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Published: Friday, 7/25/2003

Hornish powered by a Ford engine

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. - It starts with a “C” even if it isn't a Chevy.

The logos could be manipulated to look similar. If you squeezed the Ford oval emblem in the middle on the top and bottom it might bulge into something that resembles the Chevrolet bow-tie badge.

In a unique case of what might be called Sleeping With the Enemy, General Motors has joined Ford as partners on the race track in the Indy Racing League.

A version of Ford's Cosworth engine will make its debut under the Chevrolet banner Sunday at Michigan International Speedway in the Fire-stone Indy 400. The new powerplant will be called the Gen IV Chevy Indy V-8 engine with no reference to Ford or Cosworth, just a lot of muffled snickers in Dearborn.

The test pilot will be Sam Hornish of Defiance, the two-time defending IRL champion and Chevy loyalist. He has been one of six drivers strapped with scrap, which is what the Chevy engine has been sometimes unfairly referred to when equated to the Toyotas and Hondas this season.

Hornish, 24, has tested the new engine, putting about 800 miles on it. He will be the only driver using it this weekend after it was approved by the IRL on June 19. The next Chevy driver in the points race will join Hornish in using the engine Aug. 10 at St. Louis before all the Chevy teams get the new engine for Kentucky Speedway on Aug. 17.

“It's been a lot of work by a lot of different people,” Hornish said yesterday. “Chevy has done a lot of the electrical work and it's kind of a combination of efforts. There's a lot of things intertwined between a lot of companies because it's just so expensive to do it on your own. Even if you have to share with a competitor it's cheaper in the long run and more affordable getting the product on the market.”

The 16-race IRL season is more than half over and a Chevy-powered car had yet to lead a lap until last week at Nashville when Hornish, Chevrolet's top campaigner, led four laps before finishing 11th. Hornish's fourth-place finish at Richmond three weeks ago was Chevrolet's best IRL showing this season.

Chevrolet joined the IRL in 1997 and won 66 of the next 68 races, all six Indy 500s and all six IRL season championships going into this season. But so far Chevy drivers have a total of only two top-10 finishes.

Toyota and Honda have put their pedals to the metal. They've caught the maybe-slightly-complacent Chevies and left them adrift in their wake.

The IRL had no choice if it wanted GM back next year but to level the playing field, even if it was in midstream, a la NASCAR.

Brian Barnhart, IRL vice president of operations, admitted it is unprecedented in IRL history, adding, “Toyota and Honda joined the series [this season], raised the bar of competition and it's been clear all year GM has faced a points deficiency.”

Toledo businessman Ron Hemelgarn, an original IRL car owner who campaigns 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier in a Chevy, has remained quiet all year about the Chevies being down about 60 horsepower and about five mph to the Toyotas and Hondas.

He now states, “It's been a bad year for GM and one of my worst years, but there is nothing I can do. It's a very sensitive situation and GM had to eat crow. But this says to me that GM really wants to keep playing.”

That's what it also says to Hornish, who won't have to have the almost-perfect-handling car to make up for his lack of horsepower, make more daring moves because of fewer opportunities, squeeze pit stops to the optimum abruptness and pray even harder for yellow flags at opportune times.

“GM definitely didn't take the easy way out,” he said. “I really admire the way they worked that out and really kept working hard to give us what we need to be able to go out and race. The way it [new engine] has gone so far, it gives us every indication that it's going to put us in front with the leaders, especially at the big tracks like Michigan.”

IRL Chevy driver Buddy Rice said yesterday that he drove flat out every lap at Texas Motor Speedway in June, much like they'll do Sunday at MIS, and still finished five laps down.

Hornish is exhilarated about his chances Sunday. His test with the new engine at Chicago yielded seven horsepower more than he experienced with his Chevy.

“We know how competitive we've been with what we've had [eighth in the current points], and we know how much better this new engine is,” Hornish said. “And that makes us really excited because if you're competing and you're 50 horsepower down and you're going to get 50 or 60 more, it makes you REALLY excited.”

If Hornish wins Sunday will it be with the Gen IV or the Gen Ford? It won't matter.



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