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Climbing the IndyCar Ladder

(Editor’s note:  This is the second post this month from the cagey Canuck Steve Wittich.  Pay attention.  He really knows his stuff.)

I wanted to thank Mark one more time for allowing me to contribute to his blog.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have a soft spot for the feeder series.  It goes back to my childhood and my Dad who closely followed the Formula Atlantic Series in the 1970’s.  What wasn’t to like with names like Gilles Villeneuve, Bobby Rahal, (Uncle) Jacques Villeneuve, Bill Brack, Keke Rossberg, Price Cobb, Tom Gloy, Howdy Holmes and Danny Sullivan?

But this blog is not going to be about Formula Atlantic’s (although it might be the subject of another blog if Mark has me back).  I’m going to concentrate on the two iterations of Indy Lights (another possible blog) and their impact on this year’s Indianapolis 500.

First, let’s start with a few quick statistics about how Indy Lights drivers have fared at IMS in the past decade.  Five of the last ten Indianapolis 500 winners have been Indy Lights graduates: Dan Wheldon (twice), Helio Castroneves (twice) and Scott Dixon.

The 33 drivers in the Indianapolis 500 come from very diverse backgrounds: Formula One, Indy Lights, Formula Atlantics, GP2, World Series by Renault, International Touring Car Series, and Mexican Formula 2.

The Indy Lights contingent makes up the largest proportion of the field with 15 graduates competing.  That list includes seven past Indy Lights champions: Josef Newgarden, J.R. Hildebrand, Wade Cunningham, Townsend Bell, Scott Dixon, Oriol Servia, and Tony Kanaan.   It also includes Sebastian Saavedra who is currently leading the 2012 Indy Lights points chase.

But the Lights graduates aren’t just confined to the starting field.

Former Lights champions Bryan Herta, Eric Bachelart, & Robbie Buhl are car owners in the 2012 Indianapolis 500, and Ed Carpenter is an owner and a driver.

If you watch the NBC Sports coverage of Carb Day, two more Indy Lights grads are featured.  Wally Dallenbach, Jr. joins 1988 Indy Lights champion Jon Beekhuis in the booth to provide expert coverage of IndyCar racing.

It is not uncommon to hear whispers that Indy Lights doesn’t provide a lot of value to IndyCar.   And while it would be great to see more recent Indy Lights grads (Jay Howard, Alex Lloyd, Pippa Mann, Rafa Matos, Martin Plowman and others) in the 2012 Indianapolis 500 field, it is clear that Indy Lights plays a starring role in the production of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Honda: Checkered Past to Checkered Flag

(Editor’s Note: Steve Wittich, today’s guest blogger, is one canny Canuck.  New Track Record was lucky enough to get him to write about some real history instead of the semi-lucid ramblings usually found here.  We hope he will follow this up with another post next Thursday.  You can find a daily dose of racing opinions from Steve on Twitter @stevewittich.)

I’d like to thank Mark for this opportunity to guest blog on NewTrackRecord.  I had a grand plan to explain the IndyCar engine wars of the past and dovetail that into explaining why engines are leased instead of purchased.  I decided that might be a little deep for my first blog attempt, so I have instead decided to focus on a study in perseverance for one of IndyCar’s current engine manufacturers.

Honda’s mid-80’s foray into IndyCar racing was a disaster.  Their “badging” of the Judd AV lasted only one year.  Fast forward to the mid-90’s, 1994 to be exact, and this commercial:

This time instead of partnering with a third-party engine manufacturer, Honda took matters into their own hands and formed Honda Performance Development.  They chose to partner with Rahal-Hogan Racing with drivers Bobby Rahal and Mike Groff.  As far as the overall season went, it wasn’t a total disaster.  Bobby Rahal finished 10th in points and Mike Groff finished 20th in points. The results were extremely inconsistent with mechanical failures being quite common. .

But remember that the tag-line in the above commercial was “See ya at Indy”.  From the beginning Honda has made it quite clear that winning Indy was their goal.  Unfortunately for Honda the month of May didn’t quite go as planned.  Rahal and Groff were unable to get their Honda powered Lola’s up to speed and ended up leasing two Ilmor powered Penske PC22s from Roger Penske.  Both easily qualified for the field.  Groff’s day ended early when he and Dominic Dobson made contact, and Rahal was able to ride his rented mule to a third place finish.

One might think that after those two missteps, Honda would reconsider their involvement in IndyCar racing.  They doubled down and pressed on, and in 1995 they joined forces with Tasman Motorsports.  Tasman fielded one full-time car for Indy Lights standout Andre Ribiero as well as a part-time car for Canadian Scott Goodyear.

The year started off slowly for Tasman and Ribiero with three DNF’s in the first three races, but their luck started to turn around at Nazareth.  Giving us a hint of Honda’s new found power was a sixth place start and 11th place finish.  It was now on to Indy where Goodyear would drive a second Tasman car.  Goodyear’s surprising outside front row starting position was overshadowed by the failure of Team Penske to qualify for the race.

The Honda’s race day horsepower was evident as soon as the green flag dropped when Goodyear swept to the lead and led the race for 42 laps.  Unfortunately while leading during a late restart, Goodyear passed the pace car, and his refusal to acknowledge the black flag meant he finished in 17th place.  Honda came “that” close to achieving their goal in only their second try.  I’m not sure anybody knew at that point that it would be almost two decades before they got another shot.

The rest of the year for Tasman and Ribiero was a mixed bag of results as they generally qualified in the top 10 but due to mechanical issues and incidents failed to finish many races.  They did have one VERY bright spot as Ribiero put his Reynard Honda on the pole at New Hampshire and proceeded to run away with the race.

The following season (1996) saw Honda greatly expand their effort to include seven full-time cars including Chip Gannasi Racing.  Honda won all but three races that season and won their first series championship with Ganassi’s Jimmy Vasser.

This started an impressive string of six straight CART championships including two by Alex Zanardi, two by Gil de Ferran and one by Juan Pablo Montoya.

In 2002 Honda announced that they had unfinished business at the Indy 500 and would begin supplying engines to IRL teams in 2003.  They had some success in 2003 with wins by Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta, but they would have to wait until 2004 to finally taste victory at Indianapolis.

Buddy Rice came out on top at the 2004 Indianapolis 500 giving Honda victory exactly two decades after they went home with their tail between their legs.  It was a dominating performance by Honda that saw them take home the first seven spots in the race.  That win began an era of Honda domination, and they have won the last seven Indianapolis 500’s and drove their competition from the series

Honda came to dominate IndyCar, but I’d like to remind people not to forget their inauspicious start and applaud them for the perseverance and dedication that it took to overcome that.

Whether Honda can make it eight Indianapolis 500 victories in a row is a big question mark.  Engine competition has brought some new story lines to IndyCar and watching Chevrolet try to wrestle control of the Indianapolis 500 away from Honda is definitely the headliner.

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