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Thursday, May 23
Updated: May 25, 1:44 PM ET
Penske's fingers all over Honda move
By Robin Miller
INDIANAPOLIS -- The open wheel war in this country didn't officially end Thursday but the balance of power certainly took a decided shift towards the Indy Racing League.
When Honda announced it was joining arch-rival Toyota in IRL competition beginning in 2003, it was a gut shot to Championship Auto Racing Teams and left the 23-year-old series bleeding profusely.
Not so much because CART lost another manufacturer or even because it lost a very valuable marketing partner. Honda had already announced it wouldn't be in CART next year.
No, the reason this news is so damaging to CART is what it will do for Tony George's all-oval series.
First off, Honda spends millions annually in promoting CART on television, radio and print, not to mention the races it sponsors. It's not a stretch to say that without the exposure generated by Honda, Toyota and Target, you wouldn't even know CART existed in this country.
Now all those resources go to the IRL, which has no title sponsor and desperately needs more identity.
Toyota also props up its CART teams in the same manner. Derrick Walker probably wouldn't be in business without Toyota.
So, let's do a little math.
Green, Nunn and Fernandez have big-time sponsors for their multi-car teams but suddenly they're faced with a choice. Do they stay in CART, expand the budget and lease engines from either Cosworth, MG-Judd or Ilmor? Or do they follow the Honda money train to the IRL?
The general consensus is that in today's economy nobody in motorsports can afford to turn down gratis engines or any form of subsidizing. CART is currently struggling to field 20 cars at every race and cannot afford to lose one more team -- let alone a major player like a Green or Nunn.
It won't take a mass exodus to cripple CART, just a couple more defectors like Roger Penske, who brought two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran and 2001 Indy winner Helio Castroneves to the IRL this year.
Many folks inside the CART community feel like Penske has been one of the driving forces behind Toyota's move to the IRL and Honda's sudden change of heart about competing in a low-tech series like George's.
The largest Toyota dealer in the USA, Penske will be Toyota's IRL factory team in 2003 and reap the many perks that brings. He's also got Honda dealerships and still owns 25 percent of Ilmor Engineering, which will partner with Honda in the IRL.
Penske's fingerprints are all over these deals and it's not surprising considering he's always one step ahead of the posse. Or, as former driver Danny Sullivan once so eloquently put it, "When the music stops, Roger always has a chair."
And while it's still hard to imagine Penske helping to torpedo the series he helped start and fund, don't lose sight of the fact The Captain always does what's best for The Captain. He's still a huge shareholder in Bill France's International Speedway Corporation and ISC is married to George.
CART should have seen it coming. After its sweep at Indy last May, Penske protested against running a full page ad in USA Today. One of his lieutenants said Penske didn't want to throw it in George's face and now that all makes sense.
But I'll give Penske this much. He spent a few months listening to the ramblings of former CART CEO Joe Heitzler, saw the lack of foresight among his fellow owners in chaotic board meetings and decided the IRL was a better option.
Besides, it was CART's ineptness and moronic decisions that really shoved Honda out the door. Following last summer's popoff valve controversy at Detroit (when CART's former technical chief Kirk Russell infuriated Ford, Toyota and Honda), peace was restored until CART's infamous news conference at Houston.
That's when it was announced CART was going to normally-aspirated engines in 2003 despite having no manufacturers lined up. More maddening to Honda and Ford was the fact CART's owners had originally promised to stay with turbocharged engines until 2004.
It must have been the ultimate insult to the Japanese and my guess is at that point CART became the enemy. Robert Clarke of Honda Performance Development said Thursday we wouldn't believe him but that this decision was not made in Japan. He's right, I don't believe him.
A lot of people thought Chris Pook could save Honda but the decision to go IRL was made long before he began running CART last December.
Pook has done a lot of smart things in a short time but his task now appears almost impossible. He's got Cosworth, MG-Judd and Ilmor for 2003 and has to somehow convince his Honda and Toyota teams to pick one of those three and stay loyal to CART despite having no chance of being subsidized.
He also has to find marketing partners to replace Toyota and Honda. Good luck.
As for George, he may not have to fire another shot. This latest artillery barrage may be enough. But it's still ironic, and hypocritical, that the IRL is dancing in the streets because it's got Toyota and Honda. They were CART's evil engine lease companies back in 1996 and today they're being applauded.
Except I don't hear the IRL's original engine manufacturers -- General Motors and Nissan -- doing much clapping.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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