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Porsche Indy Car Program: Unfulfilled Dream

Photos and story by Harry Kennison

While living in Denver, I began making an annual spring pilgrimage to Long Beach for the Long Beach Grand Prix in the late 70's and early 80's. I was originally drawn by the lure of Formula 1 cars screaming through the concrete canyons in the hands of such greats as Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Jody Scheckter, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell, and Gilles Villeneuve.

The 1,200 mile dash from Denver via Las Vegas to Long Beach often times was as memorable as the race itself. I can remember taking the wheel of my friend's new BMW 530i after a gas stop in Utah and being pulled over a few miles later by a county sheriff for going 30 over in a 55 mph zone (good thing I wasn't doing that in Virginia today!).

The F-1 US Grand Prix–West, as it was called, was soon supplanted by the American CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) series which combined road courses and oval tracks, including the Indy 500. It was chock full of American drivers—with names you could pronounce like Unser, Mears, Andretti, Rahal, Sullivan, and Foyt—who had a much larger draw in America than the somewhat snooty and aloof Formula One scene.

In 1988 I made the return trip to check out the CART version of the Long Beach Grand Prix. While I found the Queen Mary still gracing the background of the circuit, the seedy carnival midway and strip clubs that bordered the F-1 track had been replaced by a sparkling new convention center complete with parkways, fountains, and a Hyatt Hotel—not that I stayed there—but it did prove to be a great place for photos.

Most of the entries featured Ilmore Chevy and Cosworth-Ford badged turbocharged V-8s, save for one exception, a 2.6 litre turbocharged V-8 Porsche-powered Mach fielded by Porsche Cars of North America. Porsche had entered the last two races of the CART series in late 1987 with a woefully uncompetitive chassis and engine of their own design. The engine had proven promising, but the Porsche chassis was replaced for the 1988 season with a March, who had been successfully building customer Indy cars for several years. Even so, the team had a long way to go to become competitive.

My wife and I moved to Phoenix where once again, in the spring of 1989, I was able to see the Porsche-March at Phoenix International Raceway. Teo Fabi, a former F-1 driver and Indy 500 pole sitter, was still the driver, but he and the team continued to face a steep learning curve in the American CART series and Indianapolis in particular. In 1989 it looked like Porsche was beginning to reap the rewards of their Indy car program when they won the Mid-Ohio CART race but could do no better than 30th at the Brickyard.

With additional sponsorship from Foster's Beer in 1990, a second car for John Andretti, and nearly three years of experience under their belts, I watched Teo Fabi put the Porsche on the pole for the inaugural Denver Grand Prix, only to see his brakes burn up within the first 15 laps and Al Unser breeze by to take an easy win.

At the end of the 1990 season, with only one pole position, one win at Mid-Ohio, and no better than 18th at Indianapolis to show in 44 races over nearly 3 1/2 seasons, Porsche pulled the plug on their Indy Car program.

I'd like to think that winning the Indy 500 is still an unachieved goal for Porsche. After an 18-year hiatus, it would be nice to see Porsche return to Indy Car racing with a vengeance to support the launch of the new Panamera in the US market. And, perhaps, pigs will fly.


  Click on any photo to enlarge it

Bird's-eye view of Teo Fabi wrestling the March-Porsche through the streets at the 1988 Long Beach Grand Prix. (Author's note: With a super photo pass, I was able to go out onto the Hyatt Hotel's parking garage deck and shoot down on the cars as they passed directly underneath—very cool!)

1989 would prove to be the most successful for the Porsche Indy Car effort with the team notching its first and only victory at Mid-Ohio. Here Teo Fabi takes the Quaker State-sponsored car around Phoenix International Raceway's 1-mile oval.

In 1990 Fabi would put his Porsche-March on the pole for the inaugural Denver Grand Prix only to be let down by disintegrating brakes early in the race.

The Hans Mezger-designed 2.6 liter turbocharged engine was among the most powerful in the CART series, but the chassis never lived up to the engine's potential.

Teo Fabi, a former Formula 1 driver and Indy 500 pole-sitter, was hired to drive the Porsche-March and stuck with the team for three years before moving on to sports cars, where he would win the World Championship driving for Jaguar.

John Andretti partnered Fabi for part of the 1991 season. Here he is at the Denver Grand Prix.