PRUETT: How IndyCar gets to 900 horsepower

Image by Richard Dole/LAT

PRUETT: How IndyCar gets to 900 horsepower


PRUETT: How IndyCar gets to 900 horsepower


The Verizon IndyCar Series has officially declared its intent to push its next engine formula far beyond the 750hp peak that’s currently on tap.

The figures generated by Chevy and Honda with their 2.2-liter twin-turbo V6s have been especially impressive, but let’s be honest: The technical achievement of making small-displacement motors churn out decent power for long rebuild intervals has never enthralled IndyCar’s fans.

Folks want to see ridiculous, tire-scorching power, and drivers feeling like they’re strapped to a rolling explosion.

The calls for four-digit horsepower — a minimum of 1000hp — that draws from CART’s most incredible days has been a steady drumbeat since the 2.2-liter formula hit the track in 2012, and with a new set of regulations coming for 2021, those wishes will be granted. Eventually.

1993 CART era Chevrolet IndyCar V8 (Image by Marshall Pruett)

It has taken quite a few years for the power figures to creep up to and over the 700hp mark, and with that in mind, the mythical 1000hp figure is too far of a leap for where the 2021 rules are headed. Getting there by 2026 is what IndyCar competition president Jay Frye wants to see. Hitting 900hp from the start, though, is the target IndyCar has handed Chevy, Honda, and other manufacturers who’ve expressed an interest in joining the fight.

The same small-displacement, twin-turbo, direct-injected V6s will continue as IndyCar’s base engine configuration, albeit with a few changes that will make 900hp a reasonable number to achieve.

Here are a few of the ways IndyCar can get back to big power:

Image by Michael Levitt/LAT

The easiest way for IndyCar to leap toward the 900hp mark is through the sickly-sweet smell of methanol. IndyCar’s engine builders reckon trading the lighter punch found in the E85 ethanol they use today for the more volatile delights of methanol will take care of almost half the 150hp they’re looking for. A gain of 70-80hp is said to be ready and waiting if they get the green light for methanol, and I’ve heard the series could be open to the change.

Adopting E85 was an important step for IndyCar a decade ago. And when the series was receiving a significant annual sponsorship payout from a Brazilian ethanol group, it made perfect sense. But E85, at least from a promotional standpoint, is no longer a differentiator for the series. Fat checks from Brazil also stopped arriving a few years ago…

There are the obvious ties to the Iowa race and its Iowa Corn 300 ethanol angle, but with so much free and easy horsepower to grab by shifting to methanol, it’s hard to see how the series binds itself to ethanol with its next engine formula just to appease the promoter of a single race on its calendar.

With the return of methanol to IndyCar, which I’d suggest is a no-brainer, manufacturers would need to change fuel injectors, direct-injection pumps — the fuel system as a whole — compression ratios, cam timing and, in a welcome move, the higher compression would eliminate the significant anti-knock technology required with ethanol.

Another big improvement would come from the serious combustion chamber cooling benefits offered by methanol. For turbo engines, it’s a godsend. More fuel, more (and cooler) air, making happy horsepower.

Go with methanol, and we’re already over 800hp, with ease.

Image by Phillip Abbott/LAT

Consider Audi’s brand-new 2.7-liter twin-turbo V6 that will soon be available in its upper-tier road cars and how heavily Hyundai has been promoting its new 3.3-liter TTV6 found in the Stinger sedan, so the call to bump displacement up from 2.2 liters limit to 2.4 liters was always going to happen. In fact, the original 2012 formula was a 2.4-liter motor until a late reduction to 2.2 was agreed upon.

The auto industry, in a general sense, seems to be moving toward slightly larger “small-displacement” engines, so the new 2.4-liter motor fits the times.

Although the exact horsepower increases are hard to quantify, asking a larger motor to make more power while doing so in a reliable manner is much easier than pushing a smaller motor to its limits.

On the path to 1000hp by 2026, manufacturers will be relying on a bit more size to accommodate the request.