Like most American kids that grew up in the 80's I watched the Indy 500 every year and became interested in motorsports thanks to that race, but I didn't really get hooked until I started watching Formula 1 racing in the late 90's. My favorite era were those years with the great Mika Hakkinen/Michael Schumacher battles. (I was a Mika Hakkinen fan) So my fondness for Formula 1 waned once Mika retired and Schumacher started winning everything, even at the expense of his teammate Rubens Barrichello. My interest in F1 has only been lukewarm since.

Then I turned to Champ Car racing here in the US for my motorsports fix. However that was quickly extinguished once Champ Car and Indy Car merged and we were stuck with Tony George and his many foibles. (It was entertaining to watch the Hulman/George drama I'll admit.) My interest has been less than lukewarm with Indy Car lately, even without Tony George at the helm.

Over time however, the excitement I once had for motorsports has slowly gone. Maybe it has to do with my age, I don't know. But I think I will pour my efforts into my Trooper and my interests in the outdoors to add excitement to my life.

Thanks for checking out my blog, I hope you enjoy it. I will still post racing news when I find something interesting or noteworthy.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

The silver vitamin

(by Marshall Pruett 2-12-10)

Will it work? Will it turn? Is Ben Bowlby on crack?

The answers to those questions are yes, yes, and I’d hope not.

I have never seen so much chatter – both positive and negative – about the future of the IndyCar Series as I did on Wednesday immediately after the Delta Wing launch.

Ben Bowlby’s group managed to re-write the accepted norm for the appearance of an IndyCar by simply pulling the cover off of his creation, and if you sat back and watched as a spectator, the attendees of the launch and IndyCar fans on the internet came away with two wildly different impressions.

The various forums and blogs, for the most part, have treated the Delta Wing design like a group of villagers chasing away Frankenstein with torches. One thing stood out immediately: The Delta Wing group have a huge public relations campaign ahead of them if the current fan base is going to buy into their chassis.

In a poll asking people what they dislike more – killing puppies, raising taxes, or the Delta Wing -- I fear the car would hover somewhere around second.

What we saw happen at the Chicago Auto Show was the auto racing equivalent of President Obama’s health care plan. One side believes that without the Delta Wing plan, IndyCar will crumble due to years of escalating costs and inaction. The opposition feels that if the Delta Wing plan goes into effect, the imperfect, but fully functional plan we already have will be cast aside, and IndyCar will crumble as a result.

Like the health care plan, concessions will likely have to be made on both sides if everyone is to walk away satisfied, but the question of which party will have to make the most concessions is an interesting theme to keep track of in the coming months.

A lot of questions were answered at the launch, but not nearly as many as I’d hoped, so I pinned down as many people as possible to answer a variety of items. Here are 25 different Delta Wing subjects with some commentary and answers thrown in that I think are worth exploring:

But how different is it really?

For some time, the consensus amongst fans has been that a new car is needed to replace the unsightly and decrepit Dallara. The Italian form released some rather cartoonish images of proposed 2012 cars while Swift showed a much more polished product, but I was left wondering how much change people really want? A little bit? Just enough to not look like the donkey we have right now?

The 2012 Dallaras and Swifts are different than the current Dallara, but not so much that they draw a line in history and make you forget about all you thought an IndyCar could be. They look updated, and slightly renovated, but nothing close to a complete makeover.

If the 2012 car is just a mildly evolved version of what we’ve seen in CART, ChampCar or the IndyCar Series over the past decade, can we expect to win back the throngs of fans that left during the CART/ChampCar/IndyCar days with something that looks similar to what they’ve seen before?

If people walked out of the first movie, why would anyone think they’d pay money to come back and watch the sequel?

Without a doubt, the biggest question the League needs to answer is whether the 2012 car is meant to appease the admittedly small fan base we have left, or to ignite a newfound interest amongst the masses?

Do they play it safe and keep their base, or do they swing for the fences and hope to fill the stands with new faces? With Dallara and Swift, and now Delta Wing, they have a solution to go in either direction.

A mothballed mistake

If there’s a recent case study that warns the League against playing it safe, it needs only to look at the series it digested in 2008.

ChampCar found itself in a similar situation with a long-in-the-tooth Lola chassis (designed by Ben Bowlby, ironically) that needed to be freshened. As much as I’d love to see the Panoz DP01 brought back to life, and no matter how good the car was, it failed to attract a new audience.

Everyone loved the DP01 (once its teething problems were sorted), but it didn’t translate into bigger crowds, more TV viewers, New teams, or to move them up the packed sports entertainment food chain. It was great for those inside the series, but did nothing to improve ChampCar’s place in the market. From 20 yards away, or on TV, it looked to the casual fans like a typical IndyCar, and was immediately dismissed as unremarkable.

The series was gone after one season of the DP01 being pressed into service, and while I don’t completely blame the chassis for the series’ failure, I do think that by opting for something that looked safe and familiar, they sealed their fate. At a time when something groundbreaking was needed, ChampCar’s decision to build an evolutionary chassis led to their extinction.

I’m not the first to say it, but I do firmly believe that unless the 2012 car – and no matter which car(s) are pressed into production -- causes the average person to do a double-take and spend a few minutes trying to absorb the groundbreaking shape they see in front of them, the whole 2012 exercise will be a waste of time. But it can’t be ugly.

Too strange, too different, and just plain wrong

It’s hard to argue that the Delta Wing’s looks need some attention. The car challenges everyone – me included – to accept its appearance.

It asks people to make a giant leap all at once, and as history often proves, most people are reluctant to do that in one sitting. This asks for people to go from grasping the concept of paper airplanes to digesting everything that makes the Stealth Bomber able to fly in a single afternoon, and the backlash has shown it.

“When you first see it, it’s radical, it’s different, and it changes everything,” two-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon said. “Unfortunately, most people are afraid of change, but like everything, you have to update yourself to what’s going on. It’s 30 years ahead of itself, with nothing to bridge the gap in-between. It’s interesting to see some people are thinking outside the IndyCar box. It’s out of left field, but I think that’s cool.”

I think of the Delta Wing like a big silver vitamin. It isn’t necessarily what I’d call pretty, and it isn’t easy to digest, but it is what’s best for the present and future health of the series. It’s the ‘I know it’s good for me, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it’ IndyCar.

“Road cars of the future, and it’s already happening, will look much different,” its designer said. “They will be styled differently to achieve maximum aerodynamic efficiency, will be made of newer materials to weigh less, and will have smaller, more efficient engines. Those are the same targets we are employing here, but in the realm of motorsports. Please remember that this is not a styling exercise. This is form following function. It is a bit of a shocker, but given time, we hope that people will adjust over time. It’s still an open-wheel car, despite the backlash to the contrary. We are trying to lead for a change, rather than follow.”

If we can agree that its visuals need work (apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought it looks like the phallic jet plane flown by SNL’s The Ambiguously Gay Duo…an IndyCar driver forwarded a photo of it to me soon after the launch), let’s move on to the other aspects of what the car represents.

One major item has been ignored by Delta Wing. Form might follow function, but the grandstands aren’t going to be filled with blind techno-geeks. Visuals matter.

Mickey Thompson’s Sears AllState streamliner from 1964 was incredibly innovative with its drag reducing shrouded wheels (just as the Delta Wing utilizes), but it was also ugly as sin.

Asking people to update their mental image of an IndyCar is one thing. Asking them to tell their eyes what they perceive as ugly is actually appealing is altogether different. Fighting human nature isn’t a battle Delta Wing needs to take on right now.

