the Aurora and Infiniti engines are derived from passenger car models, the cars at Indy use methanol, not gasoline.

"In comparison to their gasoline counterparts, these engines demand a greater volume of fuel to operate properly," Hermann explained. "At 10,500 rpm, each of the Infiniti Indy's 32 valves will open and close 87 times a second."

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