New twist at Indy: top engines similar to those in passenger cars

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

In 1946, Andy Granatelli and his brothers drove from Chicago to Indianapolis for the famous 500-mile race. That may not have been so unusual, since hundreds of thousands of people come to Indianapolis each May for ``the greatest spectacle in racing.'' But when the Granatellis arrived, they didn't go to the ticket window. They pulled up to the entrance to Gasoline Alley and requested a garage. Where, they were asked, was their race car?

Why, they were driving it, they replied, and they removed the license plates, did some fine-tuning and watched as driver Danny Kladis qualified their car for the 500.

Racing technology has come a long way since those casual days of the '40s. Indianapolis takes credit for such automotive innovations as the rear view mirror, hydraulic shock absorbers, disc brakes and independent suspension -- all of which you probably have on the car you drive to work each day. But recently there's been very little relationship between your $15,000 passenger car and a $150,000 race car except that each has a steering wheel and four tires.

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At least there hasn't been much in common until this month, when a pair of cars with Buick V-6 engines were the fastest in qualifying for next Sunday's 69th running of the race.

While you wouldn't want to pull one of those engines out of the cars driven at more than 212 miles per hour here by Duane ``Pancho'' Carter or Scott Brayton and put it into your sedan, Ron Kociba, manager of engine activities for Buick's special products group, said the so-called stock block engines being run at the Brickyard and the true stock block engines being run on the boulevard have more in common than even most people in racing would imagine.

They call them ``stock blocks'' here, but actually they are highly sophisticated, custom-machined variations of Detroit production engines. Yet not since 1931 and Russ Snowberger's Studebaker had anything even resembling a passenger-car engine propelled a pole-sitter at Indy.

For decades, the made-for-racing Offenhausers were dominant. More recently, the British-built Cosworth V-8, first-cousin of the Grand Prix racing engine, provided the power for laps at more than 200 miles per hour.

But in an interesting mix of patriotic pride and cost consciousness, race officials wrote rules which encouraged someone to develop a competitive American stock block engine.

Only a few tried. Fewer succeeded, although Dan Gurney's aptly named All-American Racing team produced a Chevrolet engine which Mike Mosley drove to the second-fastest qualifying time in 1981.

But as stock block engines would come and go -- and usually not go fast enough -- the Offys and the Cosworths dominated. At least they did until this year.

Actually, Buick has been working its way toward Indianapolis since 1980, Kociba said. That was when ``We decided it would be a good thing for Buick if we could have an Indianapolis competition engine. There's no better place than Indianapolis to demonstrate this (Buick's bid for a high-tech image in the American automotive marketplace) is a credible thing. Even non-race fans follow Indianapolis.''

``We're not looking to be like Chevrolet or Pontiac,'' said a Buick spokesman, who explained that Buick is pursuing the yuppie market. ``We're gearing up to compete with Porsche and Cosworth.''

First came Porsche, as Buick's V-6 was modified for sports car endurance races. Next, it was time to take on Cosworth.

Buick officials approached some of the most prominent teams about racing the V-6, but were turned away. Instead, they turned to Brayton, an unheralded young driver.

Brayton and teammate Pat Bedard both qualified for the race last year with Buick engines, but were well back in the field. This year, the company expanded its program to include the Rick Galles team, for which Carter drives. Again, there are two Buick engines in the race, but this time they are at the front of the fastest field in Indy history.

Some would note the Buicks have been granted advantages under U.S. Auto Club rules, and point out that while the Buicks may be fast, they have not proven their durability at the gruelling 500-mile distance.

``We're the new kid on the block. We've got to earn our stripes,'' Kociba admitted. ``But if you'd told people a month ago or even a week ago that Buicks would break the record and sit on the pole, they'd have looked at you like you were weird.''

Some of those same people now look a little worried.

Besides, Buick has a precedent on its side. Although the first Indy 500 wasn't held until 1911, sanctioned auto races began here in 1909 and the first race was won by Bob Burman, who drove a Buick.

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