I’m all for technology and efficiency, but not at the expense of basic curb appeal. A crazy looking car that borders on fugly won’t bring the fans back. Sexiness also matters, and the Delta Wing doesn’t have an ounce of it. Shock and awe is what we need, but the good kind, not the ‘please put a bag over its head’ version.

If only the DVD player was broken on Wednesday

I was impressed by the studio photos of the Delta Wing car, and even how it looked onstage at the show, but the simulation lap they created managed to unravel things for me. Racing around on a simulated Mid-Ohio circuit, it went from being space-age to somewhat contrived. As Nigel Roebuck once described Ken Tyrrell, it was “gawky, and angular.”

If they’d left the Mid-Ohio lap out of the presentation, I think it would have helped sell the concept and to create some anticipation while people wait to see it run around the real Mid-Ohio.

I might be a simpleton, but that simulation swayed me from somewhat liking the real car to being transfixed as how bad it looked on track. It looked too much like the Ace & Gary mobile, and once I imagined seeing it race from atop a hill or from the bleachers, I became concerned about its trackside appeal.

They can handle it

A game-changer like the Delta Wing needed a much deeper list of Q&A items made available from the outset. The general sense that it was too advanced to explain all at once isn’t something I agree with. IndyCar fans tend to know the history of the cars, to appreciate the technology, and have a desire to learn more about cutting edge concepts. Assuming the finer details were best kept for a future was a public relations misstep.

“From what I’ve seen, most have now asked what we were thinking, or why we did all of the various things on the car that are different or challenge the norm,” Bowlby admitted. “Now that we’ve revealed the car, and that was the first stage in the process, we will begin to explain, piece by piece, why the car is the way that it is. We will unfold the story and I think people will understand it much better. In person, people were breath taken.”

Delta Wing’s Bill Lafontaine said he knows the car needs to be seen to be understood. “One of the things we want to do is to get the car out in front of people so they can see it and can walk around it and receive it in person. Doing it through photos or a simulation lap just doesn’t do the car justice.”

This isn’t the first time an IndyCar has made people uncomfortable

IndyCar fans are smart and they know what they like. If the Delta Wing is to win in the court of public opinion, Bowlby and Co. will have to explain and answer all of the aspects of the car that question what we’ve known an IndyCar to be since John Cooper showed up at Indy in 1961 with the engine mounted at the wrong end.

As the Delta Wings are surely aware, Cooper’s first IndyCar was met with the same concern.

Will it work? Will it turn? Has John Cooper been indulging in the liquor cabinet?

The rear-engine revolution angered just about everybody (except for the people that ushered it in), left the old guard – the drivers and owners – railing against the silly European car that they said would never succeed at Indy, and started the clock on the roadster manufacturers needing to join the revolution or risk being left by the wayside.

The Cooper was a threat – to people’s livelihoods and to the generation of cars and conventions that had been made redundant overnight. It was a forget everything you’ve ever known car, just like the first Miller or roadster to race at the Speedway.

I can’t say if the Delta Wing is one of those cars, but it has the potential to be the first Cooper-esque car to run at the Brickyard since John F. Kennedy was in office. I’m all for honoring history, but I’m less fond of seeing our sport repeat it decade after decade.

Everything we’ve seen since the Cooper T54 raced at Indy – the McLarens, the Eagles, the Coyotes, the Lolas, the Marchs, the Reynards, the GForces, and the Dallaras – all carry a lineage back to 1961. Wings have sprouted, Gurney flaps have emerged, slicks have appeared, and electronics have become commonplace, but the basic layout of the cars we’ll see at the 2010 Indy 500 will have 48-year-old roots.

Should we let those roots grow into year 49 and year 50, or should we pull up those roots and plant something new – in the same spirit that Cooper did so long ago?

Speaking with Sir Jack Brabham, he made it clear that as much as the Delta Wing is a departure from the current IndyCar spec, it would have to go a lot farther to completely break his Cooper’s mold.

“The Delta Wing car appears to be rear-engined like all the old Indy cars and has a radical body. I think the Cooper was more radical because of the engine in the rear and proved to be superior in the corners as I could pass the other cars there. Of course they had twice the speed and power down the straight. As every racing car since has been rear-engined since, the Delta Wing can hardly be called radical.”

For some, the Delta Wing goes too far. For others, like Sir Jack, it still has a long way to go if it’s to re-write history.


Fight the power!

The feeling amongst the paddock, according to Target Chip Ganassi Racing owner, Chip Ganassi, is that after years of playing a passive role in choosing what they get to race, Delta Wing would be the device that empowers the paddock to form the cars and the costs to fit a message that serves their interests.

“We don’t want to be told what to buy, when to buy it, and how to buy it. We’re the ones having to fork out millions of dollars on this stuff. Shouldn’t we have some say on how it gets spent? Who knows more about where to and where not to spent money on race cars than team owners?”

Ganassi said the Delta Wings have found a staunch supporter and strong ally from an unexpected source.

“The team owners are the ones that know the real costs and how fans and sponsors perceive the series. Ever since Tony George started his own team, he gets it. That’s why he’s on our side! He knows how expensive it is, how much control we don’t have, and how much money gets spent on things that we don’t need or cost too much. He’s a great partner to have.”

It isn’t just a what?

So far, we’ve only spoken of the Delta Wing as a car. The biggest message from the group from Wednesday’s launch was that whether or not their design is accepted for 2012, they want their company to be the new, independent technical arm of the IndyCar Series.

Just as the Formula One Teams Association created the Technical Working Group (TWG), the IndyCar owners have formed Delta Wing to serve as a paddock-led rules, design, and production oversight group.

“That’s the biggest thing people don’t get,” Ganassi told me. “This isn’t just about a car. The League has led this stuff so far, but the paddock is filled with engineers, designers, and the rest of the people who have their fingers on the pulse of everything that goes into making IndyCars. Delta Wing is meant to be a new layer – one that hasn’t existed up until now – that works between the Series and the manufacturers to look after the concept and the production side of what we go racing with.”

2008 St. Petersburg winner, Graham Rahal, was just as inspired as Ganassi to clarify the new real estate Delta Wing is meant to occupy.

“The point that needs to be gotten across to everybody is that it’s more than just a chassis. It’s a concept of how open-wheel racing should be. A guy in engineering school right now could design and create a part for the new car. He could come up with something that gets raced at the Indianapolis 500. When was the last time IndyCar was relevant to all but a few people that had exclusive rights to design or build things? When was the last time a student decided he wanted to get his degree and go work in IndyCar? They don’t. They go into aviation, or to NASCAR because that’s where they can use their minds and their education. That’s where cool things are. This unlocks that door for people to join our series. It gets a whole new generation engaged where they haven’t been for so long.”

So, the Delta Wing is a chassis design, but Delta Wing, LLC, is also an organization made up of the collective IndyCar paddock who wants to be in charge of the 2012 process, no matter what the League chooses for its car or cars.

I’m not sure how clearly that has been communicated to everyone, and I’m not sure if Dallara, Swift, and Lola would be fully supportive of this. I’ll have to do some follow-up on that topic.

Today Indy; tomorrow…the world

Put a bunch of wealthy guys in a room and they’ll come up with a way to take over the world, right? Chip Ganassi insists the Delta Wings aren’t focused on global domination, much less pushing out other constructors.

