Wednesday
Feb172010

The Future of IndyCar Racing

I’ve been inundated with email from readers wondering what my take is on the DeltaWing IndyCar concept http://deltawingracing.com/ ever since it made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show last week. I must admit my initial reaction was negative. Though I applauded the thinking behind it, I felt that it was too cartoonish-looking to bring the sport forward. Needless to say, my first impression didn’t last. But before I give my final assessment, some background is called for here.

Peter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.Three years ago I attempted to push the sport forward with my Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation concept at an invitation-only meeting in Detroit. I presented my proposal to a group of industry representatives from GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Firestone and motorsport leaders - including Tony George and Scott Atherton - in a speech entitled “The Future of Racing,” and though interest in the concept was initially high and it was deemed visionary, the realities of the automobile business at that moment in time prevented the interested manufacturers from going forward.

It was simply too much, too soon.

But good things did come from it, however. One, it got everybody in the room thinking about the future of racing, as in where it needed to go given the changing parameters of the automobile business and the global push to more environmental responsibility. It was clear that coming up with a new set of rules and restrictions to keep the speeds of the racing machines in check every year simply could not continue, because it was a road to nowhere. Instead, innovation, relevance and efficiency had to become an inexorable part of the sport going forward if it was going survive, let alone thrive.

Scott Atherton understood the significance of what I was proposing, which is why from that pivotal moment in Detroit forward he pushed the American Le Mans Series to become more relevant, with overall performance and efficiency - while embracing the use of alternative fuels and propulsion - becoming its raison d’etre. Today, the ALMS can legitimately lay claim to being the most environmentally responsible and “green” racing series in the world. I’m gratified that the gist of my HERF proposal - sans electricity and hydrogen - lives on.

But the fight continues. I continue to advocate returning racing to its rightful role as the birthplace of technological innovation and the developer of advanced automotive technology. Once upon a time that’s what automobile racing was all about. A guy by the name of Ray Harroun won the very first Indy 500 in 1911 driving his Marmon “Wasp” with a strange device attached to it – the very first known use of a rearview mirror. It allowed Harroun to drive the race without a riding mechanic, which had obvious advantages. And from that moment on, racing and the development of advanced automotive technologies went hand in hand.

Can we get racing back to the forefront of developing advanced automotive technologies? Yes, I believe we can. By pressing the “reset” button for racing and starting over, we can establish new challenges that will inspire a new level of ingenuity and creativity and foster a whole new dimension of innovation. But it will take a tremendous amount of vision and real guts by some seriously committed people who also have the power to affect real change.

With all of this in mind then, my initial reaction to the DeltaWing IndyCar concept was flat-out wrong. Because after looking deeper, the more I studied the DeltaWing IndyCar the more excited I became about its vision, its execution, and the promise it brings to the sport of IndyCar racing, especially as it pertains to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the greatest single automobile race in the world, the Indianapolis 500.

Designed by current Chip Ganassi engineer - and former Lola designer - Ben Bowlby, the ultra-low drag DeltaWing IndyCar concept for 2012 is a visionary burst of blue-sky thinking in a sport that desperately needs a good swift kick in the ass. Five hundred pounds lighter than the current IndyCars running today and more aerodynamically efficient with its narrow front track and the absence of front wings, the DeltaWing concept can deliver the same performance with half the horsepower, meaning it is capable of lapping the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at 225mph+ with just 350HP - with faster acceleration and better braking performance - all while delivering a prodigious increase in fuel economy and dramatically reduced operating costs.

Designed to use four-cylinder engines, it is clear that another obvious advantage of the DeltaWing IndyCar concept is that virtually every major automaker in the world could produce engines for the car right now, so we could see everything from Ford EcoBoost and GM Ecotec engines to racing engines from Audi, BMW, Chrysler-Fiat, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota, VW, etc., etc., competing. The other intriguing part of the DeltaWing IndyCar concept is that Ganassi has stated that he wants multiple racing car manufacturers involved so that they’ll be able to build their own versions of the concept.

Prominent motorsports journalist Gordon Kirby (gordonkirby.com) talked to Peter Gibbons, Andretti Autosports’ technical director, who has been in the sport for more than 30 years. It was interesting to hear Gibbons’ take on Bowlby’s Delta Wing design for IndyCar and why he thinks the IRL should adopt it. “If they don’t, then at some point fairly soon it’s over,” Gibbons told Kirby. “We’ve got to take a major step and think way ahead. We need some relevancy. There’s no relevancy in what we’re doing and even less with what NASCAR is doing. When gas is eight dollars a gallon, which isn’t far off, and we’re still pounding around in these fat, horrible, heavy cars, we’re in trouble.”

Gibbons is absolutely right - we just cannot continue on the way we’re going if this sport is to survive.

IRL champion Dario Franchitti agrees, telling Kirby: “All I know is the Delta Wing is innovative and that’s what we need. We’ve got to bring innovation back to the sport and the Delta Wing will do it. I hope it happens.”

To me the DeltaWing IndyCar concept is as bold, innovative and game-changing as the BMW Oracle Racing trimaran, which, with its 223-foot visionary wing, is flying the America’s Cup into the future, whether we’re all ready for it, or not.

I firmly believe that to embrace the status quo - or even a smartly-modified status quo like the updated designs from Dallara, Lola, Swift, et al - is not what the sport of IndyCar racing needs right now. It’s time to break the mold and step into the future with a bold new outlook and a completely different and innovative approach.

Lighter, more aerodynamic and more fuel efficient - with comparable performance and lower operating costs - I believe the dramatic DeltaWing IndyCar concept should be the future of the sport.

I sincerely hope that the powers that be in the IRL can muster the vision and conviction to take the sport in this new direction.

Anything less would not only mean more of the same, but another incremental step on the road to the sport’s eventual oblivion.

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