Saturday, July 17, 2010

New car about revitalizing Indianapolis

(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 7-14-10)

INDIANAPOLIS -- The IZOD IndyCar Series didn't unveil its car of the future Wednesday, but rather its concept for how cars will be distributed and developed.

In fact, the theme of the elaborate program staged Wednesday at the Indianapolis Museum of Art wasn't so much about Indy cars as it was about Indy car racing's future role in the economic development of the city of Indianapolis.

Stated more concisely, the new car was as much about business as it was sport.

Sure, it's important that Dallara Automobili was selected as the sole provider of the "Safety Cell" platform that will form the basis of the 2012 IndyCar. But what really matters is that the Italian company will build a new production facility on Main Street in Speedway, Ind., just a short chute away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that is expected to create 80 jobs.

Under the leadership of retired Air Force Gen. William Looney, IndyCar's seven-man ICONIC (Innovative, Competitive, Open-Wheel, New, Industry-Relevant, Cost-Effective) committee was responsible for the focal point of Wednesday's announcement. But the most important people in the IMA's Tobias Theater were the politicians who confirmed that the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis are making long-overdue investments in Indy car racing.

"Today is the biggest day by far in our motorsports restoration program in Indiana," Gov. Mitch Daniels said. "This sport is coming back to the state where it was born."

"We have tremendously skilled workers here, and we want to show our commitment to the speedway and the league," Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said.

Dallara landed the IndyCar contract because it agreed to produce the car in Indiana, persuaded by the promise of tax credits and grants. Dallara and city and state officials said they believe a cottage industry of component suppliers will be revived in central Indiana.

In addition, part of the state inducement package will allow Dallara to offer a $150,000 discount on the first 28 cars sold to teams based in Indiana. Ten of the 14 teams that comprise the full-season IndyCar grid are based in greater Indianapolis; the exceptions are Team Penske (North Carolina), Newman/Haas Racing and Dale Coyne Racing (both Illinois-based) and AJ Foyt Racing (Texas).

Dallara will produce the basic Safety Cell, which includes the monocoque, gearbox and suspension, in addition to expensive items like the fuel cell, wiring loom, electronics, headers and driveshafts that were extra-cost add-ons in the past.

"When we talk about the Safety Cell, we're talking about a complete car, less engine and seat," said Indy Racing League competition president Brian Barnhart, who was one of the seven members of the ICONIC committee.

The kicker is that Dallara will supply that rolling chassis for $349,000, or $385,000 with Dallara designed and supplied bodywork. That's a 45 percent reduction from the $700,000 it would cost to acquire similar current equipment from Dallara for 2010.

The ICONIC committee addressed the cry for variation between cars by allowing any team or manufacturer to develop its own approved bodywork -- front wings, sidepods, engine cover and rear wing. The caveat is that those body kits must be made available to all competitors for $70,000.

Teams will be allowed to select and utilize two brands of bodywork for any season, and the cars will be branded after the bodywork supplier.

So in theory, spurned suppliers Lola, Swift, BAT and even Delta Wing could design and market their own bodywork for the basic Dallara, turning it into their "own" car.

"Today is the result of listening to all of you," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said. "The decision we made was not easy. We had to be cognizant about balancing the cost to team owners and the fans' desire to see change.

"This is one of the most important decisions of the decade for the IndyCar Series, and it's a huge honor to know that in 18 months this car will be a reality."

Dallara and series officials said a prototype chassis will begin testing in October 2011, with the first deliveries scheduled for that December.

Current engine supplier Honda is expected to continue in the IndyCar Series, with or without competition. On Wednesday, IndyCar officials revealed that the 2012 engine will feature up to 100 extra horsepower in the "push-to-pass" function, and that prices for a year-long engine lease will be capped at $690,000 if there is competition between manufacturers and $575,000 if there is a sole supplier.

A current Honda engine lease is $935,000 annually.

Although it won't appease purists who were hoping for a fully competitive chassis market, the key to the overall future cost reduction is the sole supplier concept for the basic car. It is hoped that allowing external development of aero packages will create significant diversity between cars, which was identified as a key demand from fans.