“I still think people believe we only want to be a constructor, to build it all, control it all, and that just ain’t the case. All we’re asking is for Delta Wing to be involved in the process. What we’ve talked about – having an open source approach, posting all of the manufacturers with what they make for the car and how much it costs posted on our website, inviting any and everyone to bid on making the entire car or just the parts they might be best at – these are all things that we think we’re best at overseeing.”

“It’s not us versus them,” Ganassi continued. “This isn’t Delta Wing against Dallara, or Swift, or whoever. They can build the thing, for all we care. That’s the open source concept again. Anyone has the ability to bid to build all or parts of the car. We’re asking the League to approve our chassis – and you haven’t seen the final version, yet – as the official spec for 2012, and anyone can build it. Anyone. If Audi wanted to hire Dallara to build their car, they can, and if anyone else wanted Dallara to build them a car, they’d have to. If Ford wanted Swift to build their car, go for it. There’s no exclusivity here.”

So they’d be like cover bands?

I couldn’t fathom how or why anyone other than Delta wing would build their design if it was a spec car. First, I don’t want to see 25 identical Delta Wings. That bores me. We have that now, but dressed in a different body.

Second, why would Dallara, Swift, or Lola want to be like a cover band that makes a living knocking out copies of music and lyrics that aren’t their own?

I didn’t get a complete picture of how it would work, and I’m not sure the Delta Wings have it completely sorted, but Ganassi eased my concerns to some degree.

“As far as the looks, I would expect for there to be areas each constructor must do the same, and others where it would be open for interpretation. It’s not meant to be a one-make series with our design proposal. We don’t want to fall into the same trap we’re in right now.”

If we’re talking about this in F1 terms, I’d be OK with it. The Delta Wing looks crazy enough to smack people in the head from 100 yards. If it takes getting within 20 yards to tell a Dallara from a D-Wing, that’s fine with me. With F1’s new rules, a stub-nosed Renault looks a lot different than the tapered spoon-nosed Red Bull at 10 yards. If the 2012 rules call for any tighter control over the appearance than that, count me out.

Like Linux, but for IndyCars

The 2012 car being mentioned as ‘open source’ was rattled off by everyone I spoke with like machine gun fire. It has been so long since almost complete freedom was allowed in IndyCar racing, it feels a tad bit foreign to talk about open competition being not only encouraged, but required.

“This is a culture change,” said Panther Racing co-owner, John Barnes, “we can’t allow a single manufacturer to dictate how we spend our money. We have to have some connection to that. And our sport has to be relevant to the people of today. With the open source way of doing things, it opens the sport back up.”

That being said, it doesn’t mean everyone can come up with their own mouse traps. I would love to see a number produced – a percentage – that quantifies how much freedom manufacturers would be expected to have with everything from uprights to body panels.

If Delta wing produces a spec for an anti-roll bar that has a specific spring rate, could one company meet the spec with a large diameter hollow bar, while another produced a small diameter solid bar? Could teams buy both? Would both be legal? It has the potential for getting complicated and confusing.

Thankfully, Ben Bowlby explained his broader vision of how open source would work on the component level, and also with chassis production Thankfully, they don’t expect the other constructors to pump out carbon copies with Delta Wing’s label on the inside.

“Here’s what we’ve established. Delta Wing, LLC will publish our entire production design to a dedicated website, and access will be unrestricted to fans, teams, and constructors. Every design is free to download. Anyone can submit new designs for approval, but only licensed and approved suppliers can manufacture components, and we’ll set maximum prices that everyone must stay within. This allows us to heavily regulate costs, to contain them over time, and to keep the high dollar teams from developing small bits and keeping them to themselves.

“This also encourages the manufacturers, new or old, to keep things fresh and to innovate” Bowlby went on. “If someone comes up with a better widget, they can submit it and if it is approved by the sanctioning board, it will be available to the entire paddock. We’ve set the target at being value-rich. Requiring expensive engines or exotic parts has hindered the sport from growing, and here, we believe an open source plan will invite businesses of all sizes, from car companies to nut and bolt manufacturers, to become a part of the next generation IndyCar Series.”

So who else supports it?

The Delta wing project started life under Chip Ganassi’s roof, but once Bowlby’s work -- the car and the overall concept – was shown to the other members of the paddock, John Barnes says everyone quickly adopted it as their own.

“I can’t speak for the League; you’d have to ask them what they think, but I can speak for the team owners and tell you that everyone thinks this is the only path to go down.”

Ganassi backed up the assertion of his rival/partner. “When was the last time Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, John Barnes, and Dennis Reinbold agreed on anything? We all do with Delta Wing.”

Most drivers have been hesitant to go on record about the car – one that I spoke with who asked for his comments to be used anonymously later called and asked that I pull them altogether. Interestingly, the most vocal driver to support the Delta Wing also happens to be one of the youngest and most talented in the field.

“You know what? If the other [drivers] won’t, I’ll be the first one to come out and say it: I want the Delta Wing,” Graham Rahal proclaimed. “I saw a picture of a ’75 Eagle and a 2009 Dallara and it’s the same. It has wings, a wide track, the engine in the back, and everything we’ve seen for decades. No matter what anybody wants to say, whether they agree with the car or not, I’ve had more Twitter responses on the Delta Wing than on anything else in the past year-and-a-half. It’s already getting a rise out of people, and that’s what we need. We need those fans, the media, and the sponsors to stand up and pay attention.

“What this does is provide a revolution, and that’s not something we’ve seen in this sport since before I was even born. This is a whole new ball game. It’s not easy for people to swallow. It doesn’t look like what people have come to know as an IndyCar. But in this economy, to get the car manufacturers back, the fans back, and my generation; this is what we need.”

Mr. No says yes

If there was a single owner whose fervent support of the Delta Wing concept stunned me the most, it was John Barnes. Barnes has a reputation for being his own man, and anything but a follower. For someone with a history of saying no, he says he never considered turning against the 2012 car.

“Last August, I got a call from Tony George. He said these guys from Delta Wing wanted to show the owners a presentation. Once I saw it, I said, ‘where do I sign up?’ I’m a 58-year-old man…I have a hard time even turning my computer on…but when I saw the car, I knew this is what we needed to be all about. This is Speed Racer stuff. And then they started talking about the business model and how it worked. This is what we need to survive. I see the full potential of this thing. I see the pitfalls of how so many other areas of motorsports have gone backwards, and this to me is the future.”

Like ChampCar and the insular support that encouraged them to build the Panoz DP01, the current IndyCar paddock is fully behind the Delta Wing design, but as I mentioned earlier, they can’t allow themselves to get caught up in the rapture of their new toy. If they build a new car that the fans either hate or are apathetic towards, we’re winding the clock back to 2007.

Two non-stop questions have been asked about the Delta Wing design, and no matter how tired they might grow from answering them, they have to dig in and hold their ground.

But the display car didn’t look like it could turn?

Indeed, and that was another area that could have been done better by the group. Building a full-scale model to use as a show car took precedence over making the car’s steering system functional, as Ben Bowlby shared. It gave the doubters a wide berth to drive their criticism through.

“Yes, some are concerned about the car’s ability to turn, either from the overall design, or from having noted the mockup doesn’t not allow for space for the wheels to turn. We’ve gone through at least 50 revisions or updates to the car seen here today, and the latest is what will go into production. The front wheels will indeed turn.”

“We had a million questions on that,” Ganassi said frankly, “how will it turn? Will it steer from the rear?... On top of the improved weight and aero, it has a torque-sensing diff, which if you know about how that works, it uses the drive wheels to help turn the car kind of like how a tank uses its tracks to go left or right. Everything works together here.”

