Why the new Indy Lights cars should meet IRL specs

 by Mark Cipolloni
September 28, 2000

I have suggested this idea previously, but let's take a little closer look why, and how to address the issue it creates.

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The success of this past weekends United States Grand Prix underscored the importance of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the world of auto racing.  In terms of attendance, Indy now hosts the biggest race on the IRL schedule, the biggest race on the Formula One schedule and the biggest race on the NASCAR schedule.  The split between the IRL and CART has left CART without a REALLY big race on its schedule, and that is one of the biggest dilemmas it faces.

CART does have the most competitive open wheel racing in the world.
CART does have a solid 22-race schedule that's expanding worldwide
CART does have fantastic drivers
CART does challenge even the best drivers with its diverse schedule
CART does have many new teams trying to join the series
CART does have drivers worldwide clamoring to get into its series
CART does have plenty of big sponsors backing the teams, the drivers and even CART itself

What CART doesn't have is a showcase event like it had when its teams all raced at the Indy 500.  Some people would argue that CART doesn't need a showcase event if it had 22 strong races.  The fact of the matter is that, yes CART does have many strong races - - Long Beach, Australia, Toronto, Vancouver, etc., but they are no stronger than NASCAR's Atlanta 500, or Southern 500.  NASCAR has the Brickyard 400 and the Daytona 500, F1 has Monaco and Monza, the IRL has Indy, Sports cars have LeMans.  CART has um, um....well you get the idea.

It's apparent from the Brickyard 400 and the USGP, any race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway becomes an overnight success story. Indy is that special, almost magic.   NASCAR and now Formula One have found that out.

Unfortunately for CART, Tony George isn't about to add a fourth race at his speedway given the animosity between the two sides.  Since no other track can generate the kind of significance that the Indy Speedway does, CART has a long steep hill to climb before any one of its current events gains the stature of an Indy 500 or a Daytona 500.

The solution?  Although it's a big nut to crack, the opportunity for CART teams to again compete in the Indy 500 is staring them right in the face.

The Indy Lights cars are due to be replaced in 2002 and CART is currently taking proposals from bidders for a new car and engine.  In the past I have written that the new cars should be either F3000 or IRL cars.  After hearing Team Kool Green will not field an Indy Lights 2-car effort anymore (instead they will field a third Champ Car for Michael Andretti), it looks as though the dwindling number of Indy Lights entries will continue its downward spiral.  After much analysis and soul searching, I've come to the conclusion that if the Indy Lights series is to prosper, and if CART's drivers en masse are going to have a shot at the Indy 500 each year, the new Lights cars must be IRL spec cars.   Cars that can be used each year by CART teams to race in the Indy 500.  CART's drivers deserve to be there, and the mileage that CART will get from having its drivers represented in what is still the 'greatest spectacle in racing,' will be significant.   

Here are the issues that proposal creates and how they can be addressed:

  1. IRL cars cost more than Indy Lights cars.  Higher cost is the biggest issue standing in the way of CART adopting the IRL spec car.  If a chassis provider knew they have an exclusive contract to provide cars and spare parts for 3 or more years, they can get their costs down to even less than the cost of a current IRL car where G-Force, Dallara and Riley & Scott competition drives cost up.  In addition, CART could subsidize part of the higher startup costs from its $100 million war chest.  Tony George is still subsidizing the IRNLS even after five years, he thinks it's that important.  One further point - Chip Ganassi bought IRL cars to race in the Indy 500.  Too bad they went unused the rest of the year.  Get the point.

  2. IRL engines need to be rebuilt about once every 500 miles.  Current Indy Lights engines are good for about 2,000 miles between rebuilds.  Therefore, the Indy Lights teams would have to use a detuned version (lower RPM's) of the IRL engine to improve longevity.  Once per year they can lease the higher performance IRL engines for the Indy 500, much like Chip Ganassi did this past year.  Even though the engine would be detuned from around, say 650 HP to 550 HP, it still will likely cost more than the current Indy Lights engine.  More on that later.

  3. The IRL engine is a V-8, Indy Lights a V-6.  CART wants the new Indy Lights engine to be a V-8.  Therefore the IRL engine fits the bill.  The IRL engine burns Methanol, so does the Champ car engine.  Perfect - one fuel supplier for both.

