Honda threw the listing Indy Racing League a long-range lifeline Saturday when it announced that it would furnish engines for IRL cars through 2009, even if it meant supplying the entire 33-car field for the Indianapolis 500.
General Motors, which provided nearly all the engines for the fledgling IRL in its formative years, has announced that it is pulling out after this season, giving way to the huge budgets of Toyota and Honda. Toyota has also announced that 2006 will be its final year as it continues to develop its NASCAR program.
With Honda insisting earlier that it did not want to race without competition, there had been speculation that the IRL might be without an engine program in two years.
The IRL collectively heaved a sigh of relief when Robert Clarke, president of Honda Performance Development, said his firm would stick around.
"I am very excited about Honda's decision today as it brings stability and continuity to a very competitive racing package," said Tony George, IRL founder, in a statement. "We're encouraged by their multi-year commitment to the IRL."
Dario Franchitti, one of the Andretti Green Racing's foursome, gave Honda more reason to celebrate when he won the pole for today's Toyota Indy 400, which may better be labeled the Lame Duck 400 as the IRL recently announced that it would not be back next year.
"Qualifying at these type of tracks is really geared toward the engineers and the engine guys," said Franchitti, whose speed of 219.398 mph in a Honda-Dallara earned him his first pole of the season. "Our engineer absolutely hit the balance and the level of grip, and the engine was incredibly strong."
Tomas Scheckter put a Chevrolet on the front row for its final race with a 218.902 effort and then lamented that the blue bowtie brigade is bowing out.
"I'm almost in tears that Chevrolet is going away," said the South African driver for Panther Racing. "It's got so much power it's awesome."
It was the eighth pole for Honda in 17 races, five by AGR drivers and three by Danica Patrick, the series rookie of the year who will start fourth today alongside Sam Hornish Jr.
"I know that I've proven over the year that you can qualify well and not do well in the race," said Patrick. "Qualifying is a whole different thing, but I was definitely looking to qualify [on] the pole here today and I thought we would. I think we would have, but the wind changed so much. There's no way to predict the wind, that's the hard part. We took a chance and the wind wasn't doing what we thought it was doing."
Only 21 drivers qualified as Thiago Medeiros, one of four Brazilians in the field, crashed his car during morning practice. Medeiros was not injured, but the Dallara chassis was badly damaged when it hit the barrier in Turn 1.
To cement Honda's commitment to the IRL, the 2005 Manufacturer's Championship Trophy was presented to Clarke by IRL President Brian Barnhart at the announcement.
"He'll get a formal presentation at our awards banquet Monday," said Barnhart. "Obviously, we couldn't be happier with Honda's announcement today."
Honda's decision to provide engines for an entire field was strengthened by the expansion of its racing subsidiary, HPD, including a new 123,000-square-foot facility in Santa Clarita.