No, seriously, display model or not, there’s no way it will go around a corner

Don’t tell that to Graham Rahal if you aren’t prepared to deal with very passionate answer.

“It’s lightweight. You don’t need huge front tires to turn a lightweight vehicle. It’s engineering and physics,” he said with a touch of frustration. “The more weight you have on the front tires, the more it will understeer. Now we take the fact that the front of the car weighs almost nothing, at least to what we have now. Tires that are four inches wide will do the job. This isn’t some new principal in the universe. They aren’t making up how physics work.”

Up, up and away with wings

If we continue the ‘if we accept that’ theme, if we accept that the car will turn left and right when the drivers tell it to, the next area that needs explaining is how the Delta Wing will succeed as a wingless wonder. That’s an easy one.

Wings have never caught on in the automotive world due to their extreme inefficiency and reduction in fuel consumption figures. They make cars corner faster, but if that loss of wing-based downforce can be recovered using a large floor beneath the car, which the Delta Wing does, why keep using wings? Because that’s what we’re used to seeing? Because that’s the norm? Continued use of wings is further proof that evolution has been frozen in IndyCar racing.

“I told Ben that I want a car that can pass and slipstream,” said Delta Wing CEO Dan Partel. Partel, no stranger to open-wheel racing in Europe and America, has seen how hard passing has become since inverted airfoils first appeared in the 1960s.

“I remember when wings were seen as a bad thing, but now they are seen as mandatory. Without them, the Delta Wing will bring the passing back to IndyCar. If fans want to see passing restricted to pit lane where its been for years, then let’s keep the wings. If they want to see passing on the track, you have to get rid of the wings and their turbulence, so that’s what we did and built the design around that philosophy.”

“We’re pushing air around, instead of a car,” said Ganassi. “If anyone thinks we need another big engine for 2012, we don’t. In today’s world, it’s kind of distasteful, isn’t it? It doesn’t fit the move towards more efficient cars, does it? The current car is almost double the weight of the Delta Wing, and double the downforce. If you cut the weight and the downforce in half, you only need half the power. They are inefficient, and for what we’re proposing, the entire car is about efficiency. A [Sprint] Cup car has less drag than an IndyCar right now…does anybody realize that?

“Think about all the extra fuel an IndyCar burns just to cut through the air. As we’ve seen, cars with wings have trouble passing each other. You can’t get close without losing the front end. Why stick with something that hurts the quality of the show and makes you get 2 miles-per-gallon?”

The Delta wing uses its floor – a massive plan area that is bigger than anything we’ve seen – to produce downforce. Flat bottoms are the norm these days, and this has the biggest bottom of them all (cue Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’).

Like I said, that’s an easy one.

Will the driver survive a frontal impact?

Once again, that’s only something that can be determined once full size crash testing is conducted. Beyond its steering, I think the biggest concern is the Delta Wing’s crash worthiness.

It was obvious I was the 563rd person to ask Ben Bowlby about whether his creation could survive a major impact, but he didn’t let that stand in the way rattling off some interesting facts.

“Our design is essentially an extremely long nose, and our initial crash simulations shows it absorbs massive energy due mostly to its cross section which far surpasses what the Dallara provides,” Bowlby continued. “Since we’ve seen how great the forces are that our structure can handle, we’re now working on lightening it to better balance the Gs-to-absorption ratio. You don’t want it too heavy and stiff, nor too light and soft.”

Scott Dixon was also keen on the idea. “The driver sits so far back in the thing, it’s kind of crazy compared to what we have today. Your feet will be almost five feet away from the front of the car, and I’m guessing that’s double what we have now.”

There is another radical element of the Delta Wing’s design is the front structure Bowlby refers to. Rather than simply have a detachable crumple structure – ala the current IndyCar nose – the Delta Wing will carry its front suspension, brakes and wheels in this removable sub-structure.

“There’s a sub-chassis that is well attached to the chassis, and it has a its inner structure and an outer structure – one that acts as the first layer of crash absorption that can be changed by teams and replaced after an impact. Right now, if the outside of the exposed chassis -- from the cockpit forward -- is hit, damage is done to the Dallara tub. The Delta Wing has a replaceable outer skin, or crash surface, that acts as the first line of defense.”

This aspect of the car absolutely floored me. I’m accustomed the stressed members at the back of the car – the engine, bellhousing, gearbox and suspension – all having their loads bed through just a few pickup points at the rear bulkhead on the chassis. The concept of having the front suspension and all of the components involved with the wheels attach as a stressed member is brilliant. I’ve studied racing designs for 30 years and never imagined such a thing. The narrow tires and lack of wings pale in comparison to this, in my mind.

We get by with a little help…

I would expect Firestone, the current sole supplier of IndyCar tires, to support any reputable constructor that asks for their help to build tires for their new chassis. To date, according to Bowlby, Delta Wing is the only one to partner with Firestone on a 2012 project.

“It’s very fair to say that Firestone appreciates our goals, and what we’ve set out to achieve. They have been incredibly supportive. They allowed us to unveil the car on their stand at Chicago, and they have committed to manufacture tires for the car. They are building tires for it right now, and in fact, we are the only potential 2012IndyCar supplier that have engaged them.”

Whose mill powers the mule?

“A current, proven 4-cylinder turbo engine will be used in the test car,” Bowlby said without committing a manufacturer’s name to the project. “It will have a smaller turbo, will be de-tuned, and will run on lower revs. All of these things get us our target power of 300-horsepower while extending the rebuilds to unheard of intervals – at least 6000 miles. If you stress an engine to make peak power, you spend hundreds of thousands on rebuilds. We see no need for that. We’ll also test our fuel flow control method, and believe this kind of reasonable engine plan will draw the interest of major and private manufacturers. We’d like as many engine suppliers as possible.”

I’ve confirmed that it won’t have a Mazda MZR-R sportscar engine, but that doesn’t preclude Delta Wing from working with England’s AER, makers of the MZR-R, from supplying their own private version of the unit that inspired Mazda’s motor. Audi is still at work on their ‘World Engine’ concept, something Bowlby is an admitted fan of. That engine happens to fit everything he mentions above, and could be ready in time for the Delta Wing’s maiden track test in August, but as it isn’t current or proven, it wouldn’t qualify under Bowlby’s criteria.

Or as Graham Rahal noted, Honda’s RDX engine could be used, but so far, and as Honda Performance Development’s Roger Griffiths noted in his blog last month, they have their eyes on something with a few more cylinders for 2012. “We will design a V-6 engine and horsepower is difficult to say, but we are targeting a 225 mph average lap speed at Indianapolis.”

The proof is in the sledding

What many drivers have told me, and all in private, is that before they’ll publicly support it, they want to see footage of it being crash tested on a sled, and of it lapping around an oval and a road course doing all of the things Bowlby says it can do.

Some of the IndyCar Series staff have said the same things.

The Delta Wing, I believe, won’t be accepted or embraced on words and testimonials alone. People’s need to see visual, not simulated proof, so give them what they want. Run it into a wall. Lap the Speedway at 225mph. Carve up a road course at or below the current lap record, and then big proverbial thorn will be removed from an awful lot of paws.

Oooh, oooh, ooh…Mr. Carter

Despite the silence from so many of his competitors, a fired up Graham Rahal wants to be in the car when the Delta Wing is ready to turn its first laps.

