Tuesday, May 20, 2003 Updated: May 21, 8:27 AM ET
Indy now the battlefield
By Robin Miller Special to ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- The fiercest faceoff this Sunday isn't Helio Castroneves vs. Sam Hornish Jr. or Michael Andretti vs. Al Unser Jr. or even Buddy Lazier vs. brother Jaques. The real rivalry isn't about drivers, it's between Honda and Toyota.
And while this battle of Japanese manufacturers hardly resonates with the American fan like Ford vs. Chevy in NASCAR, it's certainly a major storyline in the Land of the Rising Sun, along with Gasoline Alley.
"It's not just on the race track on Sundays, we compete with each other every day. It's a daily fight," said Robert Clarke, general manager of Honda Performance Development.
Added Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development: "It's a rivalry that started in the marketplace in Japan and it's carried over here. It's always on the minds of our sales department."
Even though this battle for supremacy has raged in automobile showrooms across this country for three decades, it's only been on the track since 1996, when Toyota began competing against Honda in Championship Auto Racing Teams.
Honda ruled CART from 1996-2001 before Toyota finally earned its initial Champ Car title last year.
Now they've moved their arena to the Indy Racing League and, specifically, the Indianapolis 500, and given Tony George's all-oval series a major upgrade in terms of depth, funding and technology.
"I like to think we both bring a great deal to this sport in terms of support, sponsorships and promotions," said Aust, whose company spends millions of dollars in development, advertising and title sponsorships -- just like Honda. "We feel we bring a lot of value to the IRL."
In the first three IRL shows of 2003, Toyota owns two wins and one pole while Honda has one win and two poles. They've led nearly every lap of competition and have such an advantage in horsepower that two-time IRL champ Hornish Jr. hasn't had a sniff of the front of the pack in his Chevrolet.
"When we started talking to IRL teams their first response was 'Why should we trust your engines are going to be anything we want?'" said Clarke, a mainstay of HPD since it jumped into CART in 1994. "Our response was to look at our credentials and record.
"We had two world class engine manufacturers, Honda and Ilmor, teaming together so why wouldn't they think we'd be competitive?" (Ilmor is Honda's technical partner).
Naturally, both manufacturers wanted to dance with familiar partners so they enticed their successful CART teams to follow them to the IRL. Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Adrian Fernandez are leading Honda's charge, while Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Morris Nunn are in Toyota's corner along with IRL stalwart Tom Kelley.
Tony Kanaan, right, and Robby Gordon give Honda two cars in the front row at Indy.
The first 17 drivers in Indy's 33-car field are powered by Toyota or Honda so it looks like Chevy's run of Indy wins and IRL championships (six in a row) is about to end. And the General Motors customers are grumbling about being left behind.
"Perhaps they (GM) were a little complacent or possibly they didn't anticipate we'd be in as good a shape as we are," Aust said. "Our hope is that they'll develop their engine because we like competition."
General Motors had virtually no competition from Nissan since 1997.
"Obviously General Motors has the resources and people and there's no reason they can't compete at this level," Clarke said. "But they had an understanding of what the IRL is about and they mistakenly thought Honda and Toyota would come play at that level.
"Our rivalry with Toyota requires that we came into this series at the high level we could so we brought our Formula One and CART mentality. We don't know anything different -- that's our approach."
A story in the New York Times a few years ago documented the deep-seated hatred of these two companies. And that's also carried on to the race track.
"It's somewhat friendly," Aust said cautiously.
Clarke chuckles at that notion.
"It was very open and very friendly but when they started winning that changed completely," he said.
Indianapolis is the caveat of open wheel racing and, with its media saturation, the biggest prize for either manufacturer. This is Toyota's debut, while Honda returns for the first time since 1995, when Honda-powered Scott Goodyear had victory in the bag before being penalized for passing the pace car on a restart late in the race.
"Indy was always our target, it just took longer than we anticipated," said Aust, referring to the IRL/CART split in 1996. "But it will be great to be standing on the track right before the start. We'll have a pretty big representation from Toyota at the race so naturally this is bragging rights for Japan."
Clarke, whose company is 0-for-6 on the track Honda owns and sponsors (Motegi), says location has no significance.
"It doesn't matter if it's Indy or Motegi," he said. "The pressure every race weekend is to outperform Toyota."
Toyota won the first fight of May when two-time Indy winner Castroneves snatched the pole from Tony Kanaan and Honda.
"That was a super job by Helio and Team Penske, they dug deeper and pulled it off," Aust said. "We were overjoyed, but only for a little while. Our concern now is to back up that pole with a victory."