There's an old saying in racing: 'You're never ready; it's just time to go.'
That could be the motto of the Indy Racing League.
The IRL switched to its own engine and chassis, beginning with the Jan. 25 Indy 200 at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. The new rules require 90-degree, double-overhead-cam, 32-valve, normally aspirated, 4.0-liter V-8s based on passenger-car engines.
Oldsmobile and Infiniti are the two companies producing IRL engines for 1997, based on the Aurora's V-8 and the Q45's 4.1-liter V-8. On the surface, providing a race version of an existing engine always looks like a relatively simple endeavor. It never is.
IRL rules do not require pure stock engine blocks, so Oldsmobile and Infiniti engineers have had to redesign the blocks, cylinder heads and other components. The blocks needed to be reworked because the engines are stressed components of the IRL's new G Force and Dallara chassis, which were required in part because of the larger dimensions of the original blocks.
Exactly how much reworking was done is a well-kept secret. Each manufacturer claims that its production engine has advantages over its competitor's in racing applications.
Infiniti and Olds spent $4 million to $6 million moving their racing V-8s from the drawing board through testing, according to various sources. Comparative costs for an engine in the CART series are estimated at $14 million; those engines are produced by Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Toyota.
Oldsmobile had about a year to develop its engine before the IRL season's first race; Infiniti had about six weeks less.
It obviously wasn't enough time for either company. At the Phoenix 200 March 23, the IRL's second race of the year, 14 engines blew either in practice or the race. As in Orlando, only nine cars finished.
The engine builders, chassis manufacturers and the teams now are concentrating on getting ready for the 81st running of the Indianapolis 500 May 25.
At last count, 46 out of the 64 cars that will try to qualify for Indy are powered by Aurora engines, 13 have Infiniti powerplants and five engines are unspecified.
The IRL's attraction for both Infiniti and Olds is easy to understand. They have a chance to win the Indianapolis 500 - and benefit from whatever publicity that brings - without having to spend as much money as it would take to develop a pure racing engine for the rival CART series.
One of the IRL's objectives is to reduce the cost of competition. In CART racing, teams lease an engine (several are needed for each car) for $140,000 per season. IRL teams will be able to buy their engines for $75,000 each. IRL teams also have the option of buying engine blocks and heads from Oldsmobile or Infiniti, and building their own finished engines with aftermarket components.
That is a relative bargain for competitors, but not necessarily for the manufacturers. While the IRL engine was a less-expensive alternative to a CART engine, Infiniti says it expects to recover no more than half its investment in the form of payments from customers.
This story was based on a report by Mitch McCullough, a correspondent for AutoWeek, a sister publication to Automotive News.