Upon further review: DeltaWing still not the answer

One of the toughest jobs that blowhards and word butchers like me have is to admit we are wrong about something. Which is why most writers rarely do it outside of the tiny, tiny "Errata" columns hidden at the back of newspapers (you remember what those are, right?)

But, hang it all, I took ethics classes when I was studying journalism so I have to issue a mea culpa.

Six days ago, I wrote this:

...The time for being frightened of brave new worlds is over. The trench-digging philosophy didn't work in World War I and it's not going to work in IndyCar. To move forward, one must be ready to take steps - sometimes big ones - over uncharted ground...

Would it be so bad for the 2012 IndyCar to represent a revolution, even if it shakes the very core of what an IndyCar looks like? If ever there was a racing series in need of a shakeup, IndyCar is it. It's been far too long since we have had to face the unknown in the sport in any other capacity besides finances and car counts.

Bold words. And, unfortunately, words I had no problem at all forgetting yesterday when the DeltaWing concept IndyCar was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show.

My recap of the unveiling is couched in carefully neutral phrasing, as if I were reporting third person on a backlash of fan disapproval from a distance. Sadly, the proof of my own reaction to the event is written pretty starkly in my Twitter timeline. Among the questionable gems are these:

SBPopOffValve: @GrahamRahal It gets my attention like a guy vomiting in a bar does - for all the wrong reasons.

SBPopOffValve: Oh geez... I just thought of the nightmare of Danica Patrick driving something that looks like a giant phallus. GoDaddy would be ecstatic.

SBPopOffValve: @indy44 Waitaminute... DeltaWing = motorized version of GENE SIMMONS' TONGUE!!!!

In my defense, I enjoy bringing the snark on Twitter because otherwise why would anyone want to read the 140-characters-or-less musings of a frankly boring guy like me?

Still, my reaction to the DeltaWing went in direct opposition to what I so self-importantly wrote about six days ago to people who thought some of the Dallara concepts looked too "extreme" to be IndyCars. Or, to put it more succinctly, I was being a hypocrite.

So I slept on it. I went to bed last night with the determination to take my own advice and open my mind. After all, if the car owners who sponsored it like it... if Ben Bowlby, a consensus engineering genius, designed it... if even the racers who think it looks "weird" and "crazy" and are "not too keen" on it still want to drive it... then maybe my gut reaction was premature.

This morning, I discovered that I still don't like the DeltaWing, and I'm not likely to ever change my mind about it. And I discovered that the reason why has nothing to do with my call to embrace innovation or revolutionary ideas.

Why? What is it about the DeltaWing that crosses the line between pioneering innovation and ridiculous overcompensation? It's not just aesthetics, although the car is so phallic in shape that I (rather unfortunately) coined the term "DeltaWang" to describe it.

It's because it's not a car. It's a tricycle.

The DeltaWing's proponents admit that the machine was initially designed as a three-wheeled racing vehicle. The fourth wheel was only added as a concession of sorts, because they believed the fans weren't ready for a three-wheeled race car. (Boy, were they ever right!) But the principal design remained untouched because the three-wheeled profile was meant to solve a particular engineering requirement. The fourth wheel is as vestigial as a coccyx.

Basically, without going into the engineering thought that resulted in the DeltaWing, the design was meant intentionally to be a hybrid of a motorcycle and a Le Mans-type prototype. Aerodynamically, many of the engineering goals for the 2012 IndyCar could be solved by such a radical departure from the traditional IndyCar silhouette.

In some respects, the DeltaWing was created using the same theoretical reasoning as the V-22 Osprey, a multi-role aircraft that is either a helicopter or an airplane, depending on which way the rotors face. In theory, the Osprey was the perfect hybrid machine - able to perform the tasks of a standard-sized cargo and personnel-carrying aircraft, but with the flexibility of being able to operate in areas previously only accessible by helicopter.

