Roger Penske addresses the media at the General Motors announcement at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum on November 12, 2010 (Photo: IMS/Ron McQueeney
Friday has always been a good day for most, but for a small subset of the North American population this Friday was better than most as the wraps came off of some big news for the IZOD IndyCar Series for the 2012 season - namely, that recently-bailed-out General Motors would be adding IndyCar racing to its rebuilding plan.
The Big Announcement was something less than a shock, considering that Peter De Lorenzo broke the news over a week ahead of time (Ed. Note: fortunately, the world has not, as of this writing, exploded in a giant fiery ball of irony). It also didn't help the suspense when people arrived at the press conference to see a background festooned with Chevrolet bowtie logos.
Still, there was plenty of good feeling going around as General Motors stepped up to the plate and delivered what very few people realistically expected to see for 2012 - a legitimate competitor to Honda Performance Development in the area of IndyCar engine supply.
Not that anyone expected the drought of manufacturer competition to last very long once the 2012 engine regulations took effect, but the whispers in the wind said that it was too trying a task to build a brand-new engine with the dearth of lead time available before the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season - or, worse, that it wasn't too hard, but not interesting enough to potential partners.
The IndyCar powers-that-be insisted that there was interest from "multiple parties" with regard to the new purpose-built turbo V6 that the IndyCar ICONIC Committee settled on in their 2012 proposal - and some of the names in the rumor mill were surprising. But none of them, according to conventional wisdom at least, would have the wherewithal to act on that interest until at least 2013.
So, in that context, I suppose IndyCar and Randy Bernard could be excused for lobbing a "BOOM! ROASTED!" to all of their critics and doubters. The 2011 season hasn't even started ramping up yet and there are already two confirmed engine builders and three aero-kit manufacturers (Chevy, Dallara, and Lotus) slated for 2012. What burns the ICONIC naysayers the most is that the latest word anyone has is that the GM announcement is only the first of a handful of them expected in the near future.
But let's not let the joyous celebration of the General Motors announcement distract us from something else very important that happened on Friday. Namely, the official confirmation that Roger Penske - THE CAPTAIN HISOWNSELF - once again played the IndyCar chessboard perfectly and to his maximum benefit.
Yes indeedy, folks, ol' Roger once again found the best seat after the music stopped. It's undeniable! The man has a preternatural business sense when it comes to racing ventures, and the Chevrolet deal he made is simply the next in a long line of decisions that proves that Penske is thinking at least forty moves ahead of everyone else.
But wait, you say. Penske Racing isn't going to be a "factory" Chevrolet effort because the 2012 rules package specifically prohibits such things! A valid point, to be sure. But if we play "Six Degrees of Roger Penske," it's clear to see that this deal is the next best thing for the Captain. GM's Chevrolet division will be working with Ilmor Engineering to develop the Indy V6 turbo engine. Roger Penske owns Ilmor Engineering. I leave it to you to connect the dots.
GASP! sez you. Roger would never do something as sneaky as that to gain a competitive advantage! And if you believe that, I have a great deal for you on a slightly-used bridge in San Francisco. Penske is not some wide-eyed newcomer to IndyCar racing. This is a guy who builds custom versions of every part on his IndyCars that isn't legally required by the rulebook to be spec from the Dallara factory. His was one of Toyota's factory teams when the manufacturer defected from the gradually-declining CART series to the Indy Racing League in 2003. This is also a guy whose teams seemed to do really, really well when Honda used Ilmor Engineering as their go-to consultants when they built the Honda Indy V8 currently in use in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
It's not a conspiracy theory. It's business and forethought, and a keenly-honed sense of opportunism. Penske saw that Honda wanted to develop their Indy V6 turbo motor on their own, which would leave Ilmor without a significant paying client. So he figured that since his employees needed to keep their jobs, IndyCar needed another engine manufacturer, and he needed to keep his odds of winning the Indianapolis 500 in the high double digits... well, you do what you gotta do, right?
Everyone who buys a Chevy Indy V6 will get the same equipment and technology. Penske says that the process of his teams getting their Chevy engines will be transparent. But... transparency, schmansparency. Penske will have the goods. Bank on it.
It's why I had to laugh when someone asked, "Hey Roger, have you talked to Ford yet?" Penske mumbled something generic to answer, but I bet he was thinking, "Why would I do that? I've already got my sweetheart deal."
The most likely person to be Ford's dance partner, by the way, would be Kevin Kalkhoven - owner of Cosworth and erstwhile partner of FoMoCo in open-wheel racing. But Cosworth might be going a different route, building a branded engine for another manufacturer (some say that Cosworth will be building an Alfa Romeo-badged Indy V6 turbo for Fiat, but so far that's just speculation).
At any rate, all of this intrigue aside, the one quote out of the avalanche of sunshine being blown up everyone's skirts about Chevrolet coming back to IndyCar that summed up why GM's involvement is critical for the series was offered by J.R. Hildebrand. Hildebrand, who doesn't even have an IndyCar ride yet for 2011 (but if there were any justice in the world, he would), said this:
It's not only great to see an American brand come back, but it's Chevrolet. I grew up in a Chevy family. My dad had a '68 Camaro, and he's got a '78 IMSA GTO Camaro now. It's always something I grew up around. I think seeing competition from a domestic manufacturer, especially seeing the 'Bowtie,' is a cool deal.
You don't need to read any of the other quotes (although I'm guessing you already have, or will). This one sums it up - not for nothing does the old GM commercial say, "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet." Chevy is and always will be the epitome of an American brand. It runs in the very marrow of American automotive culture. Getting them back into IndyCar is nothing short of a coup for the series, not to mention the fans who have been longing for more domestic representation.
Rumors continue to swirl that Fiat might be getting on board too, whether it's an engine or an aero kit - and if they're true, how cool would it be to have either Alfa Romeo or Maserati, both marques with significant history at Indianapolis, back with the series? It would certainly be a great deal for all parties.
But the best deal has already happened. How much better could the Chevrolet news get for the sport - or indeed, for the guy who always seems to keep his balance in the vertiginous world of IndyCar racing?