"Aerodynamic bodywork is the key differentiating factor in racing car design, both visually and technically," said ICONIC committee member Tony Purnell, the former head of Pi Electronics and the Jaguar F1 team. "Clothing the safety cell can be done with a fraction of the development cost compared to developing an entire vehicle.

"It's a revolutionary strategy opening the door for many to rise to the challenge," he added. "We believe an industry-relevant approach will attract more manufacturers to the series. We want to challenge the auto and aerospace industry. This is an opportunity to test your technical prowess without breaking the piggy bank."

Gil de Ferran, who represented driver and team owner interests on the ICONIC committee, said the three-month process of deciding the future direction of the series was a fascinating and surprising experience.

"It's important that we didn't decide on a new car, but instead a concept that satisfied conflicting requirements," de Ferran said. "At the end of the day, this was democracy at its best. Our meetings became highly productive brainstorming sessions."

"I was a fly on the wall and it was amazing to watch these seven guys in their process," Bernard said. "Their ideas were 180 degrees different at the beginning."

Another key member of the ICONIC board was Tony Cotman, who was instrumental in the cost-effective development of the Panoz DP-01 chassis used in the last year of the Champ Car World Series.

"Initially it seemed like we were just choosing a car," Cotman said. "Instead we came up with a concept that seems to have addressed all of our stated goals while achieving the impossible -- cost reduction.

"With this plan, costs will remain under control, but teams will still have access to the latest and greatest. We started out with a simple choice and ended up with a concept that will revolutionize and re-energize the sport."

It didn't take long for the naysayers to flood social media, complaining that IndyCar looks likely to continue down the road as a Dallara-Honda spec series. But in the current economic climate, it was unrealistic to expect all-out warfare between chassis manufacturers to be allowed.

As Cotman and de Ferran said, the IndyCar Series seems to have come up with the best possible compromise under the circumstances -- a basic platform that can be dressed up and branded by anyone willing to take the financial risk involved with creating an aero package.

Getting more engine and tire manufacturers involved would be icing on the cake, and when Dallara's exclusive chassis supply contract expires after the 2015 season, perhaps IndyCar will be in position to open up competition again.

"We have to be realistic and not set our expectations too high," Bernard said. "Our goal was to look at the long term. It's going to be pretty hard to find engine manufacturers by 2012, and there's a deadline not too far down the road. But I expect we will see additional aero kits in 2013 for sure."

One constituency group that will happy to get into any new Indy car is the drivers. Current IndyCar Series championship leader Will Power of Team Penske came away impressed with what he saw on Wednesday.

"I'm very excited," Power said. "The car is going to be lighter; it's going to be faster. It entices other manufacturers to come in. I think the ICONIC committee did a fantastic job and this is the best direction that they could have gone.

"I don't think you could ask for anything better, and it's going to be fun."

IRL nuts? Too ambitious? Maybe both

(by Ed Hinton espn.go.com 7-14-10)

Are they nuts?

That's the thought that kept flashing -- in neon -- in my mind as Wednesday's stiffly choreographed, yet largely chaotic Indy Racing League "announcement" of its car plans for 2012 stumbled and stammered on and on.

Before the discombobulated display began, I'd thought the best possible scenario would be for the IRL to accept all five car designs that had been submitted. That would bring back diversity and innovation.

Worst possible scenario would be acceptance of only one of the designs. That would further mire the league in the kit-car, spec-racing formula that has left Indy car racing dwindling interest and attendance in recent years.

What was announced was worse than one car: no car.

Essentially, after all that buildup to the unveiling of a bold new design or designs, they continued treading water, put off the real decisions indefinitely.

Oh, they rolled out a rolling chassis. But that's a far cry from a full car.

Whose rolling chassis? Wouldn't you know it? After all that hoopla about wide-open technology, IndyCar is back in bed with its old spec-car partner, Dallara Automobili. Deeper than ever this time, with Dallara agreeing to open a plant in Indiana to hire Hoosiers -- in exchange, of course, for various tax breaks and grants from the state and local coffers. All this to create maybe 100 jobs.