The Osprey, like the DeltaWing, was and still is enormously controversial. Though the concept was certainly innovative, in practice there cropped up many issues that took time, great expense and, sadly, the cost of several lives to diagnose and address. Beyond that, however, the Osprey has been called inadequate for what it was designed to do - capable of multiple roles, but master of none. The response from those who designed it was that the critics' expectations were too high.

Safety is definitely a concern for the DeltaWing's critics as well. One example of those concerns is the DeltaWing's ability to withstand high-speed impacts, since the driver tub is essentially exposed without any impact-attenuating body features such as sidepods. The DeltaWing's balance under high-speed maneuvering is also a question, particularly in cases where one of the three contact points leaves the racing surface (for example, if a rear wheel vaults a curb).

The debate over the performance of the DeltaWing will likely rage beyond its August target for on-track trials. But it's not my intention to start or perpetuate that debate, because my objection to the DeltaWing concept remains the same: it is not a car.

Think about it this way. Many of the solutions to aerodynamic or engineering goals could be attained by making parts of a car more like a motorcycle. And indeed, that is the direction that Ben Bowlby and company went with the DeltaWing. But doesn't there come a point where one goes so far towards incorporating characteristics of other racing machines that they might as well simply adopt those machines and be done with it? If DeltaWing's engineers believe a Le Mans prototype has 70% of the design characteristics necessary to accomplish the 2012 IndyCar's design goals... then why not simply race Le Mans prototypes? If a car needs to be 80% motorcycle for the design to achieve its milestones... then why keep the other 20%?

At one point in my life, I worked as a video game designer. When I first came to the job, I was somewhat skeptical about my role. When I worked on early drafts of my design documents, the software engineers in charge of implementing the programming repeatedly told me that my design document should only contain the barest guidelines of what features the product should have - it was up to the engineers to build the solution. But when I submitted my drafts that satisfied the engineers, my producers rejected them. "It's not your job to satisfy the engineers," they told me. "It's your job to design a product that people will buy and enjoy playing. It is the engineers' job to build it to your specifications, not vice versa."

Ohhhh, the engineers were not happy when the much-larger design documents hit their desks. What was the point, they wondered, for all of the frills and doo-dads and over-complicated features? Our way is much simpler and easier to implement. So what if the end user isn't 100% satisfied with how it works? The point is, it works, and they can adapt to how it works. That was their thinking, at any rate.

The problem is that they were wrong. Too many examples of their thinking put into practice lay gathering dust in discount bins at software retailers. The awards that our software eventually won were an emphatic exclamation point.

That object lesson has stuck with me and I find it very appropriate to the DeltaWing situation. The 2012 IndyCar should not be an engineering exercise that fans must adapt to over time. Rather, it should be an engineering exercise in accomplishing series objectives by adapting to a product that fans will enjoy watching on high-speed racetracks.

It is - or should be - an engineering maxim that there is no single solution to an engineering problem. The goals cited by Ben Bowlby can be attained without completely disregarding the "conventional" or "traditional" four-wheeled IndyCar. And while I agree that innovation is a necessity for IndyCar's future, the wholesale elimination of tradition is not. In fact, tradition is one of the main foundations that keeps IndyCar from becoming completely irrelevant in an era when auto racing in general is on shaky ground as a popular sport.

Some folks in the paddock have gently criticized me and others for overreacting about the DeltaWing. It is a concept, they tell me, not a solution. With all due respect, I beg to differ. It is clear that the DeltaWing is intended as a solution, and while DeltaWing, LLC claims that they are not interested in being a car manufacturer, they leave little doubt that the overarching design is the direction IndyCar must commit to for the future.

I will commend Ben Bowlby and the DeltaWing consortium on their out-of-the-box thinking, but I do not think that I am being hypocritical when I say that it is not necessary to take the box, light it on fire, and urinate on the ashes. Or, to use another metaphor, the solution to getting a new cat is not to buy a dog.

The DeltaWing is a mind-bending, innovative, avant-garde game-changer of a racing vehicle. It challenges even Formula 1 in its boldness and forward-thinking philosophy. But it is not an IndyCar... nor should it ever become one.

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