(by Bruce Martin versus.com 9-24-09)
While the IndyCar Series teams were preparing for last Saturday’s Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi, IndyCar president of competition Brian Barnhart and Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation CEO Jeff Belskus talked about the future.
A highly entertaining fight for the series championship will conclude at Homestead-Miami Speedway on October 10 but the work continues for the men who are charged with plotting the course for the future and the first major decision coming up is the announcement of the new engine/car combination for the 2012 season.
Originally, that package was supposed to be announced this past April but with economic uncertainties regarding the international automotive industry that has delayed the decision.
Barnhart, however, said he expects a decision to be announced by the Thanksgiving holiday in November.
“We continue to develop a couple of parallel paths on the chassis with two different designs we are looking at,” Barnhart said. “We have four manufacturers who have expressed interest in participating in the series beginning in 2012. In this environment we feel very good about that. We are proud that with the automotive manufacturers going through what they are going through and four of them expressing interest to run. We are maintaining dialogue with them and hope to hear from them by Thanksgiving.”
The four interested parties include current engine supplier Honda as well as the German triumvirate that includes Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche. All of the German nameplates are owned by the same company so it is likely that just one of those brands will join the series, most likely Volkswagen, which has shown the most interest out of that group.
“The manufacturers are in agreement in terms with engine specifications and the direction they want to go,” Barnhart said. “We have two significantly different chassis packages in terms of appearance and how different and radical they are from what we are running. What we need to do is make a decision on what direction that is going. The one is so radically different it will entail a lot more in terms of R&D, costs and time. We need to be careful not to jump ahead too much but at the same time be consistent with what the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League have been about and that is evolution.”
Volkswagen wants an inline 4-cylinder turbocharged engine because it replicates the technology used for its passenger cars in Europe. Honda Performance Development favors a 6-cylinder turbocharged formula for the series engine specification.
“We’re not ready to announce that yet but the groups we have talked to are all pretty consistent with what spec they want to go with,” Barnhart said. “We haven’t narrowed it down to the devil in the details but the general specs have been agreed upon.”
Erik Berkman, the president of Honda Performance Development, continues to push for a V-6 engine and is hopeful that the decision on the new engine/car design will come soon.
“I think we are on track for 2012 still,” Berkman said. “I hope that as the season winds down and we go into the offseason that some things speed up that allows us to get the League’s clear direction on what that should be. If we can go into our Christmas break with some clarity to the future plan that we are still on track.
“We’ve been proposing the V-6 all along so I’m hoping we can go that route.”
Honda has stressed its desire for manufacturer completion, which would mean a new company getting involved with the IndyCar Series.
“I’m hopeful we will have some competition in the future,” Berkman reiterated. “This has been an unusual year. I’ve tried to not panic this year and each month this year my optimism is coming back.”
As for the design of the new car, it could look radically different from the current generation IndyCar that has been on the track since 2003. But while it may look different, it is more a subject of evolution, not revolution.
“The car we proposed is relatively feasible,” Berkman said. “It’s an evolutionary design. Honda will stay out of directing the chassis as much as we might have done in the past. We’re going to let the League do their job there. We can make an engine that can fit in the existing car or in a new chassis. We can do whatever.
“The engine we envision is smaller than the current package. If we raise the peak output then we have more heat rejection that we will have to manage. A new car will have room to grow and evolve from there.”
While the IndyCar Series wants to see better performance and innovation from the new design, safety remains the No. 1 objective of the new car.
And that is where the “Laws of Unintended Consequences” arise. Despite computer simulations and data research, the only way to find out how a car holds up under a crash is to actually crash it.
Any volunteers to serve as a test driver for that?
“We’ve had an interesting process in the last 18 months with the design project initiated by Honda with what the next chassis and iconic look should look like,” Barnhart said. “It’s a really delicate balance of form following function and the evolution of what we’ve had for the last 30 years. We have to be comfortable in how to race that car but more important how to crash that car.
“With the Will Power and Nelson Philippe crash at Infineon, to look at the level of that accident, the cars behaved exactly what they were designed to and you compare that to what has happened in previous years in similar accidents the level of injuries the driver sustained were considerably less than what was experienced previously. Those cars did what we needed them to do.
“If you make radical changes from the evolution of what this car has been for 30 years you’re going to have to go through a lot of work to make sure that whether it’s Tony Kanaan’s crash at Indianapolis or Vitor Meira’s crash at Indianapolis or what happened at Infineon all of those cars behaved as we thought they would and designed them to.
“Kanaan’s car down the backstretch sheered the right side off on the first impact and the second impact was one of the most violent impacts with nothing left on the right side. It did what we wanted them to do especially with the anti-intrusion panels we put on several years back.
“That is the kind of stuff you have to be careful with. If you are going to go out in terms of design and evolution you have to do your due diligence to not only race them but crash them to make sure they are safe.”
And then there is the economy.
By introducing a new engine/chassis package for 2012, that means every team in the series will have to pay for new cars and that could lead to a smaller field as some of the lesser-funded teams struggle to find the money for new equipment.