Onto this rolling chassis, the IRL will allow the attachment of various "aero kits" to be approved and announced … well … sometime in the future.

At first the open-ended aero kits seemed something of a way to please all the engineering firms that submitted car designs. BAT, DeltaWing, Lola and Swift are all welcome -- but not their original, highly publicized designs.

They're all welcome to -- er, ah -- resubmit designs compatible with the Dallara rolling chassis.

Also invited are any and all automotive, and even aircraft, manufacturers around the world. Come and bring your own aero packages and make Indianapolis Motor Speedway the cutting-edge proving ground it once was.

"So come on, Ford. Come on, GM. Come on, Lotus, Ferrari, Boeing, Lockheed," cheered British engineer Tony Purnell, a member of the IRL's ICONIC committee that came to Wednesday's recommendation.

Pardon me if it sounded like LeBron James' over-the-top counting last week of "not four championships, not five championships, not six championships, not seven championships …"

The idea that a Ferrari or a Boeing would spend big to develop an aerodynamics package for a 21st century racecar, only to sell it to competitors for a maximum of $70,000 per car, seems tenuous at best.

Every time the IRL lifts off toward new heights of innovation, it applies its same old ruinous brakes, severe cost controls.

Finally, after the Internet-streamed presentation circus abated and we got down to a teleconference, I asked IRL competition president Brian Barnhart if the league had undercurrent commitments from manufacturers, or if this simply amounted to one of the great leaps of faith ever in motor racing?

As for the aerospace industry, "It's kind of a natural to challenge that industry to get involved," Barnhart said. "With regard to the automotive manufacturers, we have had some preliminary dialogue, and it has been exceptionally well received."

The idea is that a Ford-developed aero kit could be called a Ford car, and pack a Ford-developed engine so that in the future, rather than driving a "Dallara-Honda," a driver might simply be driving a "Ford," or "Chevrolet," or "Honda," or whatever.

Which might leapfrog the IRL ahead of NASCAR in brand identification -- except that the "Ford" would really be a Ford on top of a Dallara chassis.

Randy Bernard, the IRL's new CEO, said manufacturers brought into the loop "have said it's very exciting that they could create brand identity with their cars."

Trouble is, "we haven't been able to talk with everyone because we wanted to keep everything as confidential as possible, so we were very selective in our first round," Bernard said.

See? There you go. It's a huge leap of faith, without strong commitments from several manufacturers. Bernard plans a trip to Europe next month to talk with engine manufacturers there, to discuss engine and aero packages that could be called simply "Mercedes" or "BMW."

But that's essentially a sales trip, to make inquiries and proposals.

As the marathon announcement wore on, and they began to make some sense, I decided they're not nuts, but they are very broadly wishful in their thinking.

Here's hoping that it works, that we might again see Indy unveil innovations upon innovations, as it hasn't since the 1920s when the genius Harry Miller and the Brothers Duesenberg were high-tech archrivals. Maybe at least, on the more realistic side, we could see at least the diversity of cars I encountered when I started covering Indy 35 years ago -- the Coyotes, Wildcats, McLarens and various "specials."

But during Wednesday's rambling -- hard to call it an "unveiling" because so much is still so veiled -- through such a lofty, nebulous, unfinished plan, well …

First I got this image of the IRL sprinting headlong toward a cliff and taking a flying leap off … then of it hanging in midair, flapping its arms with all due intensity.

I'm not saying it won't fly. But I am warning: Look out below!

What did we learn? Well ... not a lot



(by Terry Blount espn.go.com 7-15-10)

Months of buildup and anticipation. Tons of speculation. Glimpses of futuristic new designs for what the new Indy car could be like in 2012.

Finally, Wednesday was the day. A decision was made. Everyone was waiting with bated breath for the big announcement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

And the new car is? Umm. We'll get back to you on that one.

And the winning chassis manufacturer is? Umm. The same guys who make the chassis now -- Dallara.

If you were expecting a curtain to go up and reveal the shiny new car of the future, you're still waiting.

There was no wow factor. If this was the game-changing moment for the IndyCar Series, it came in a whisper and not a bleat from a vuvuzela.

