(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."