IndyCar long has a history of shooting itself in the foot, and, well, the Porsche-IndyCar relationship from 1987-1990 is proof of this.
A giant of the car manufacturing world, Porsche dipped their toes into IndyCar with Al Unser late in the 1987 IndyCar Season at Laguna Seca with off-the-track help coming from three-time 24 Hour of Le Mans winner Al Holbert (his Le Mans wins were with Porsche). Prior to that, thousands of hours went into designing both the chassis and engine with the goal of winning the Indianapolis 500 at some point with a constructor built car (chassis and engine).
Porsche’s interest in IndyCar sent shock waves throughout the paddock. As Bobby Unser said, “I think Porsche is one of the most “hip” factories in the world! To start from scratch and build a race car, and (to) come and win Indianapolis with an engine and a race car at the same time is not very likely to happen.”
Despite the resources that went into building the car, a champion driver in Al Unser, and the paddock’s undivided attention, Porsche’s entry into IndyCar started off poorly. Their factory built car appeared to be no match for the rest of the field. A team rethink was needed.
When 1988 came around, Porsche made two major changes. First, they hired Teo Fabi as their full-time driver. Second, they ditched their chassis in favor of the aging March chassis. Despite the changes, using their engine that was retrofitted to the March chassis meant that things still weren’t as smooth for the German team. Fabi and the team did the best they could in the season, but only wound up finishing P10 in the championship with no podium finishes.
By 1989, the once formidable March chassis had fallen out of favor for just about every team in the paddock. By now, Lola had a stranglehold on the IndyCar market. Porsche continued with March, with Tino Belli taking over as the lead aerodynamicist for March. Belli spoke with Marshall Preutt about this time for him, stating that the decrease in customers for March allowed the chassis manufacturer to fine tune their car to Porsche’s liking. (If the name Tino Belli sounds familiar, he is now is the Director of Aerodynamic Development for IndyCar and was instrumental in the development of the new 2018 IndyCar chassis.)
With the continued development of their engine program and with March building a car that would help maximize Porsche’s work off the track, Fabi and Porsche succeeded mightily. Nine top-five finishes including their inaugural win at Mid-Ohio and three other podiums helped Fabi finish fourth in the championship behind Emerson Fittipaldi, Rick Mears, and Michael Andretti. That’s not bad company to be in. They beat out drivers like Al Unser Jr., Mario Andretti, Danny Sullivan, and Bobby Rahal.
There was a profound sense of optimism for Porsche heading into the offseason prior to the 1990 IndyCar campaign. Team manager Derrick Walker and Belli/March were hard at work building a revolutionary new car made entirely of carbon fiber. At this point in IndyCar history, most cars were made from aluminum with some parts being carbon fiber. When Porsche showed up at tests with this car, many within the IndyCar paddock cried foul, as the rules did not state that this was allowed, but Porsche argued that there was nothing stating that this wasn’t allowed.
In January of 1990, the CART (IndyCar sanctioning body) Board of Directors comprised of 21 members, many of whom were owners in the series, voted (secret ballot) to disallow the Porsche chassis ahead of the 1990 season.
Walker said they did nothing outside of the rules, telling The New York Times in 1990, ” ‘We caught the other teams with their pants down. They hadn’t thought that far ahead and read the rules that clearly.”
Belli said, “They ganged up on us, mainly because Lola couldn’t do it. To be hit at the end of January, when you’re testing like crazy trying to work out all the bugs with having to completely redesign the monocoque, was a massive blow.”
Current IndyCar owners who were also owners at the time had quotes on the issue of the vote and secretive actions behind Porsche (via The New York Times):
Chip Ganassi – ”I won’t tell you how I voted. But my feeling was that the reason it got voted down was the way they went about their procedure on the interpretation of the rules. It was sort of secretive, if you will.”
Dale Coyne – ”I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. They went about it in the proper way to get it approved. Yet they knew it was something in a gray area.”
Roger Penske – ”I said, ‘If it was a safety-related issue, why wouldn’t you bring it up publicly?’ Why keep it underground?’ There’s no question, when you read the rules, they took a risk they shouldn’t have.”
With their chassis deemed ineligible, Porsche had to scramble to get a car ready by time the 1990 season started. Many other teams had already spent months testing and developing their cars, leaving Porsche in a compromising position before the start of the season.
Fabi returned to the team with promising young American John Andretti joining in a second car. With the help of March, the team made the 1990 grid in a 1989 March chassis with carbon fiber mixed with aluminum. Fabi finished P14 in the championship with only one podium at The Meadowlands, while the newcomer Andretti finished P10 in the championship.
After 1990, Porsche left IndyCar for good. The decision to exclude their chassis was a slap in their face. Walker stated after the CART decision in January of 1990, “We knew we were living on borrowed time.”
To me, this is one of the more hidden dark moments in IndyCar history. At a time in which innovation was applauded (four years after Porsche’s chassis was disallowed, Roger Penske (some would say) bent the rules in the form of his 1994 Mercedes-Ilmor engine that dominated the Indy 500 code named “The Beast”. You could also make an argument that “The Beast” also contributed to CART and the IRL splitting in 1996, but back to my point, that punishing Porsche for outsmarting the IndyCar paddock seemed unfair especially with what we would see four years later. “The Beast” was also developed in secret much like the Porsche chassis.
Outside of the car itself, losing Porsche at a time like that in the early 90s in which so many momentous things would happen, like Nigel Mansell coming to IndyCar or some thrilling Indy 500 finishes, to lose a competitive, marketable, and financially strong company like Porsche that was willing to spend millions on their program was not a great move on IndyCar’s part.
I often find myself learning new topics every day in the IndyCar world, and researching and writing about this topic that I only learned about a couple months ago left me thinking – how did this get screwed up so badly?