Infiniti Comes On Strong
October 9, 2001 | 4:10 P.M. EST
The new powerplant from Nissan was scheduled to be delivered during the offseason to give Indy Racing Northern Light Series team using it a chance to test it. That didn’t happen. As the five-month break between 2000 and 2001 wore on, the patience of Eddie Cheever Jr. and Robbie Buhl wore thin, but they never complained too loud.
Finally, just two weeks before the season-opening Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, the Infiniti 35A arrived. Without proper testing, however, Buhl and Cheever struggled early.
Through the first three races of the season, Cheever and Buhl combined for just one top-10 finish (ninth at Homestead for Cheever).
Things began to turn around at Indianapolis. Although Cheever struggled the whole month and was less than 1 mph faster than the bump speed, Buhl found something in the 35A. He qualified ninth at 224.213 mph and ran with the leaders in the race before he lost control of his No. 35 G Force while hunting down leader Helio Castroneves. He eventually finished 15th, four laps down, but things had changed in the Infiniti camp.
"It's satisfying for me and my guys to know that we were contending for the win,” Buhl said “We had a car that could've won. The Infiniti power was great. We had the car geared right. We didn't miss a beat.”
After Indy, Buhl and Cheever became consistent contenders instead of also-rans.
Cheever reeled off nine straight top-10 qualifying runs to close the season, and Buhl qualified in the Top 10 in seven of the final nine races.
At Texas Motor Speedway a week after the Indy 500, Cheever was in position to win until he got caught up in a wreck involving Greg Ray and Robby McGehee. Cheever was in contention again at Richmond, but an incident with Eliseo Salazar took him out. Meanwhile, Buhl was finishing 21st at Texas, third at Pikes Peak and ninth at Richmond.
Finally, at Kansas Speedway in July, Cheever gave the 35A its first win.
“We could have won Texas, could have won Richmond,” Cheever said. “I had a secret weapon behind me today. It was the Infiniti. We’ve got it where we want it to be after two years.”
Cheever and Buhl remained strong through the end of the year but could never make it into victory lane again. Buhl was just a few feet away from Infiniti’s second win this season at Texas on Saturday, but he lost out to Sam Hornish Jr. and Scott Sharp in the closest finish in IRNLS history.
“What a way to end the year,” Buhl said. “Unfortunately, we didn't win one this year, but the Infiniti power has been great. It's nice to be on the podium. Infiniti has worked really hard and it showed here today.”
The strength of the Infiniti 35A during the second half of the season prompted A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ Greg Ray and Heritage Motorsports’ Jeff Ward to use the engine at the season finale, and Cheever thinks that’s a sign of things to come.
“Every Infiniti engine that we have used has been very competitive, so I think when other people are looking at trying to improve their race performance next year, the most logical step anybody could take would be to change to an Infiniti engine,” Cheever explained. “The Infiniti engineers have done a great job this year. They had a very chaotic racing system when we started, but now they are as aggressive and strong as anyone out there.
“The Infiniti power is strong.”
Ward felt the strength of the engine during the warmup before Saturday's race. He led the morning practice, followed by Buhl and Cheever.
“The Infiniti motor has some good torque that's really helped it out,” Ward said.
Ward and Heritage are rumored to be interested in Infiniti full-time next season, as is Foyt’s team and startup team Satellite Motorsports. That could mean a powerful stable of drivers flying the Infiniti flag.
“We're looking forward to next year, it couldn't be here soon enough for us,” Buhl said.
It’s safe to say Infiniti officials are, too.