“The next step is for Delta Wing to build the car to test, and I’ll tell you right now that I’ll be first in line to test it. I want to see how it feels. People can say what they want to say, but I can’t wait to see someone like Suzuki put a 300-horsepower Hayabusa bike engine in the car, or Honda to put a 300-horsepower 4-cylinder turbo out of their RDX SUV into the car, or Nissan brings a naturally aspirated V6 for us to go racing. Then we have character back into the series. Then we have sound a differential so it doesn’t sound like a bunch of trucks running around the track. Just tell me where and when.”

Scott Dixon said he’ll fall in right behind Rahal. “I will love getting a chance to drive it, and I hope I’m one of the first that gets to do so.”

It’s your turn to pick up the tab

Rumors had the State of Indiana paying for the first Delta Wing to be produced, but that was dispelled on Wednesday. Delta Wing’s Bill Lafontaine answered on where the money will come from, and it shouldn’t be a surprise.

“There is no doubt it costs a lot of money to build a prototype, and the team owners made a commitment in this direction when we formed Delta Wing, LLC. I can’t tell you what’s in the bank account, but there will be over a million dollars invested into this project and the first car. Making no decision is itself a decision, so rather than wait for agreements and commitments first, we’ve gone ahead to build the first car. Randy Bernard will soon have some decisions to make [on the 2012 car] in a short amount of time. We have proposed and option, and the opportunity is theirs to take.”

Will they sell it in the discount aisle at Target?

As for what it would cost to buy, John Barnes was rather blunt about the much needed cost reduction the Delta Wing would offer. Provided the projections are accurate, and I haven’t had a chance to review the numbers yet, it would be a no-brainer. Even if they are off by 50 percent, the savings would be unreal.

“Two cars cost half of what one current IndyCar costs. We’re talking about doing two complete cars with engines for $1.1 million. Right now, the current Dallara is $680,000, and that doesn’t include electronics or the million-dollar engine bill. It isn’t hard, after putting it all together, painting it, and massaging all the little areas you have to these days, to spend almost $2 million per car. With how hard IndyCar teams are struggling right now, which would you prefer? Two ready Dallara-Hondas for $4 million, or two ready Delta Wings for $1.1 million. As an owner, that’s an easy one to answer.”

The new sheriff seemed to like it

“They lost my luggage in Moline, but I got here despite the storm!,” new IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard shared. He was a surprise Delta Wing launch attendee, and despite his relative inexperience with the struggle for IndyCar’s future, he says the car appealed to his marketing side.

“I was watching everybody in the room just as much as the car. Everybody was really excited to see the innovation and design. I had one person tell me he saw people at the launch that hadn’t covered IndyCar in 30 years. I think it’s a car that looks awesome; if I’m a 12-year-old kid, I dream of driving that car. If I’m a sponsor, it’s the kind of car that brings people to my store or my showroom to take a look at it. From the marketability side, I think it’s fantastic.

“What does that mean for competition and safety? I’ll leave that to the experts. What I’m really excited to see is what the papers and the web have to say. Everybody has an opinion and wants to talk, and the one thing I take back with me from the event is the passion people have for the sport. It’s really fun to see how highly, highly competitive everyone is. That’s something we can work with.”

Parting shots

The Delta Wing isn’t a panacea that is meant to solve all of IndyCar’s ills. It can’t be. No single concept can be perfect; there will always be flaws. (Scratch that. I just thought of Rosario Dawson.)

I don’t see the Delta Wing as Pandora, the dream-like world depicted in Avatar, but the car is clearly the work of a man with a dream, and if nothing else comes from the design, it reminds us that since its inception, IndyCar racing was never about predictability.

IndyCars aren’t supposed to be the same demure, inspiration-less machines they’ve evolved into. Dallara’s 2012 drawings, and I can’t call them anything more than artist’s impressions, range from barely different to what we have now to something 10-year-olds would come up with after drinking too much Mountain Dew.

Swift’s proposed 2012 cars are stunning. They are polished, clean, and innovative, provided you use the current IndyCar as its basis. If you’re a fan of evolution, rather than revolution, the Swift would be hard to beat. Their concepts for adding visible electronic indicators – fuel level, brake usage, and throttle usage – should be mandated, no matter whose cars are used in 2012.

If you believe that IndyCar racing needs to get out of its evolutionary stance, and make a clean break, the Delta Wing is that car. We haven’t seen images of the Lola yet, so it could fall in either category, but what the Delta Wing does differently is propose an important new concept for the League.

I’ll be fine if Delta Wing sacrifices some aero efficiency in order to make the car more appealing. It needs a treatment of some sorts at the front – something. We don’t want fans quoting Wayne’s World every time is goes by, shouting “Schwing” when the member-mobile dives into the Keyhole. From jokes about seeking sponsorship from Viagra to a host of easy puns, the car that is meant to save Indy can’t afford to look like a rolling punch line.

Whether the car as a whole or only parts of it are utilized for 2012, either with a bespoke Delta Wing chassis or if only certain aspects of it are mandated for every constructor to use, I’m a big believer in the concept.

The League hasn’t demonstrated the leadership or the urgency to shape the discussion or the rules for 2012, and have instead chosen to work from Delta Wing’s copybook. I’d be happy to see the Delta Wing group as the official delegate that shepherds the 2012 process – until such time the League demonstrates they have a better concept and the expertise to manage it.

For years the League has asked racing car constructors to fill their void of design knowledge. They solicit designs and approve what they feel best fits their series. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s standard practice almost everywhere. Now that we have a first in IndyCar racing – a paddock capable of providing its own design and its own technical oversight group – maybe it’s time to let the experts provide a service the League isn’t prepared to handle.

Ben Bowlby is just one of many former designers and engineers with backgrounds at Lola, Reynard, Swift, and other IndyCar constructors. As long as the paddock is filled with the men and women who’ve created the very cars they race, their knowledge is what should drive the 2012 design process.

In the sprit of John Cooper and open source technology, I’d challenge Delta Wing’s competitors to scrap their exiting 2012 designs, to go back to their virtual drawing boards, and return with something equally, if not more radical than what was unveiled in Chicago.

If they come up with something more pioneering, put their designs right alongside the Delta Wing. If they come back with more evolution rather than revolution, a re-tailored Delta Wing will be the only car worth considering. Maybe then the silver pill will go down a little bit easier.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Because they have forgotten, this is what a real race car looks like

or this

2012 Delta Wing car

I'm not even sure what this is. I would have to see it actually going through a chicane or something to really understand what I'm looking at. At least at the moment though I have lost all hope for american open wheel racing.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Say no to Kee-Rock

(by Marshall Pruett 2-5-10)

Have you ever had one of those days where you woke up, felt great, looked forward to a solid day’s work, but the moment you opened your email inbox, it all went horribly wrong?

Welcome to my Friday morning.

I don’t know where your political leanings fall – Republican or Democrat – and I can’t say whether you’re a fan of Barack Obama.

To be honest, where you land on both topics isn’t important, but there is one message the President has sent – that the bickering and in-fighting between the two parties won't help our country – should resonate with every American citizen.

Put aside your differences, whatever they may be, and work together to find a common solution for the greater good of everyone. The message isn’t exclusive to Obama, and it has worked since cavemen fought over women, food, and fire.

This message, though, hasn’t reached 16th and Georgetown.

The IndyCar of Tomorrow -- the 2012 machine -- is a construct of the entrants in the IndyCar paddock. After a continual lack of progress by the League, Chip Ganassi, Ganassi’s Ben Bowlby, Bowlby’s newly formed Delta Wing, LLC, and the majority of the paddock have gotten together to propose a radical new chassis, a clean slate for engine regulations, and everything else they hope will revitalize open-wheel racing.