“The economy is a huge part and with this kind of R&D it isn’t cheap. It’s a very important aspect of that from a lot of different angles. When you package all of that together it’s a very important aspect from a lot of different angles. The teams ability to pay for it, the fact we have manufacturers interested in what we are doing, what the cost is going to be for R&D, it’s not much different for other businesses because money drives a huge part of it.”
AND THE WINNER IN BRAZIL IS?
IndyCar Series officials hope to announce the location for the 2010 season-opening race in Brazil imminently.
“We hope to know about Brazil within the next 10 days or so which location it will be,” Barnhart said. “They are all in the running over there. Terry and Tony Cottman have spent a week down there so we are working out the details.”
Terry Angstadt, the president, commercial division, of the IndyCar Series spent time in Brazil working out the details before departing for Japan last week.
“We are between Salvador and Rio,” Angstadt confirmed. “Both communities are still very engaged and we hope to make that opportunity any day. The desire is mutual because it appears all the funding is in place. It’s six weeks later than we would have liked for it to be.”
Belskus, who holds the overall responsibility for both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League in his role as IMS Corporation CEO, believes the IndyCar Series should pursue international races only if they make sense; that otherwise IndyCar should focus on building its domestic product.
“These international events are important to us,” Belskus said. “We need a compelling reason to do the international events and it is important from that perspective. For Japan, it’s because of Honda. To the extent we have those associations it’s important but we will still be looking at three or four international events as the most. I don’t see it as a significant portion of our schedule.
“We’re still talking to a group in China to bring an IndyCar race to that country. It’s still on the table and still an opportunity. It is a work in progress for us. That’s a 2011 or 2012 sort of conversation.”
A FAN OF THE TWO-DAY FORMAT
Barnhart contended that the two-day format has worked well for most of its events this season. That calls for practice and qualifications one day with the race the following day.
“The two day shows work really well on the ovals,” Barnhart said. “The challenging ones are the shows where there is expense setting up the race track like St. Pete and Toronto and Edmonton and Long Beach. Theexpenses the promoter has in setting up those events certainly justify making that a three-day show. But we are so familiar with the cars we are running that we get a lot of laps in practice so the two-day show works really well on the ovals. You balance it out from that aspect.
“When we go to a three-day show it seems like we are there forever.”
INDYCAR CLOSING IN ON A SERIES TITLE SPONSOR
IndyCar Series officials are hopeful of announcing a title sponsor for the series at the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Terry Angstadt and his guys are working real hard at that and we are optimistic we can put something together,” Belskus said. “It’s a work in progress. We want the right sponsor. We spend time talking about fair value and what we think it’s worth we’re far more excited about being associated with a brand we should be associated with. Hopefully, we can find a situation that is fair value for that and brings a brand to the table that we want to be associated with.”
Angstadt remains optimistic after recent meetings with the potential sponsor.
“We’ve had the sixth meeting with a potential sponsor,” Angstadt said. “We had the VERSUS folks with them last week and the ABC people with them this week. If they make the decision it will be good for us and will be very well supported. It’s a consumer product.”
JOB PERFORMANCE REVIEW
It’s been 12 weeks since Jeff Belskus took over the leadership role of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation after Tony George was ousted from the family-controlled board of directors. Each week, Belskus has been more comfortable in his role as CEO.
“I think it has gone as well as anyone could expect it to go,” Belskus said. “I’m pleased with the way it has gone. Tony George and I have a good working relationship and I’m happy about that. I’m still spending a lot of time learning the lay of the land in some respects. I’ve visited the folks at Honda and on the racing teams. It’s been a great learning experience in 10 weeks and I feel good about the way it has gone.”
Belskus prefers a three-week “Month of May” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the annual Indianapolis 500 while some have considered cutting one week out of the schedule.
“I do see value in keeping it the way it is, “Belskus said. “In a lot of ways it’s a tradeoff between tradition and value. We need to do what we can to keep as many traditions alive as we can and sort out the ones that are critically important to us and our mission. We continue to have those conversations every year.”
Belskus has also become a big fan of the IndyCar Series 10-year contract with VERSUS because it gives more television time exposure to the sport.
“The VERSUS telecasts have been outstanding,” Belskus said. “Everyone seems to have enjoyed them and there is a lot of energy in them. We are prepared to go through a transition because VERSUS doesn’t have the distribution that ESPN may have but we can be patient while that grows. We have a lot of resources available to us.
“I negotiated the television contract with ABC and ESPN in 2000 and I remember in 1999 it was such a patchwork between FOX SportsNet and ABC and CBS. What we have today is so much better than where we were at that point in time. It’s a huge improvement. VERSUS is a good partner and will be a good partner for us.
“It’s about exposure and to the way we can maximize exposure is very important to the teams. That is reflected in ratings but coverage times as well. The beauty of the VERSUS telecast is it is a longer telecast than what we’ve had before. We continue to look for ways to provide as much coverage as we can to every competitor.”
“Danica Patrick is great for our series and an important part of our series. I’m optimistic about that. We hope to see