The high-stakes card game that is open-wheel racing in the United States just finished another hand. Toyota played a trump card, announcing that it was tired of waiting for Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) to decide on its 2003 engine regulations. Therefore, said Toyota, we're going to build a 3.5 liter normally aspirated engine to the Indy Racing League (IRL) specifications, so there! After the 2002 season, Toyota will cease building turbocharged engines, having its plate full with its Formula One effort.
In addition, there is the fact that the IRL has command of the Indy 500, which may have had some influence on its decision to come down on that side of the dispute. Fearing that Honda, Ford, and whoever is next to put its nameplate on an Ilmor powerplant would follow suit, CART threw its cards in, announcing in Houston that it will adopt a 3.5 liter, normally aspirated powerplant for 2003 and beyond. IRL founder Tony George also hinted in a press conference that another unnamed engine manufacturer is considering building an IRL-spec unit for 2003.
In a related vein, it appears that Lola and Reynard may submit chassis designs to the IRL for that body's 2003 rules. The Lola factory, which has experienced a recent resurgence after almost losing its entire customer base a couple of years ago, would dearly love to win the Indy 500. So would Reynard, for that matter. So racing manufacturers, rather than the sanctioning bodies themselves, may bring about a merger of the two warring open-wheel factions. There is also the fact that the IRL just announced a March 24, 2002 date at California Speedway in Fontana, heretofore a CART preserve. My opinion is that we will see a deepening rapprochement between the two sanctioning bodies, with the final result something like the National League/American League situation in baseball, or the AFC/NFC configuration in pro football. CART will run primarily road and street courses, leaving the ovals largely to the IRL, with considerable crossover of participants. It's the only thing that will prevent open-wheel racing from becoming roadkill under the wheels of the NASCAR juggernaut.
In other CART-related news, Alex Zanardi's condition continues to improve, and it is expected that he will soon be discharged from the hospital in Berlin and head to Italy to begin rehabilitation. Zanardi has been maneuvering around the hospital in a wheelchair, but there is no word on whether he has set any speed records. He is reportedly looking forward to rehabilitation and has indicated an interest in developing improved prosthetic devices in the future.
Things are getting interesting in NASCAR-Land, with silly season in full swing and seats being reoccupied even before they cool from the last incumbent. As has been widely reported, Jeremy Mayfield is out of the No. 12 Penske car, effective immediately, with Mike Wallace taking a provisional in that ride for today's race. Mayfield's outspoken comments on the preparation of the car last weekend were the apparent cause for the immediate termination, although he was probably off the team for 2002 anyway.
The Mayfield dismissal seems to have had a domino effect, as Kevin LePage also lost his seat in the No. 4 car, replaced by Bobby Hamilton Jr. for the remainder of the season, then by Mike Skinner (back from knee surgery) for 2002. Surprise Lowe's polesitter Jimmy Spencer is expected to lose his ride at the end of the season as well, rumored to be going to the ex-Mayfield No. 12 for 2002, with Joe Nemecheck possibly taking over the No. 26 seat and Mayfield hopping into the No. 33. Talk about full circle!
GRAND PRIX OVER NASCAR
Finally, I don't know how many of you watched the United States Grand Prix from Indianapolis (probably not many, it was on opposite the Winston Cup Kansas City race), but it was a tremendous race. NASCAR, like baseball, is a uniquely American sport, although soccer and F1 are more popular in the rest of the world. Personally, I chose the F1 race to watch. I can see NASCAR every weekend, but the U.S. Grand Prix only comes along once a year.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal motorsports columnist.