And despite that bold, progressive effort by the paddock, they’ve had a major, 100-foot tall hurdle to overcome in Brian Barnhart and the IndyCar Series.

If you are a fan of Indy-style racing and its history, you might find some parallels between the efforts of the paddock and the 2012 car and those of the disenfranchised group that broke from USAC to form CART more than 30 years ago.

While I won’t go so far as to say the ‘Delta Wings’ are looking to break from the IndyCar Series, it doesn’t take a degree in Political Science to figure out that with the 2012 initiative, the Delta Wings sent a somewhat subtle message to the League that they know who holds the real power in the relationship.

Subtract the haulers, sponsors, crews, and drivers from the paddock, and Barnhart and Co. are sitting atop a circus with an empty tent.

The Delta Wings haven’t been forceful about it; sanity and civility has marked everything they’ve done so far, and the overall tone they’ve conveyed to the series has been of working together.

And what have they gotten for their efforts?

Aiding and abetting? Plagiarism? A little bit of both, maybe?

The Delta Wings kept their Chicago Auto Show launch under wraps for a while, but eventually word got out and they confirmed their 2012 model will be unveiled next week in Illinois.

Rather than collaborate with the Delta Wings, the League saw an opportunity to gain a tactical advantage – one that is purely political – by working hurriedly to scoop the Chicago Auto Show launch.

First, the IndyCar Series sent out a release on Thursday, written by Ben Bowlby, sorry, Brian Barnhart, that outlined everything the League wanted to see in a new car for 2012.

What Bowlby, err, sorry, dang keyboard keeps hanging up, Barnhart said looked exactly like a Cliff’s Notes version of everything the Delta Wings have outlined as their goals for the 2012 car.

Actually, this goes deeper than using Cliff’s Notes. This was like stealing your college roommate’s English essay, copying it almost word for word, but changing a few ‘aren’ts’ to ‘are not’s’ and moving a few sentences around in each paragraph so that on the surface, it looks different, but in reality, it’s just a cut-and-paste job.

They didn’t have the decency to acknowledge Ben Bowlby, or to include something as simple as inspired by Ben Bowlby and the Delta Wing group at the bottom of the release.

Barnhart should be thankful this wasn’t a college essay, as he would have been dismissed from school the moment the paper was submitted.

If plagiarizing Bowlby’s work wasn’t divisive enough, I awoke today to find an email from Dallara's Andrea Toso that included renderings of the Italian firm’s proposed 2012 IndyCar. After calling around to a few other IndyCar journos, they confirmed the same email appeared in their inboxes. Like mine, their emails also had a member of IndyCar’s PR staff CC’d.

With the Chicago launch date in mind, how dirty is it for the IndyCar Series to provide Dallara their entire media email list for them to scoop the Delta Wings? Once again, rather than reach out and embrace the forward-thinking members of their own paddock, Barnhart and the League choose to aid and abet Dallara, helping them to get their 2012 images out first, to steal the thunder of the Delta Wings, and to intentionally drive a deeper wedge through the paddock.

Am I the only one that sees this tired move as plainly as the IndyCar Series has acted it out? This is about as transparent a move to hinder the Delta Wings as it gets, right?

It’s like an episode of my favorite childhood cartoon, Wacky Races, where Dick Dastardly twists up the ends of his moustache and says “Now that I know when they’ll show the car, let’s see them stop me from beating them to the punch with a launch of my own!” followed by he and Muttley breaking into an evil laugh.

It doesn’t take much to imagine Barnhart as Dick Dastardly, new CEO Randy Bernard as Muttley, and the Delta Wings as the pigeon they are trying to smash in the opening sequence of the cartoon above, now does it?

In the name of Rodney King, can’t we all just get along? Does this Us vs. Them, Republican vs. Democrat, Yankees vs. Red Sox, IndyCar Series vs. Delta Wing adversarial approach help in any way?

Does the thought of folks in the paddock – people that are MUCH smarter than those at 16th and Georgetown when it comes to new car designs – taking control of their own fate scare the League so much that all they know how to do is rail against them?

Rather than embrace the group of cavemen that discovered how to make fire, Barnhart and his group opt to stone and kill the guys because it wasn’t their idea. With the Delta Wings, they produced that first fire – the one to lead the series out of darkness – but the League can do no better than to try and douse the flame, start one of their own, and take credit for the invention. It’s one step forward, and two steps back whenever the League gets their hands on something, isn’t it?

I don’t know what the solution is here. Do we need to call Obama and ask him to pull the IndyCar Series and the Delta Wings together to have a beer on the White House lawn like he did with Henry Louis Gates and the police officer that arrested him? Honestly, I don’t think it would help.

Do we need to teach Caveman Brian and Bronco Bernard that Delta Wing’s fire isn’t something to be afraid of?

Personally, I think Barnhart and his actions have more in common with Kee-Rock, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Phil Hartman’s character on Saturday Night Live, than anything you'd expect from a a senior IndyCar official. For all of Barnhart’s effort to paint himself as a progressive, he’s done nothing more than try to steal the march of a group he sees as his rivals, and then work feverishly to undermine everything they’ve done. Despite the shiny suit and the slick talk, his tactics are primal, if not Stone Age. All that’s missing is a giant club in one hand and a woman being dragged around by her hair in the other.

It’s sad, lame, and plays into the partisan politics that have no place in a series as fragile as IndyCar. I don’t know if he realizes just how close he keeps pushing the Delta Wings to a point where they decide to form their own series.

Jackass moves by USAC spawned CART. A jackass move created the IRL. Maybe this latest jackass move will cause the Delta Wings, an ownership base mostly free of jackasses, to take their fire elsewhere.

I can hear it now…“I’m a caveman, and I’m frightened by your strange Delta Wing machine…”

If Kee-Rock keeps it up, he could find himself with an empty paddock in 2012 and no one to drive his new Dallara.

Dallara fires first shot in chassis derby

(90% ugly)

(75% ugly)

(100% ugly)

(by John Oreovicz 2-5-10)

It may seem that the year 2012 is a long way away, but in terms of designing, testing and developing a brand new racecar, time is running short. Especially if radical changes to the status quo are in store.

Under Brian Barnhart's management, the Indy Racing League has been dragging its feet in terms of introducing a new car. The current Dallara chassis that has become the default spec package for the Izod IndyCar Series was introduced in 2003, meaning that by the end of 2011, it will have completed nine years of service.

That's more than an eternity in racing terms, and the ungainly look of the Dallara and the harsh sound of the naturally aspirated V-8 engines used by the IndyCar Series since 1997 have played a part in the downfall of Indy car racing in that time span.

The Indianapolis 500 in particular has a rich history of technical innovation, and the fact that Indy car racing has devolved into a spec formula has been extremely disappointing for longtime fans of the sport. The bad news is that the IndyCar Series is likely to continue as a spec formula beyond 2011, but the indications are that IRL officials recognize that the formula for the future must be a cutting-edge design that incorporates speed, sexiness and relevance to the mass-market auto industry.

This week, the IRL released a list of objectives for the Indy car of tomorrow and revealed it is in discussions with traditional racecar manufacturers Dallara, Swift and Lola. It is also in talks with a new group, DeltaWing, about future participation.

