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HISTORY: Made-In America Chassis Woes, Part 2
As evidenced in part one, there are several reasons “Made in the USA,” is not a common theme for IndyCar chassis manufacturing.
For one thing, it is an expansive task, one that completely bankrupted Truesports after only two years. And it is certainly a burden if things do not go as planned, like Bobby Rahal’s failure to qualify at Indianapolis in 1993.
In volume two, we look at the last three attempts to strike gold against the European juggernaut of aerodynamic designs.
First up, the Riley & Scott chassis that took the fight to Dallara and G-Force in the Indy Racing League for four years. Based in Indianapolis, the outfit was entering open-wheel competition on the strength of two straight victories in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, America’s premier sports car race.
Expected to debut following the 1997 Indianapolis 500, delays in preparation held the car’s official first appearance to the season-finale at Las Vegas. Enjoying modest outputs from Stan Wattles and Michael Shank in its opening stanza, the outfit entered the following season with high hopes.
However, while Shank’s squad would not be present for the 1998 opener at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, R & S would be trackside with its own effort, piloted by two-time Indy 500 top-six finisher Eliseo Salazar and featuring solid sponsorship from Reebok. Alongside Wattles’ own Metro Racing team, the chassis still faced an uphill battle. That reality showed its head in the opening two rounds as neither driver managed a top-ten finish. The project was dealt a further blow when Wattles failed to qualify for the second event at Phoenix.
Things appeared on the rebound when the IRL reached the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 82nd Indianapolis 500. Salazar entered Pole Day weekend with an outside chance of reaching the front row of the grid with his R&S machine, but would suffer more bad luck when he crashed in turn one on his first attempt.
After a major rebuild overnight, the Chilean returned the following afternoon to make the show, but appeared vulnerable to being bumped off the grid with only a 216 MPH average. Ultimately, Salazar’s fate would be cemented as Billy Roe knocked him out in the final hour of time trials.
The gods were equally harsh for Wattles, who only qualified 29th on Bump Day. The Floridian was competitive in the first fifty laps on race day, running in the top-five when he was eliminated in a multi-car incident in turn three.
Following the Brickyard debacle, R & S attempted a rebound. After an equally sub-par 1999 campaign with Brant Racing, the chassis finally appeared set for a breakthrough as Robbie Buhl and Buddy Lazier took victories with a heavily-updated design at Orlando and Phoenix to open the 2000 season. Sadly, while the car was a force on short ovals, it proved to be an anchor on the high-speed layouts.
When both Buhl and Lazier struggled at Las Vegas, the drivers immediately switched to Dallaras for Indy, leaving the low-budget McCormack Motorsports operation as Riley’s lone customer for the 500. Despite a valiant effort, neither Ronnie Johncox or Robby Unser managed to find enough pace to make the field of 33. Ultimately, the funding needed to continue from the chassis builder’s parent company Reynard ran dry late in the year and the IRL project came to a quiet end.
Two tries to make an American chassis equally potent in CART achieved modest success in the late 1990s. The first was from Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers team, which made its debut in 1996 alongside the cover breaking season for the Toyota engine. With his California team shop featuring its own wind tunnel, the goal for the former Indy 500 and Formula One pilot was to build his own machine, a task he took on in his previous run in IndyCar, which came to a halt in 1986.
Unfortunately, late starts in testing and development work for both the new Eagle 969 and its Toyota powerplant showed early and often in year one. Between drivers Juan Manuel Fangio II and P.J. Jones, AAR only managed two top-ten performances.
After temporarily parking the in-house program in 1997, Gurney brought back a new Eagle chassis for at Mid-Ohio in 1998. New car blues cropped up again for the machine, although the car managed to lead several laps at Vancouver in the hands of Alex Barron before retiring. Following another disappointing showing in 1999, All American Racers withdrew from the series.
A more successful output came from fellow California manufacturer Swift Engineering (main photo). After performing well in the lower rungs of the North American open-wheel ladder, the company jumped to CART in 1997 with the powerful Newman-Haas Racing group. Entering its first race with low expectations, Michael Andretti charged from a mid-pack starting position to win the season-opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The popular chauffeur followed up the five-star debut with four more podium placements and would have challenged for the 1997 championship if not for DNFs in five of the final six rounds.
For its second campaign, Swift expanded its customer list to three entries with the addition of Della Penna Motorsports and driver Richie Hearn to the fold. Andretti once again opened the championship with another triumph in Miami, but would only wind up eighth on the points table at years’ end after failing to reach the checkered flag in eight races.
1999 would prove to be the peak of Swift’s success in CART. Andretti would claim two more victories and his teammate Christian Fittipaldi would snag his maiden triumph at Road America. Unfortunately, while Newman-Haas would continue to produce positive outputs, Della Penna and other organizations began to abandon the car option in favor of either the Lola or Reynard.
By the year 2000, only a single Swift car remained with the Payton-Coyne Racing team. Tarso Marques earned the final top-ten result for the manufacturer in the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in California. Although another Swift appeared during CART Spring Training in 2001, the vehicle never appeared in a race marking, the last appearance of an American-made car to date.
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