Oldsmobile and Infiniti entered the Indy Racing League for the glory of winning the big one, the Indianapolis 500. The first results were decidedly mixed.
Oldsmobile's Aurora race engine powered the car of Indy winner Arie Luyendyk. But many of the modified Aurora and Infiniti Q45 engines leaked oil or coolant, or else blew during practice, qualifying or the rain-delayed race itself.
PLENTY OF TROUBLE
At least 10 drivers failed to finish as a result of engine problems, and media coverage of practice sessions and the race was packed with reports of engine trouble.
Oldsmobile and Infiniti said, however, that they expect no marketing fallout from the problems.
A month earlier, at the Phoenix International Raceway, only nine of 22 Oldsmobile- and Infiniti-powered cars finished the 200-mile race. There were 14 engine failures during practice sessions and the race.
Oldsmobile's Aurora V-8 and Infiniti's Q45 V-8 were modified to meet the specifications of the upstart IRL, which broke away from CART in January 1996 and began as a separate series, with the Indianapolis 500 as its centerpiece.
For the 1997 season, IRL decided to forego CART-style engines for 4.0-liter V-8s derived from production engines. Oldsmobile and Infiniti had little more than a year to develop the race versions.
The Aurora V-8 race engine had problems with its water pump and the oil sump, which had a tendency to crack. The problems with the Infiniti race engine could be traced to its bearings and oiling system.
'Given a little more time, we'd be happier with our performance,' said Scott Vazin, manager of corporate communications at Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. 'But right now there just hasn't been the time for testing.'
Infiniti's top finisher in the Indianapolis 500 was driver Mike Groff, who was 12th.
Vazin said he does not believe the problems will hurt Infiniti's marketing campaign. 'We're going to continue to market the Infiniti Indy engine,' he said. 'We knew going in that this (Indy racing) was a long-term program.'
Asked if the engine problems will cause any image problems for Oldsmobile, spokesman Gus Buenz said, 'Absolutely not.'
The top 11 finishers at Indy were powered by Aurora engines, he said.
'We feel very good about the high-speed performance and durability of the engine,' he said, 'especially considering it was a clean sheet of paper a year ago.'
The marketing campaign for the engine 'is only going to get better as we learn how to market it,' he said.