Submitted designs are expected to be much lighter and more efficient, yet meet current safety standards and maintain the level of competition the IndyCar Series is known for. The car is mandated to be made available to competitors at a considerable cost reduction from the current Dallara, which sells for some $400,000. American production -- preferably in Indiana -- is another consideration. It is also hoped that a more modern design will offer additional space for sponsor logos and promote ecology-friendly technology relevant to road cars.

"For the last year we have engaged in ongoing conversations with four chassis makers on two different design tracks," Barnhart said. "Now we are receiving concepts and will make a decision soon.

"Our chassis is the most complex challenge in world motorsports because of the variety of race courses where we compete," he added. "It must be designed to run at 235 mph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and protect drivers and spectators in high-speed crashes. It must be able to perform on superspeedways, speedways and short ovals, as well as natural terrain road courses and temporary circuits."

Dallara was the first to go public with its ideas for the future, releasing three renderings of potential Indy car designs. The Italian manufacturer has supplied chassis to the IRL since 1997, the first year the IndyCar Series utilized its own chassis formula. Dallara has pledged that if selected as a future chassis supplier, production will shift to the USA and the car will be made available for 55 percent of the cost of Dallara's current car.

DeltaWing is the great unknown in the IRL chassis sweepstakes. Details have leaked about the project, which has the backing of several IRL team owners (including Vision Racing boss and IRL founder Tony George, who pulled out of the sport last month) claiming that the DeltaWing design is a radical departure from the look and layout of a traditional Indy car.

DeltaWing designer Ben Bowlby and managing director Dan Partel, both ex-Lola hands, will unveil their design on Wednesday at the Chicago Auto Show.

Over the past year, Barnhart has spoken frequently about the two parallel design paths the IRL could follow, and clearly there is a serious debate going on behind the scenes about just how radically the leaders of the sport want to shake things up. I personally believe this is not the time to try to reinvent the wheel. Indy car racing is in enough of a state of flux with George's withdrawal from the sport and the overall change in leadership that has occurred over the past couple of years.

I think a modernized version of the cars that helped Indy car racing reach its peak in popularity in the 1980s and '90s is in order. Those cars were swift and sexy; they looked and sounded good, and with modern technology advances (not to mention the SAFER Barrier system, an oft-overlooked part of George's legacy), safety would not be as much of a question as it would be with a completely new and unproven design direction.

It's good news that the IRL is giving fans and competitors something to look forward to for the future. In that regard, 2012 can't get here fast enough.

"We can achieve all of these objectives," said company founder Gian Paolo Dallara. "The new Dallara Indy car will be built in Speedway, Ind., and it will set new standards in terms of safety, fuel efficiency, raceability, technology, performance and cost containment."

Of the three Dallara renderings, my favorite combines the needle nose of the current Dallara IRL car with the rear half of the Lola or Reynard chassis that raced in the CART/Champ Car series -- and at Indianapolis through 1996, prior to the introduction of the naturally aspirated IRL formula. The other two designs feature more bulbous bodywork, with one bearing a strong resemblance to the early '80s Eagle Indy car chassis produced by Dan Gurney's All American Racers.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Indy Racing League explores options on new chassis

(by Nate Ryan 2-4-10)

Indy Racing League president Brian Barnhart says the IndyCar series is considering designs by manufacturers Dallara, Lola, Swift and DeltaWing for a new chassis scheduled for a 2012 rollout.
Barnhart says the chassis are on parallel paths: An evolutionary approach by traditional IndyCar players Dallara, Lola and Swift, and the revolutionary option offered by DeltaWing, which will unveil its blueprint Feb. 10 at the Chicago Auto Show.

"At this point they're all concepts," Barnhart said Wednesday. "There's more questions around the radical car, but until they become realities, we can't be in position to pick one until they're off the computer screen and on the track.

"The proposals are exciting and unique, and yet they're all very similar from the business side. It's really coming down to making a decision on which is the best direction for the future of IndyCar."

Barnhart says the IRL must settle on a design within the next three months to have it ready for 2012. While the IRL would welcome competing chassis manufacturers, it seems likely only one might be chosen.

"The hard part is it's somewhat of an economical equation," Barnhart says. "Most of them are more inclined to be in an exclusive supply situation. They don't want to lose volume, and they're looking at maximizing the parts they're building."

Barnhart also says IndyCar's length of schedule and its diversity (running on street courses, road courses and ovals) also could make multiple chassis options a cost-prohibitive problem for teams.

"If you find one car is better on a speedway than a road course and then a third car is better on 1.5-mile ovals, suddenly you find yourself needing two to three chassis to give yourself the best shot at a championship," Barnhart says. "That just raises costs of racing."

Reducing costs is a prime objective of the new chassis. Barnhart says the IRL wants to reduce the cost of a fully equipped chassis (currently about $700,000) by 40-50%.

The proposed design by Dallara (which supplies virtually all the teams with the chassis that's been in use since 2003) would cost $385,000. Dallara's new chassis would feature narrower tires, less horsepower (a drop from 630 to 570) and a lighter design (1,390 pounds vs. the current model's 1,530 pounds). The reduction in power, weight and tire width would increase fuel efficiency.

The IRL also wants the new chassis to enhance competition (particularly after a season that featured some lackluster oval races) and prefers the car is built in America. IRL technical director Les Mactaggart says the chassis also will be designed to improve fuel efficiency and reduce horsepower while maintaining 225-mph speeds with a lighter, sleeker car.

"The principal thing is to improve efficiency," he said. "By making it lighter and less aerodynamically 'draggy' and effectively reducing the power, it'll make the car more efficient and reduce the amount of fuel being used. We need to have the car more raceable and less sensitive aerodynamically, so drivers have a greater ability to overtake and are less affected by the aerodynamics of the car in front."

Safety also remains a high priority, and Mactaggart said IndyCar had found new ways to reduce frontal lift that would be incorporated into the chassis, along with changing the positioning of the sidepods to reduce the likelihood of wheel-to-wheel interlocking.

Barnhart says two engine manufacturers also have expressed interest in the IndyCar series, but "the challenge is both are looking to replace Honda as the exclusive supplier; they don't have interest and energy in competing against Honda. We're trying to find solutions, maybe by restricting spending."

Honda, which has indicated an interest in competition, is signed with the IRL for the next two seasons.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Indy without Lilly, the 500?

(by Norm Heikens 2-2-10)

Two unrelated announcements last week in Indianapolis continued story lines that aren’t improving with the passage of time.

The biggest eye-opener was Tony George’s sudden shutdown of Vision Racing, the Indy Racing League team. By pulling his car from the league, prospects for fielding a full slate of 33 cars to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 got that much harder.

Earlier the same day, Jan. 29, Eli Lilly and Co. reported a decline in operating profit in the fourth quarter. But the news about its Effient blood thinner was worse. Sales of Effient, Lilly’s newest drug and one of the company’s hopes for surviving an upcoming string of patent losses, plunged and prompted investors to sell Lilly stock.

In isolation, neither event was significant. But bad news out of both Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Lilly is becoming disquietingly common.

The cachet, the “holy ground” aura of Indianapolis Motor Speedway is fading. George’s announcement was the latest in a string of setbacks going back to the early ’90s. Lilly is losing traction, too. The company has unloaded thousands of workers, and its stock is trading at 1997 levels. Analysts continue to question the future of big drug companies as they struggle to find new products to sell.

So, let’s ratchet up the discomfort for the sake of argument. What if both pillars tip further? Or topple entirely?

Several years ago, the notion of even a diminished Speedway or Lilly would have been absurd. Now it isn’t, says Dan Knudsen, an Indiana University geographer who has studied economic development and keeps an eye on Indianapolis.

