Power is in the engines -- again
It goes without saying that a major factor that contributed to CART's downward slide after the split with the Indy Racing League in 1996 was its inability to prevent its engine manufacturers from gaining too much clout. Toyota was often seen as the political instigator, notably by sparking the popoff valve fiasco at Detroit in 2001 and attempting to strong-arm CART into a 3.5-liter normally aspirated engine formula.
Now Honda is shaping up as a serious power player in the war that continues to divide American open-wheel racing. Champ Car insiders believe Honda played a key role in persuading Adrian Fernandez to convert his split operation into one that exclusively races in the IRL with Honda power. And it appears highly likely that Team Rahal -- another organization that has split its effort between Champ Cars and IndyCars -- will succumb to Honda's persuasion and switch full time to the IRL.
Aside from shoring up the IndyCar field, which boasted only 19 starters for the season opener two weeks ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the defection to the IRL of Fernandez and possibly Rahal casts even more serious doubts about Champ Car's ability to assemble an 18-car field for its season opener, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach scheduled for April 18.
Kevin Kalkhoven, one of the three new owners who purchased the assets of the Champ Car World Series in February, believes that Honda and IRL president Tony George have contacted most current Champ Car teams in an effort to persuade them to switch allegiance -- and in the process, kill off the IRL's bitter rival.
"I think that's true," Kalkhoven said Sunday, prior to a damage-control flight to Mexico City. "They are doing everything they can to try to stop (our series) from happening. That is their goal. But we're going to get out of the gate at Long Beach."
Kalkhoven was on his way to meet with Rahal's driver, Michel Jourdain Jr., as well as representatives of Jourdain's primary sponsor Gigante stores and promoters of the two Mexican Champ Car races. Kalkhoven believes that even with their collective support, Bobby Rahal won't be dissuaded from abandoning the series that he starred in from 1982 to 1998 and served as CEO of in 2000, just when it needs him most.
After competing exclusively in CART from 1992 to 2002, Team Rahal entered a car in the 2002 Indianapolis 500 and began competing in the IRL full time in 2003 as one of Honda's original teams. Aside from running Jourdain's Gigante-sponsored Champ Car this year, Rahal is slated to campaign cars in the Champ Car-affiliated Toyota Atlantic Championship for Danica Patrick and Chris Festa. Rahal is also expected to field a car for his son Graham in the inaugural Formula BMW USA championship, which will be sanctioned by Champ Car. Those plans are likely to be unaffected.
"If we can keep Rahal, we're home and dry," Kalkhoven said. "If not, that will make it a little more exciting. Michel doesn't want to go to the IRL. He very much wants to remain in our series, and none of the other teams are going to go to the IRL despite the attempts to drag them over there. At this moment we're still OK on car count."
Despite the defection of Fernandez and possibly Rahal to the IRL full time, Honda Performance Development vice president and general manager Robert Clarke denied that Honda is offering free engines or financial inducements to attract Champ Car teams to the IRL.
"Since our departure from CART, HPD's focus has been on our IRL program," Clarke said. "CART and its activities are basically of no interest to us. Adrian was not pressured to leave or lured away from CART by Honda. The team initiated the contact, and Adrian and the team's switch was truly their own decision. We have a long history with Adrian, and we are pleased to have him back with us. His involvement in our program will strengthen the (Kosuke) Matsuura effort as well as our entire program.
"I can say that HPD does not do any free engine deals," Clarke added. "I can also say that American Honda offers performance incentives to our teams and drivers based on race results."
|“||CART and its activities are basically of no interest to us. Adrian was not pressured to leave or lured away from CART by Honda. The team initiated the contact and Adrian and the team's switch was truly their own decision. ”|
|— Honda's Robert Clarke|
Clarke said that HPD's agreements with its IRL teams are confidential. However, they are likely to be similar to the contracts Honda had with its CART teams, which paid a $200,000 bonus for each win, with descending incentives for finishing in the top four. A series championship would have netted a Honda team $1 million, with second place worth $500,000 and third place $250,000.
In addition, Honda paid some of its teams sponsorship equivalent to the engine rebuild costs for the season -- potentially upwards of $2 million for a two-car team.
If Rahal joins Fernandez in concentrating exclusively on the IRL, it will bring the number of cars Honda is servicing on a full-time basis to nine. Clarke said HPD has a target of supplying engines for 11 cars -- or one-third of the traditional 33-car field -- for the Indianapolis 500.
"Please notice that I said 'target' as we do not have the capacity at the moment," Clarke said. "Whether we can line up 11 cars is yet another question, but we intend to be able to cover one-third of the field, with an equal split amongst the manufacturers. This is not something the IRL asked of us."
It's hard to decide which seems more unrealistic -- a 33-car field at Indy, or 18 cars for the Champ Car opener at Long Beach. For his part, Kalkhoven remains confident.
"There will be good news in the next week or so, some new teams that are coming in," he said. "Dale Coyne will run two cars and Emerson Fittipaldi is getting very close. We're trying to find a seat for (Patrick) Carpentier, and I believe we will. We're hopeful of having a British driver in the series as well."
John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.