What will the new Indy car look like? Well, that depends.

Dallara will continue to provide the chassis, known as the Safety Cell, but the actual shell of the car is up for grabs for any manufacturer. Different body styles are welcome, within reason.

It's safe to say the new Indy car will look similar to how the car looks today. You won't see a Delta Wing body on the Dallara chassis.

"We want it to be evolutionary, not revolutionary," said Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, one of the seven men on the so-called ICONIC committee that was formed to make the decision.

A Speed Racer car or the Batmobile or the actual Delta Wing (sort of a modern version of Craig Breedlove's land-speed record car) isn't coming. The designs for the aero kit must meet IRL approval.

"We want to leave the parameters and the box open as wide as possible," said Brian Barnhart, the president of competition for the IRL and a committee member. "The front and rear wings, the sidepods and the engine covers all will have as much freedom as possible so fans can distinguish the cars from each other."

What they will be exactly remains a guess. It's all still a gigantic gray area.

What league officials want is more participation from various manufacturers that will bring slightly different design concepts.

"We are dressing the chassis in different and sexy ways," said Tony Purnell, another member of the committee. "Come on, Ford; come on, GM; come on, Lotus; come on, Ferrari; come on, Lockheed; come on, Boeing. We want you to rise to the challenge without a major raid on your piggy bank. Bring it on."

Nice challenge, but I doubt Ferrari and Boeing are jumping at the chance to design cars for the IRL.

Randy Bernard, the IRL's new boss and the man everyone is hoping can lead Indy car racing back to the promised land, said he believes the several auto manufacturers who left the series will come back.

"We've talked to some [auto manufacturers] that are very excited about what we're doing and the possibility of more brand identity with the cars," Bernard said. "How much more [body] space will be available for sponsorship, no one can say because it depends on the design."

That's the point: We still don't know. But the IRL has about 18 months to figure it out.

The entire public presentation Wednesday was robotic, totally scripted without any dramatic moment at the end. It included a video of the committee members voting Wednesday morning (using handheld devices) on their choice among the five candidates for the new chassis.

Do they really expect us to believe that decision was made this morning? It was like a bad reality TV show.

There was a brief look onstage, in holographic form, of what the car bodies might look like, but nothing that made anyone giddy with anticipation.

This was more about the steps league officials are taking to try to reach that big moment that can bring Indy car back to the good old days.

Some of the announced changes are huge steps in the right direction. The cost of buying these new cars, whatever they are, is about $385,000, 45 percent less than the current model.

Teams can choose two aero kits (body styles) a year. The kits cost a maximum $70,000, which may limit design options.

Dallara announced it will move its entire IRL operation to a stone's throw from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will add jobs to the community.

In theory, the plan presented by the committee has a lot of good points, but Wednesday's announcement left most still wondering what's ahead.

"Today is a result of talking to all of you," Bernard said in the presentation. "You've all had input, and we've listened. This is a huge moment to know in 18 months this car will be a reality."

But the reality is, we still don't know a lot of things about what that car will be.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

IRL can right ship with new chassis

(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 7-13-10)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Eight years is an eternity in race car design. Having the same generally unpopular car for eight years is an albatross for a racing series.

That's the situation the Izod IndyCar Series is in. The good news is that help is on the way, in the form of a new chassis formula set to be unveiled Wednesday at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The bad news is that the "Indy car of Tomorrow" won't hit the track for almost two years.

That's not to say that the Dallara IC3 that was introduced in 2003 (and served as IndyCar's unofficial spec chassis since 2006) is a bad car. It has produced close, competitive oval racing, adapted well to road racing, and has a better safety record than prior chassis used in the Indy Racing League.

But it was never intended to be a car that would be used for nine years. More importantly, it was a car that no one ever really got excited about -- least of all the large portion of Indy car racing's fan base that remained loyal to CART and Champ Car until the bitter end.

About 10 years ago, Champ Car stalwart Paul Tracy famously dubbed IRL-specification Indy cars "Crapwagons," and the term stuck. At the time, the first two generations of IRL cars made by Dallara and Panoz/G-Force were indeed rude and crude compared to the cars raced in the CART series built by Reynard, Lola, Penske, Swift and Eagle. Cutting costs was one of the original rallying cries of the IRL; its Indy cars were built to a price, and it showed.