Knudsen says Indianapolis should brace for the Speedway going out of business within a few years. Open-wheel racing has been losing popularity, and young people in particular don’t seem to care about it. Imagine the track as a type of empty Roman Coliseum, he says.

Lilly’s prospects are brighter, Knudsen believes. The nation will always demand health care, so the company probably will find a way to capitalize and stay in business, if at a reduced scale. “As long as people die—and people don’t want to—Lilly is going to be fine,” he says.

Even if Lilly were to be acquired and broken into pieces, many of the pieces would be snapped up by other life sciences companies. Some Lilly plants in Indianapolis might fall into hands like Cook Group in Bloomington or Illinois-based Baxter Healthcare. So, Indianapolis would lose Lilly’s corporate largess but other companies would latch onto its highly trained employees.

Knudsen goes so far as to say Indianapolis wouldn’t miss the Speedway or Lilly as much as most locals might think. Bloomington bounced back just fine after the RCA television plant closed several years ago, he reminds.

Indianapolis has become highly attractive to professionals, Knudsen says. Downtown is now a sprawling campus, and the downtown is part of a larger campus that is Indianapolis. Indianapolis has done a remarkable job of shifting away from manufacturing to health and information, and the trend will continue well into the 21st Century, he says. The expansion of Indianapolis hospital networks throughout the state is just one sign of the city’s prosperity and influence.

“Indianapolis in essence is extending itself,” Knudsen says.

What do you think about Knudsen’s assessment? Is he too optimistic about Indianapolis? Too pessimistic about the Speedway and Lilly?

What are the odds of the Speedway and Lilly pulling out of their respective downward spirals?

More Matt Connolly Motorsports photos

I'm still diggin' the livery.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

IRL hires Bernard as new CEO, replacing George

(by Curt Cavin 1-30-10)

The Indy Racing League landed a new chief executive officer Friday when Randy Bernard accepted the position vacated by Tony George.

Bernard, the founder and now former CEO of Professional Bull Riders Inc., will be confirmed next week, industry sources told The Star.

Bernard turns 43 Sunday. He has never attended an IndyCar Series race.

The resident of Colorado City, Colo., said earlier this week that his background shouldn't be a hindrance to growing the IRL.

"I didn't know anything about bull-riding before we started," he said. "But 20 riders gave $1,000 each -- three had to borrow the money -- and we made it go.

"The first day we had a 15-by-15 office, a folding chair, a table and I was the only employee. We learned everything from the ground up."

PBR has grown into an international sport, distributing $9 million in prize money in 2009.

Bernard became familiar with IRL officials because PBR used IMS Promotions for some of its television work. Another tie is Versus, which PBR has used as its springboard to success.

"There are a lot of similarities between the two groups," Bernard said. "The IRL is already (going). All it needs is some direction and some dreams."

George falls off IndyCar radar

(by Terry Blount 1-28-10)

Tony George is out. Completely out. The man who forever transformed Indy car racing, good or bad, is out of the sport.

In less than seven months, George went from the most powerful man in American open-wheel racing to just another guy on the street.

Racing royalty to serfdom in the blink of an eye.

Vision Racing, George's IndyCar Series team, shut its doors Thursday, suspending operations due to a lack of sponsorship.

The team was all he had left.

Some Indy car fans, still angry over the long open-wheel feud between two separate leagues, will gloat today at George's downfall, believing he got what was coming to him.

John Barnes, co-owner of the Panther Racing IndyCar team, is not among them.

"Anyone who feels that way, I feel sorry for them," Barnes said Thursday. "I think Tony is a true visionary with the things he's done at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Without him, that place would be a shopping center by now."

Not everyone agrees, including Indy car legend Mario Andretti.

"Tony's legacy is not a very good one from my standpoint," Andretti said Thursday. "His grandfather, Tony Hulman, did more for open-wheel racing than any other individual. Tony George did more to destroy it than any other individual.

"That's the only way you can put it. It is diminished today because he started the IRL."

Just last week, George resigned his position on the board of directors that oversees IMS and the family business, Hulman & Co.

But his power was lost last June when the board ousted him as CEO of the speedway in an ugly family feud that pitted George and his mother, Mary Hulman, against his sisters.

George resigned from his position as president of the Indy Racing League, which he founded in 1994.

The irony of all this is George finally got what he wanted two years ago when the IRL merged with Champ Car, what little was left of it, anyway.

But it was too late. Too late to bring Indy car racing back to its past glory and too late to save George from his family's wrath. His days of spending the family fortune were over.

Some reports estimate George spent more than $500 million to keep the IRL going through the split, but some of that money was spent on dramatic improvements at IMS to bring Formula One to the Brickyard. F1 left after the 2007 race at Indy.

George also was instrumental in bringing NASCAR to IMS, a huge success for the speedway and NASCAR. But Barnes sees a far more important contribution that George helped facilitate.

"Every driver who races today at a superspeedway should say a prayer for [George]," Barnes said. "He saved their lives with the SAFER wall and all the safety advancements of the last 10 years, and he spent a lot of his own money to do it.

"No one talks about that. I've been in racing for 42 years. No one before him ever came close to making the difference he has made."

Maybe over time, more people will recognize George for those accomplishments. But the sad truth remains that many people view him as the man who ruined Indy car racing by feuding with CART (the original name of Champ Car) and causing a split of two competing leagues that lasted 13 years.

There was plenty of blame to go around for open-wheel's war, including CART team owners who steadfastly refused to make needed changes.

So George took a bold step in forming a new league. The stated goals were more oval-track racing, more American drivers and reduced costs to the competitors.

But both leagues struggled while competing for the same fan base. And George continued to spend piles of money over the years to help fund the league and crush Champ Car.

It's a war he eventually won when the leagues merged before the 2008 season. However, winning didn't mean much by then, and his siblings fought to take control of the speedway and the league.

But George still had his team, until Thursday. Vision Racing was his pride and joy, with his stepson, Ed Carpenter, as the driver.

"I feel bad for Tony and bad for Ed," said Indy car legend A.J. Foyt, an IRL team owner. "Ed was really coming on last year to contend for winning races."

Foyt, the first man to win the Indy 500 four times, has been loyal to George from the beginning. Foyt was George's anchor when most of the major team owners stayed with CART.

"I feel awful about this," Foyt said Thursday. "I've been a friend of the entire [Hulman/George] family for a long time, but I always stayed out of their business because I want to remain friends with all of them.

"Tony's idea for the league was a good one. He did a lot of really good things, but at the end, I think he was getting some bad advice on how to run things."

Another irony is how today's IndyCar Series is strikingly similar to the CART series of the 1990s. IndyCar today races on a variety of tracks -- ovals, road courses and street events -- it races internationally (at Brazil and Japan) and it has fewer American drivers than foreign competitors.

Despite the turmoil of the moment -- George's team shutting down and the IMS board looking for a new IRL president -- Andretti believes the future is bright. That's important to Andretti, who says he "still has skin in the game" with son Michael (a team owner) and grandson Marco (a driver).

"The series is stable," Andretti said. "There are a lot of positive things to look forward to. It's much brighter today than it was two years ago when we still had two series. What happened, happened. Now it's time to move on."

Even after all these years, fans of the sport and people involved in open-wheel racing draw a line in the sand when it comes to George.

Andretti sees him as the villain. Barnes sees him as a hero.

"Everyone who races in this league owes Tony a lot," Barnes said. "I know I do. I owe him everything I've got."