Is Porsche looking to go IRL racing?

UPDATE Roger Penske usually likes to make a splash when he announces a new racing endeavor. But recently The Captain seemed to go to great depths to downplay his entry with Porsche into the American Le Mans Series. There was a press conference at Road Atlanta but media members in attendance were told there would be no Q & A session because one of the parties "didn't want to answer any questions." Gee, you don't suppose that was Roger do you?

First off, this was a major triumph for the ALMS in its war with Grand Am for sports car superiority. And a major slap in the face to Jim France's series. Penske, still thought to be one of the majority stock holders in International Speedway Corporation, is obviously a partner and confidant of the France family. He sold all his race tracks to them and then gave NASCAR's supposed partner, the Indy Racing League, a big jolt of credibility when he left Championship Auto Racing Teams for the IRL in 2002.

Earlier this year at Homestead, Fla. some of Penske's key people were checking out all the Grand Am's equipment and it seemed a given that the most successful team in American open-wheel racing would be joining this France promotion. But not only did Penske throw in with the enemy, he went with the hobby stocks instead of the late models. Rather than running the full-blooded prototype LMP1 to do battle with Audi, The Captain chose the LMP2 — which is kinda like going Toyota Atlantic instead of Champ Car or the Infiniti Pro Series instead of Indy cars.

And there's also a faction of folks who believe Porsche's 3.5-liter V-8 may wind up in Penske's Indy car after Toyota leaves. Derrick Walker isn't one of them. "I'd be surprised if the IRL were a fit for them (Porsche) at this time," said Walker, who ran Porsche's CART effort following Al Holbert's death and also competed in the 1989 Indy 500 with the German manufacturer. "I still talk to those people on a regular basis and I think they're getting serious about sports cars again." Walker is much closer to the Porsche folks than most and he also knows plenty about Penske since he worked for R.P. for many years.

04/27/05 We highly doubt this rumor but we publish what we hear. This week's National Speed Sport News has an article that says (key excerpts) – Questions were being asked this week in the wake of the announcement at Road Atlanta that Roger Penske had signed on to introduced Porsche's first prototype in more than half a decade to the American Le Mans Series in 2006 as to whether or not there was anything more to the deal than an ALMS effort.

Earlier this past winter there had been suggestions that the German car maker would also build and race an LMP1 category spyder, a project said to be based largely on its LMP2 entry, but with an up-rated engine, possibly turbocharged. However, more current reports indicate that the LMP1 now is in considerable doubt in the wake of suggestions that Porsche's management would only undertake such a project if it could be "guaranteed" success.

What has attracted the interest of the industry in light of Porsche's reported position is why a team of such stature like Penske Racing, which is known for competing at the highest levels of the sport, should undertake a program that is dedicated to a subordinate category. Many insiders suggest that one possible attraction during the negotiations that led to the agreement could well have been a Penske attempt on the Le Mans 24 Hours; one of the few major events the American has not yet won. However, others suggested that at 3.4 liters, a destroked version of the V8 could bring Porsche back to the Indianapolis 500 under the Penske banner.

While Penske has denied that there is "an IRL future" for the German powerplant, and while Porsche itself has remained silent on the issue, some industry observers [Editor's Note: Who are these so-called Industry Observers? We suspect someone who is concerned about the IRL's future if Toyota and Honda leave is reaching for straws or trying to start a rumor to make Toyota and Honda think twice about leaving] have said that such a scenario might well be possible in 2007, if the IRL provides a place for full, custom-built racing V8s in its new engine regulations scheduled to go into effect that January.

That position is bolstered by the rumored departure of Toyota from the IRL for a NASCAR Nextel Cup program, something that would leave Penske without an engine supplier at that point. Further, while the IRL is said to be studying the option of incorporating Detroit-based push-rod V8s in its new rules, if as an option, or possibly as the sole option, few would deny that the sagging fortunes of the IRL might well be boosted if Porsche were to enter the series. In fact, there are those who have said that the presence of the German factory might well spur Honda, and perhaps even Toyota to remain as part of the IRL family.

At this point, though, all that appears certain is the fact that the cost to Porsche for the design and development of its new LMP2 V8 is large enough to ensure that it has intended uses beyond the second banana LMP2 ALMS division. This plus Penske's prior history is what is fueling the speculation, which probably won't be answered for some time to come.

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