Single engine great equalizer

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – For every Ganassi, there’s a Gregoire. For every Rahal, there’s a Roth. For every Penske, there’s a PDM, or a Panther, or a Playa.

The have-nots of Indy racing still outnumber the haves, and money remains the great divider. But the Indy Racing League’s switch to a single engine supplier and a new rule limiting how many miles each engine may run might turn out to be the great equalizers in this year’s Indianapolis 500.

If nothing else, it should make it far more competitive.

“This year is the best year for that because we have the same engines,” said Stephan Gregoire, who drives for Team Leader, one of the smaller operations trying for spots in the May 28 race. “The biggest difference for big teams, at least when you have different manufacturers, is the engine. And when it comes to the Indy 500, you really want to have power.

“Having the same power that everybody else should really benefit the small teams.”

Chevrolet left the IRL after last season and Toyota withdrew in December, a year earlier than it had planned. That left Honda, which won 14 of 16 races in 2004 and 12 of 17 last year, as the only engine supplier for the open-wheel series.

Each team received a new $125,000 Indy V8 engine from Honda for each of its cars before the start of practice last week. Only those engines may be used through practice and qualifications, and a limit of 1,200 miles per engine forces each team to devise a strategy of how it wants to allocate its miles.

Then, after qualifications end Sunday, the 33 cars that make the starting field will get new engines for the final Carburetion Day practice on May 26 and the race two days later.

Those same engines also must be used for the next IRL race June 4 at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

“It’s a much leveler playing field,” said owner-driver Marty Roth, who, like Gregoire, doesn’t have a backup car. “In the past, a small team like myself just couldn’t get a Honda. Today, everybody’s in the same motor, so it’s all about (chassis) setup right now.”

Most teams are using the Dallara chassis; the rest, Panoz.

“If you’re not fast, it’s in the setup, and you just keep at it,” Roth said.

The 47-year-old Canadian, the second-oldest driver entered, formed his own team in the developmental Indy Pro Series after the 2003 season and became the first owner in that series to move up to Indy cars. He was 24th after crashing at Indianapolis as a rookie in 2004 and 31st last year, his only IndyCar career starts.

“It’s a race track like any other race track. We’ve run smaller series against big teams and big operations, and small teams can get up there,” Roth said. “It’s tough when you’re a single-driver team, absolutely. You can cover a lot more ground with having more drivers. But we get out there and do it. … When it comes down to qualifying and running the race, anything can happen.”

The application of technology also plays a part in equalizing the competition, said two-time winner Al Unser Jr.

“The way the rules are, the way the formula’s set up, the way the teams are so knowledgeable with all the instrumentation and the data acquisitions, the information the crew has can be relayed right to the driver,” Unser said.

Gregoire was the fastest rookie qualifier in 1993 and had his best finish in six Indy starts in 2000, when he was eighth. But he has not driven at Indianapolis since 2001.

“The goal is to not make any mistake,” he said of the risk of a crash without having a backup car available. “It could happen, and I don’t even want to think about that. The team probably has a plan if that happened, but I don’t even want to ask about that.”

AP-ES-05-18-06 1305EDT

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