BROOKLYN, Mich. - From the wide grin on his face, you would think that Ron Hemelgarn had just won yesterday's Firestone Indy 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
His car finished 14th, four laps behind the leaders, but Hemelgarn, the Toledo-area businessman and Indy Racing League team owner, was still in a celebratory mood.
After watching Sam Hornish, Jr., push the new Chevy Gen IV engine to within a whisker of victory, Hemelgarn had good cause to be almost giddy. As a longtime Chevy team member, he will share in the wealth in a couple of weeks when his team gets to race with the Gen IV, and he expects that to signal the end of Chevy's troubles keeping up with the Hondas and Toyotas on the IRL circuit.
“At this moment, there is a huge ray of sunlight at the end of the tunnel,'' said Hemelgarn, sporting an oversized bright red Chevy emblem on his hat. “If you wrote the book about what we had to see from that engine this weekend - it did everything we dreamed about. It qualified well, it ran good in practice, it finished the 400 miles - that is just fantastic for a brand-new engine.''
Chevy has not won a race all season, and it received a special dispensation from the IRL to change its power plant at the midway point. Hornish, as the highest-ranking Chevy driver in the standings, got the privilege of running it first. In a few weeks, all the Chevy teams get to run on the Gen IV.
Swallowing a lot of pride and showing its desperation to make up the ground it has surrendered to Toyota and Honda, Chevy bought the new engine from Cosworth, a company owned by its long-time competitor in the U.S. auto market, Ford.
“I think every team owner who has a Chevrolet is now all grins,'' Hemelgarn said. “I wanted to take that thing home with me. It is just what we have been waiting on.''
Hemelgarn said all eyes have been on Hornish since his first practice run with the Gen IV on Friday.
“When Sam put in his second lap on Friday, I looked at the times and said `Wow! Now we can run with them,''' Hemelgarn said.
Hemelgarn said he thought the horsepower advantage enjoyed by Honda and Toyota has been substantial, so much that he viewed even a top-10 finish by his car as a moral victory.
“I know there is a minimum of a 50 horsepower difference, and it could go as high as 70,'' Hemelgarn said. “We could be 80 horsepower off, but it is definitely at least a 50-horsepower disadvantage. Our engines have been reliable, but they just haven't had the power. The other thing is that we've never gotten the fuel mileage like the Toyotas and Hondas, so consequently we have to make more pit stops, and that compounds our problems. We weren't racing for the checkered flag - we were just trying to get into the top 10.''
Hemelgarn said one of his biggest challenges this year has been to hold the team psyche together as the crew and driver Buddy Lazier struggled against difficult odds.
“It has been a hard year for all of us,'' Hemelgarn said. “We have been down on power. We have basically gone into these races feeling a win is a top-10 finish, but that's about to change here in the next couple of races.
“It is tough - when you basically go into an event knowing that you can't win, it is frustrating. Our nature is that we want to win, whether we're playing baseball, football, or racing, and when you go into every race knowing that you can't have that, it is very hard.''
Hemelgarn said he expects his crew and driver to experience a huge boost in their confidence when they race with the Gen IV in three weeks.
“The crew has been phenomenal through all of our struggles,'' Hemelgarn said. “This is the same crew that won the championship, the crew that won the Indy 500 - that part we've got down, and now if we can get Buddy the horsepower, he can put the throttle down, and with those two things, we can run up front. We're really optimistic that maybe our season will turn now, and we'll end up having just a wonderful year.''
Hemelgarn said he has felt like the Chevy fans have been disappointed with the performances of their cars, but that they maybe had not understood just what the situation with the engines was.
“The real racers, they understand the power problems that we have, but the normal fans, they have no idea what we're up against,'' he said. “But I think everything is going to change here real soon. Chevrolet showed me the true commitment that they have to racing in the IRL. Now we're ready to run.''