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Friday, November 12, 2010

IndyCar History: Chevrolet

In celebration of today's announcement that Chevrolet will return to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2012, a look back at Chevrolet's open-wheel history:

The name Chevrolet has been present at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the earliest gestations of the Indianapolis 500. French-American brothers Louis, Gaston, and Arthur Chevrolet all took starts in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Arthur was the first to compete, in 1911; Louis debuted in 1916, while Gaston made the first of his two starts in 1919. Gaston was, by far, the most successful behind the wheel, taking the win in 1920 behind the wheel of a Frontenac, the race car company owned by the Chevrolet brothers.

The Chevrolet Motor Car Company itself had been founded in 1911, but founding brother Louis sold his share in it in 1915. As such, Chevrolet the brand was less associated with the speedway than its namesake. As Miller, Offenhauser, Ford, and Cosworth engines began to dominate the sport and the Indianapolis 500, there seemed like less and less of a place available for the famed bowtie at the speedway, besides appearances as the pace car.

When CART was established in 1979, Cosworth engines continued to dominate the day, but Chevrolet took the first non-Cosworth win in the series when Mike Mosley won at the Milwaukee Mile in 1981 in Dan Gurney's Pepsi Challenger. It would mark the only non-Cosworth win in the series until 1987.

Roger Penske, then a five-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner, began fielding a Chevrolet in selected events in 1986 for Al Unser, the defending series champion. Unser's lone finish in five starts came in the season finale at Miami, where he placed 15th.

The next year, Chevrolet powerplants found their way inside the cars of some of the sport's top teams and drivers. Mario Andretti took a season-opening win at Long Beach for Newman/Haas Racing with the motor, as Penske and Pat Patrick also opted to outfit all of their cars with the new powerplant. The brand took four wins that year, with former Formula 1 champions Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi each scoring two.

Unfortunately, the new engine was still no match for the established Cosworths. Chevrolet could muster no better than fifth in the CART championship that year, with Rick Mears, as the brand's top drivers - Andretti, Mears, Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, and Kevin Cogan - were plagued by mechanical problems. Adding insult to injury, Unser's Indianapolis 500 win for Penske that year came in a March-Cosworth that had previously been used as a showcar.

1988 was the first year that the Chevrolet brand truly began to shine in CART. Taking the first six wins that season, 12 of 15 overall, and its first Indianapolis 500, Chevrolet scored its first championship with Sullivan in a Penske-Chevrolet. Sullivan scored an incredible 11 top five finishes and led laps in all but two events that season. Meanwhile, Mears won his third of four career Indianapolis 500s, pacing the field once dominant teammate Sullivan crashed out after 101 laps.

1989 through 1993 represented a remarkable five-year stretch for the brand, which won the Indianapolis 500 in each of those seasons and the CART championship in the first four. Chevrolet-powered cars won 66 of the 80 CART-sanctioned races over the course of those five years, sweeping the 1990 and 1991 seasons and winning 41 events in a row from September 1989 to June 1992.

But 1992 represented the first challenge to Chevrolet's established open wheel authority, as defending champions Michael Andretti and Newman-Haas Racing switched to new Ford Cosworth power. Andretti mounted a series challenge for the title, losing to Bobby Rahal by only four points. But the IndyCar wars were now at full strength, as Andretti took five wins with the new powerplant.

Andretti left CART for an ill-fated Formula 1 experiment in 1993, but his replacement was no slouch either. Defending F1 champion Nigel Mansell slid into Andretti's seat after a falling out with Williams F1 and won his debut event in Queensland. At the top of his game, the Brit won a season-high five races and the title despite missing the second race of the year at Phoenix due to injuries suffered in a practice crash. Chevrolet, Penske, and Indianapolis 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi were defeated by eight points.

At this point, Chevrolet decided that enough was enough. On September 14, 1993, the manufacturer decided to end its relationship with the sport and with engine manufacturer Ilmor, citing the rising costs of going to war with Ford.

2002 marked the brand's return to open-wheel racing. General Motors had been the premier engine supplier in the Indy Racing League since 1997, running engines badged with its Oldsmobile Aurora brand. But as Oldsmobile was being phased out at GM, the powers that be decided to replace the badging with that of Chevrolet. Few were surprised by the brand's dominance that year, winning 14 of 15 races and easily taking the top nine spots in IRL points.

Unfortunately, that dominance was short-lived. Honda and Toyota decided to abandon CART for chances at Indianapolis 500 glory, bringing most of the sport's top teams with them. Chevrolet quickly fell to third in a three-horse race, even after replacing their original engine with a new Cosworth-built motor. Of the 18 races that Chevrolet won in IndyCar between 2002 and 2005, only four came in those last three years; all were with Panther Racing.

The brand pulled out of the sport once again in 2005, as did Toyota, with both focusing their American racing programs on NASCAR first and foremost. But with the new engine formula adopted by the IZOD IndyCar Series for 2012 and beyond, and the brand seeking a new opportunity, a deal for Chevrolet to return to the sport with Penske and Ilmor appears imminent.

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