Champ Car devolved into a spec formula for its final few years, but its last car (the 2007 Panoz DP01) was much more sophisticated -- and less expensive -- than the Dallara IC3. But when the open-wheel split finally ended in early 2008, the IRL formula -- and therefore the already five-year-old Dallara -- won out over the recently implemented DP01.

The basic car is any racing series' identity, especially in a spec series. For 2012, IndyCar has the opportunity to have its car work in its favor instead of against it, which has pretty much been the case for the last decade or more. By moving production to America and dramatically cutting prices, Dallara is likely to remain involved, but the Italian manufacturer is likely to have competition for the first time since 2005.

Competition between engine and chassis manufacturers (and even tires from 1995-2000) was one of the things that made Indy car racing great during its most successful era in the 1980s and '90s. Having multiple engine manufacturers is more important from a marketing standpoint, but it would be a bonus if IndyCar opened up the field to at least two chassis makers as well. Visual differences between the cars give novice fans a way to tell brands of cars apart and gearheads a point for technical discussion.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard seems to understand that competition between engine and chassis manufacturers lifts the entire industry. The question he has to answer is whether in the current economic climate Indy car racing can sustain a market for multiple manufacturers. Bernard's toughest task might be convincing the Hulman-George family to finance the initial run of 2012 chassis so that a full and competitive field can be ensured.

We know from the previously announced 2012 engine regulations that the drivers will be granted their wish for more horsepower. The future engine specs call for turbocharged engines with up to six cylinders and 2.4 liters of displacement, tuned to produce between 550 and 750 horsepower depending on the type of track. The current normally aspirated Honda V-8 kicks out about 650 bhp.

Not surprisingly, championship leader Will Power is leading the call for more power.

"They've got to have 750 horsepower plus," Power said. "That'll make the racing better because it'll be harder to drive and the cars will look more spectacular. More horsepower will also mean the tires will go off, which makes them more spectacular.

"I remember when I was a kid going to the Surfers Paradise [CART] race when they had 900 horsepower and the ground would rumble," he added. "It was unbelievable, and it just looked and sounded fast. They revved to 17,000 rpm. It sounded awesome."

Other top Indy car drivers are hoping for a more agile car with more options for adjustability.

"For me, I think the car needs to be a ton lighter," remarked two-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. "The current car is a bit of a heavy thing. Being a lot lighter will make it a ton safer, too, because you won't hit the wall as hard."

"I'd also like to see a lot of the downforce created by the underwing, like Champ Car did," Dixon added. "That would be nice so you're not relying so much on the wings that are so massive. I think that would be an easy way to make the racing better. It would help us get close and make runs on the other guy. Adjustability is the key. All this specifying of the wing angle I think is just wrong. There needs to be room in the rules for adjustability so different drivers and teams are able to run different strategies."

Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was one of several drivers who said that the current package is just about perfect for Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But he'd like to see the rulebook opened up elsewhere.

"I'd like to see the rules not be so tight, with room for a little more flexibility on the part of the teams," Helio said. "I think you should be able to play a little more with the wings like we did in the past. Certainly horsepower is always fun to have, and I'd like to see the push-to-pass have a little more increase in power instead of just 5-10 horsepower."

Bernard occasionally has said that he would like to banish the corporate names "Indy Racing League" and "IRL" due to the negative connotations they carry from the days of the open wheel war. The long-awaited move out of "Crapwagons" and into sexy, technologically advanced new cars should be another step in the right direction for the IndyCar Series.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The future of Indy Car hangs in the balance



I've said many times that if Indy Car is going to survive and grow it needs a car that rivals those of F1. Wednesday Indy Car is going to have a press conference to announce its chassis "strategy." What in the hell is a "strategy" announcement? This was supposed to be the announcement of the new car that had been chosen, the new car that was supposed to replace the worthless piece of crap they are racing that the rest of the world laughs at.

I swear if Indy Car screws this up I will give up what little hope I have left for them.