  4. The IRL car is bigger than an Indy Lights car.  Much like a NASCAR Busch car is the same exact size as a Winston Cup car, but with less HP, an Indy Lights car should be the same size as a Champ car, but with less HP.  By the very nature that a Lights car would be similar to its bigger brethren, the fans would better identify with them.   The Toyota Atlantic series and the Indy Lights series are too close together in terms of size and performance that only leads to confusion on the part of the casual fan.  The result - neither series is prospering as well as it should.  Winston Cup drivers who are out of a ride sometimes step down to the Busch cars until they can find a ride again in the Cup cars.  Some Cup regulars like Mark Martin, run quite a number of Busch races which helps to strengthen that series.  Champ car drivers view Indy Lights as too far a step backwards, hence potentially a black mark on their career.  This proposal lessens that concern.

  5. IRL transmissions and clutches are not built for road courses.  The Indy Lights cars would likely need a slightly modified gearbox and clutch assembly, but the new IRL sequential gearboxes are much better than the original transmissions, so they might work.  This issues needs further study

  6. Indy Lights fields are dwindling.  This problem is directly attributed to the IRL.  Many teams that may have run in the Indy Lights series are choosing the IRL instead because of the chance to compete at the Indy 500.  By running IRL spec cars, some IRL teams might come over to run Indy Lights races on an off-weekend, and vice versa.  It also gives IRL drivers a chance to try some road course events, valuable experience, should they ever decide to move up to Champ Cars.

  7. The number of Champ Car teams fielding Indy Lights cars is dwindling.  That problem would change overnight if a Champ car team could run IRL spec cars in Indy Lights....cars that can then be used to run the Indy 500 each year.  All of a sudden you would have most Champ car teams finding a way to field a Lights team by asking their sponsors to pony up more money with the promise of going to Indy each year.  This also has the added benefit that Indy Lights, by default, becomes the farm system for mechanics, engineers and other team personnel that Champ Car teams so desperately need.  Each team would have, in affect, Baseball's equivalent of a AAA ball club.  And it would be kind of neat to have the same color/sponsor scheme cars in both Champ Cars and Lights competing...better fan identity.

  8. What happens if Tony George changes the IRL car or engine specs in 2-years?  That is a risk CART runs, but the IRL teams are just as financially strapped as the Indy Lights teams.  They can't afford any drastic rules changes either.  Tony George must be cognizant of that.

  9. What if Tony George reinstates the 25/8 rule?  Again that is a risk CART runs, but we don't think he will, and if he does, so what?  Use the cars to run the Indy Lights series as you were anyway.  The IRL people and Tony George have openly stated that CART is welcomed if they run cars meeting IRL specifications.  Plus having the Indy 500 be a IRL vs. CART battle each year will raise interest and awareness for both sides.  The Indy 500 will become the World Series of Indy car racing.  Tony George must see this as a good thing.  The IRL and Indy Lights are going to run some joint events next year anyway.  This way maybe they could run more.

  10. The IRL engine is too loud for street circuits.  Put a muffler on them.  I'm serious.  It can be done quite easily.

  11. Who gets to run the Indy 500, Lights or Champ Car drivers?  That decision is entirely up to the team.  If the team is strictly a Lights team, then of course the regular Lights drivers would compete, or they could lease their car to a Champ Car regular who can put a sponsorship package together.  If the team is a dual Champ/Lights team then the team will need to decide who gets to go and who doesn't.  In almost all instances, it will be the Champ Car driver that goes.

  12. What about the current engine manufacturers?  Don't they get left out?  Yes and no.  They are against building an IRL engine, so yes they would get left holding the bag so-to-speak.  But wait, maybe not.  Wasn't it Toyota who ran a full page advertisement in the USA Today congratulating their driver, Juan Montoya, for winning the Indy 500?  Didn't Robby Gordon's uniform have 'Toyota' written all over it when he ran in the Indy 500 and almost won in 1999?  One has to wonder if Toyota got more mileage from Montoya and Gordon than Oldsmobile.  And Ford, Honda and Toyota could take out TV ads during the Indy 500 broadcast getting exposure that way.  It just requires thinking outside the box a bit.

Indy Lights Poll
The new Indy Lights cars should conform to which specification?
IRL Cars
Be Unique

Hopefully I have addressed most of the issues.  Unfortunately this doesn't get CART that 'showcase' event it needs, but it is, perhaps,  the next best thing.  When CART teams ran at Indy prior to 1995, CART didn't sanction the race, USAC did.  In many respects, CART was on the outside looking in then, just as it is now.   In the end, the fans don't remember the Indy 500 by which sanctioning body ran the race, it remembers the Indy 500 by what driver sipped the milk in Victory Lane. If the new Indy Lights cars end up being anything but an IRL spec car, I just don't see many CART drivers participating in the Indy 500 in the foreseeable future, which means when it comes to the magic of Indy, CART, but more importantly its drivers, remain on the outside looking in.

The author can be contacted at markc@autoracing1.com

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