Power Play: Toyota Joins IRNLS

In a move that could signal an eventual reconciliation, or at least peaceful coexistence, between the two open-wheel organizations in the United States, Toyota announced today that it would begin supplying normally aspirated engines for the Indy Racing Northern Light Series in 2003.

Toyota’s decision could be a harbinger of similar decisions from Ford and possibly even Honda, the two other manufacturers that produce engines for the CART FedEx Ch

ampionship Series along with Toyota. If other manufacturers decided to build IRNLS engines, they must submit proposals by April 1, 2002.

General Motors and Nissan also announced on Tuesday that they would continue to produce engines for the IRNLS. All three companies will produce engines for the IRNLS through the 2005 season.

The big news, of course, was Toyota’s move to the IRNLS.

"Toyota’s involvement is going to deliver three main benefits to the series," said Bob Reif, senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing and Chief Marketing Officer of the IRNLS. "First off, it’s going to increase the competition, which is extremely important to the growth of the series. Second, it’s going to increase the exposure of the league and it’s stakeholders.

"Third, this really reinforces the stability and vitality of the Indy Racing engine formula that we’ve worked so hard on.

"Clearly, this is a message about growth; the series is growing and moving in the right direction."

Toyota has been interested in competing in and winning the Indianapolis 500 since it first began planning for its entry into American open-wheel racing in 1993. By the time the company’s product was ready for action, IMS president Tony George had announced the formation of his all-oval series, leaving Toyota aligned with CART.

"We look forward to this participation and competing with these fine competitors, General Motors and Infiniti," said Jim Aust, president and chief executive officer of Toyota Racing Development. "We’re very excited to be part of the Indy Racing League."

Serious discussions between the three engine manufacturers and the IRNLS began late last summer, and final engine specifications were agreed upon in January.

The results were that the engines will remain primarily unchanged in 2003, with the only changes concerning allowing a second fuel injection nozzle per cylinder and allowing camshafts to be chain or gear driven. Engines will continue to be 3.5-liter, normally aspirated V8s.

CART, which was originally scheduled to announce its specifications on March 1, is now faced with a decision: Does it risk alienating Toyota by sticking with its turbo-charged engine formula or does it risk alienating Honda by going with a normally aspirated formula? Either way, it seems CART teams will at least have the opportunity to more easily take part in the Indianapolis 500 now that Toyota has entered the IRNLS.

IRNLS vice president of operations Brian Barnhart even sees Ford, another CART engine builder, as a player.

"I think there is considerable interest on the Ford side," Barnhart said.

Reif agreed.

"Indy Racing now has three of the best names in the auto industry competing in open-wheel, oval-track racing, and there's no reason to believe there won't be more when the first green flag drops in 2003," Reif said.

Aust backed up Reif's and Barnhart's comments.

"We’ve had ongoing discussions with the CART team owners and there’s a great deal of interest as to what this might provide to them as far as participation," he said. "We’re hopeful that we can convert some of our teams to run in the IRL."

Joe Negri, GM Racing program manager, also announced that GM would not rebadge the existing Aurora engine, rather the company is going to produce an entirely different product to replace Oldsmobile’s Aurora, which is being phased out.

Tuesday’s announcements were made a week after CART driver Michael Andretti revealed plans to enter this year’s Indianapolis 500. The ramifications and historical importance of that event prompted Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson to revisit the highs and lows of the Andretti family’s career at the Indianapolis 500.

"This is big," he said.

Who would have known a week later that in the same room at the same time, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IRNLS would be part of an even bigger announcement.

Bob Reif Indy Racing League IRL Toyota Sponsorship