New parameters could change landscape
KANSAS CITY, Kan. Honda Performance Development and Ilmor, Inc. have collaborated on a successful IndyCar Series engine program since 2003. But the two companies currently in partnership may soon find themselves competing against each other, either on track or for the contract to serve as the series' exclusive engine supplier for 2007 and beyond.
While the frenzy over Danica Patrick's rise to front-runner status has captured the IndyCar Series spotlight in recent months, the league's most important news story continues to slowly unfold behind the scenes. In short, what will the IndyCar Series pursue in terms of its engine specification and supply for 2007 and beyond? And which manufacturers -- if any -- will participate?
The IndyCar Series got bad news on a couple of fronts last week that placed even more significance on its future technical direction. On June 27, Toyota publicly confirmed that it will withdraw from the IndyCar Series at the end of the 2006 season, following Chevrolet's departure at the end of this year. And IndyCar president Brian Barnhart admitted to ESPN.com that Honda has informed the circuit that it too will say "sayonara" following next year's campaign.
However, Barnhart said the Honda's letter was a regulatory formality and that he is optimistic Honda will extend its relationship with the IndyCar Series into 2007 and beyond. IndyCar rules require manufacturers that would like to compete in the series in 2007 to inform the series of their intentions by April 1, 2006.
"Yes, Honda has given their annual notification that they are out for 2007, but they certainly don't ask us to make that public," Barnhart commented. "We've had an awful lot of meetings with them involving the future engine specifications and policies, and they have a lot of people committed to the design and build of those specifications and a lot of resources already committed. Technically, they are not in, but on the other hand they sure seem to be putting forth a lot of effort in a way that would seem to indicate that they are going to continue."
Honda Performance Development president Robert Clarke agreed that the door remains open for the manufacturer to continue in IndyCars in 2007 and beyond -- and perhaps expand into other American-based racing series.
"We've made a substantial investment in U.S. open-wheel racing over the last 12 years with CART and the IRL," Clarke said. "To just walk away from that, as Toyota is going to do, seems foolish because you lose all of that investment.
"We came to the IRL in the belief that we could make a difference and make it better," he added. "If we were to walk away too, we could do serious damage to the series, which is not what we came to do. We are awaiting the IRL future rules and an understanding of the structure of the league going forward. My feeling is that we need to stay regardless of the scenario. But that's not my decision to make."
A number of factors cloud the issue. First and foremost, the IndyCar Series has not revealed the parameters of its 2007 engine program. Series officials are concerned about the way engine costs rapidly escalated since Toyota and Honda entered competition in 2003. Honda, like Chevrolet and Toyota, has concluded that the tens of millions of dollars it is spending on subsidizing teams and marketing the series isn't making much of an impact on the public.
Barnhart said that the IndyCar Series is close to making its intentions for the future public, and he agrees that the series has a long way to go in terms of increasing its market penetration.
"We have 95 percent of the package finished and have communicated that to the people that are expressing interest in participating in 2006 and longer," he said. "The delay has been trying to balance all the things that are in play on the business side and on the political side. Sorting the tech specs hasn't been very difficult because the reliability the manufacturers have brought to the game and the improvement in the product on the racetrack since their arrival. It would be foolish to mess with the success that we've had on the racetrack. We're not going to stray too far from our existing formula because it's working too well.
"To me, the point is that we have a lot of options, engine-wise, with or without Toyota or manufacturer support."
Clarke, who has functioned as the point man in recent efforts to bring the IndyCar Series and Champ Car together for a unified open-wheel series, said that Honda's investment in HPD is significant enough that the engine-building concern must branch out in order to survive -- even if that means bending the parameters of "The Honda Way."
"Now is the time to expand into multiple series because we need to keep our people fully occupied," Clarke said. "We need to explore other categories of what I would term 'racing business' -- Grand Am, drag racing, or maybe ALMS [American Le Mans Series] -- not so much to promote the Honda brand but to support HPD itself. HPD has always competed in one series at a time, but the company has grown substantially and it needs business to meet its own objectives and those from Honda.
"If the IRL becomes a single brand, maybe it falls into that 'racing business' category, though I don't feel it could be considered a premier level of racing without competition," he continued. "As a single make, it may be difficult to achieve all of our multiple objectives, but it's not like there's no value because there's still the Indy 500."
"I think that's an option down the road, maybe after 2006, '07 or '08," Penske reponded. "But that's up to the IRL. You'd always like to have manufacturers in because it supports the teams but at this point, it's still too far out to make a specific decision. They're in the engine business so it's certainly something they would look at."
"We have a lot of options for people who can build and maintain engines for us under these specifications," Barnhart noted. "A lot of existing engines are already out there."
Honda piggybacked onto the Ilmor IndyCar program in late 2002 after pulling out of the Champ Car series. Since then, HPD has taken over most of the design and development work on the engine that has dominated IndyCar Series competition for the last two years. The partnership has worked well for nearly three years and Clarke doesn't expect that to change over the balance of the contract.
Meanwhile, Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development, stated that no matter what engine formula the IndyCar Series chooses for the future -- or if by some chance there is a unification with Champ Car -- Toyota is getting out of American open-wheel racing at the end of 2006.
"This is a decision the company has looked at long and hard and felt this was the way to proceed," Aust said. "It's always a tough decision when you look at continuing a program. This is an issue we had been looking at for quite awhile and we knew that eventually the day was going to be before us. Our plans are to focus on this program as much as we have and also to continue to run in the Craftsman Truck Series. Anything beyond that at this point is totally speculative.
"Any kind of reorganization or joining doesn't look like it would make it an option for us," he added. "We've been in open-wheel racing in the United States for going on 12 years now and I think the program had run its course. The decision was made to look at some other options and we're still looking at those."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.