Chevy back with IndyCar a big deal
INDIANAPOLIS -- The sun was shining over Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Friday, both literally and figuratively.
On an unusually warm and pleasant mid-November morning, Roger Penske and a group of General Motors executives posed for pictures on the main straight with a handful of Indy car drivers from past and present. Their host was Izod IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard, sporting an ear-to-ear grin.
Bernard had plenty to smile about. With more than a little bit of help from Penske, Bernard had presided over one of the most important business developments in recent American open-wheel racing history: the return of GM and its Chevrolet brand as engine suppliers to the IndyCar Series.
"I hope this weather is a sign of how good this contract is going to be," Bernard quipped.
There are many open-wheel fans who are hoping the same thing. But after almost 15 years of stormy weather, the skies over IndyCar really do seem to be clearing. In Bernard's first year on the job, the Indianapolis 500 was blessed with perfect weather for qualifying and the race, and a series of historic photo shoots promoting the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 (set for May 29, 2011) throughout the autumn went off without a cloud in the sky.
The importance of the Chevrolet-to-IndyCar deal cannot be overstated.
When the IndyCar Series introduces its new chassis and turbo engine formula in 2012, it will feature technical competition for the first time since 2005, ending a widely lampooned period of spec-car racing that went wholly against the grain of the Indy 500's tradition of open innovation.
More importantly, the new competition for IndyCar stalwart Honda is a U.S. company, and an iconic one at that. The turbocharged "Heartbeat of America" could propel as much as half of the 2012 Indianapolis 500 field.
"This reinforces our legacy as an authentic American brand and reinforces our heritage of performance," said Chevrolet marketing vice president Chris Perry. "Auto racing produces some of the highest return on investment in any activity we conduct.
"Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been a proving ground for manufacturers since Louis Chevrolet, our co-founder, raced here in 1909," Perry added. "This is a natural fit for Chevrolet this is where it all began."
Two of the targets of the ICONIC committee that laid the groundwork for IndyCar's 2012 formula were greater efficiency and increased relevance to road car technology. Those points were keys in attracting Chevrolet's participation.
Chevy's turbo V-6 will feature direct injection and be fueled by the same E-85 ethanol/gasoline mixture widely available across the country. IndyCar's Honda engines have run on 100 percent ethanol for the past three years.
Chevrolet's role in its first official era of Indy car participation from 1986 to 1993 was badging an engine designed and produced by Ilmor Engineering, a company co-owned by Penske. This time around, while Ilmor is again GM's partner, Chevy officials pledge to make a greater contribution.
"GM has become a recognized leader in implementing direct-injection technology in both four-cylinder and V-6 engines by leveraging knowledge already gained from racing," commented Tom Stephens, GM's vice chairman of Global Product Operations. "Building on this foundation, our new partnership with Ilmor will give us even more opportunities to accelerate our engine technology and expand and improve the DI technology for street cars."
The news of Chevrolet's return was welcomed by Honda -- which ironically, has contracted with Ilmor for the past five years to assist in rebuilding its engines that supply the full IndyCar field.
"We look forward to renewing our relationship with Chevrolet as competitors on the race track and giving the fans of open-wheel racing a spirited and challenging rivalry," stated Honda Performance Development president Erik Berkman.
The Chevy tie-up was sweet vindication for Bernard, the former leader of Pro Bull Riders who was greeted by skepticism when he was announced as IndyCar's CEO earlier this year.
I live in Detroit -- I was just trying to do my job. This is a day that shows the 'New GM' is back in business.” -- Roger Penske
"This is what we dreamed about back in March, when we started this process," Bernard said. "It's been so gratifying watching this all unfold through the ICONIC committee, and Mr. Penske has been such an important part of making this happen.
"I'm a new-timer to this sport, but if you look at history and what everyone involved in Indy car racing has said, they all wanted competition. This is the first step, and the fact that it's American, with a history here since 1909, we couldn't ask for anything better.
"If this hadn't happened, it would have been a very nerve-racking year next year. The fact that GM is stepping up to the plate is huge for this sport."
Though he maintained his usual stoic demeanor at the news conference, crafting Chevrolet's return to Indianapolis had to be deeply satisfying for Penske, who despite all his success in the industry, made his name as an Indy 500 winning car owner.
Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 a record 15 times.
"I live in Detroit -- I was just trying to do my job," Penske quipped.
"It's wonderful to see the sport on the up-rise, as we saw in 2010 with the Izod sponsorship and the increased car count," he added. "Our ability to bring in one of the Big Three manufacturers to compete at Indianapolis with Honda is terrific. Honda has been a terrific partner but has wanted competition, so to me, this is a win-win situation.
"This is a day that shows the 'New GM' is back in business."
And it was a day that showed that the new IndyCar is back in business. Indy Racing League founder Tony George, the man Bernard replaced after a revolt within the Hulman-George family over the past two years, was present at the Chevrolet announcement, but he stood stone-faced at the side, quietly watching the proceedings.
IndyCar still has much work to do to get back to the level of popularity it enjoyed in the 1990s, before George's formation of the IRL as an alternative to the existing CART-sanctioned Indy car series split the sport and caused so much long-term damage. Sponsorship is still lacking, there appears to be no American driver ready to become a regular race winner and championship contender, and television ratings remain dismal.
But under Randy Bernard's leadership, the future finally looks bright for Indy car racing. Sunny days like Friday at the Brickyard are clear evidence that IndyCar is on the comeback trail, and the 2012 season can't get here soon enough.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.