The fabled STP Turbine, perennially one of the biggest draws at the IMS Museum and a fixture in the Indy 500's long history. (Photo: Steve Shunck/INDYCAR)
If there's one thing the Delta Wing has taught us, it's that even those people who don't know anything about racing sure love something new and unexpected.
It is equally certain that if there were two dozen Delta Wings racing around every couple of weeks for a year, those same people would get tired of them really quickly and move on to something else.
That speaks to many quirks of the human mental state, most especially to the attention deficit our modern society and media have created in the general populace.
But that fickleness doesn't have to be prejudicial - in fact, it may be something that INDYCAR can leverage to finally get themselves back into the collective consciousness.
The basement of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum is filled with what may be the most incredible single automotive collection in the world. You can nearly chart the entire history of the automobile for the first fifty or sixty years of its existence just by looking at the Indianapolis 500-winning car from those years.
People still flock to the Museum to get a look at these fabulous machines. I've seen them. Hordes of people bustle around with cameras and looks of fascinated awe on their faces. They crowd around the Marmon, the roadsters, the Lotuses like they were rock stars instead of race cars.
That is, until you get to the cars of 1996-vintage and newer. The awe usually gets replaced by polite interest.
See, the thing is that these spec Indy cars are not very inspiring. In fact, when you see the race winners from 1996 onwards lined up side by side, it's like looking at an evolutionary history that suddenly stops at one point in time and stagnates. You get four, five, and six cars in a row that are virtually identical, and the "wow factor" is gone.
By now we can all rattle off the rationale for why that is, but that doesn't change the fact that if the Museum did an exhibit on the past fifteen years of Indy 500 history it would be a really dull one.
The thing that the die-hard fans and the old guard in INDYCAR simply either can't or won't acknowledge is that the nation never cared about the series that raced at Indianapolis - they only cared about the cars, and the men who drove them. The reason? Because the cars at Indianapolis - the Indy cars - were for years the fastest, most cutting-edge examples of automotive engineering around.
Advances in aerodynamic and engineering theory happened in real time in front of America's eyes during the Month of May at Indianapolis. That was what made the race great - that, and the intense curiosity about whether these innovations would hold up under the grueling 500-mile distance.
Today, there are no more speed records at Indianapolis. Insurance companies and other watchdogs will not allow it. But pure speed is no longer the ambrosia upon which America feeds, largely because America consumes its motorsports now from a distance. Speed translates far better to an in-person audience, but it's clear that proxy-by-video is the new cornerstone of racing's well-being.
Faced with the extinction of the "newwwww traaaaack rrrrrrrrecord" at the Brickyard, and saddled with the spec racing of the Indy Racing League's heritage, INDYCAR subsisted for years on the "wow factor" of Danica Patrick. Danica was the hook upon which the sanction hung its hat - to the detriment of the other drivers, sure, but Danica was the one thing people outside the rapidly shrinking core of IndyCar fandom still wanted to see.
Now Danica's gone along with the speed records. So what now?
The new IndyCar for 2012, the Dallara DW12, is a moderate step forward, as is the return of multiple-manufacturer turbocharging and the promise of aero kits in 2013. But the keyword there is "moderate," and while moderate changes will electrify the choir, they won't bring in a lot of converts.
At the same time, though, adopting a radical new spec like the Delta Wing is not the answer either. Radical is good, but spec is not.
It's time for a little tough love, people. The main attraction of INDYCAR racing outside its insular Indiana community has been, is, and will forever remain the Indianapolis 500. And so ultimately it will fall to the Indy 500 to restore America's interest in the sport.
The way to do it is to cast one eye on the Delta Wing, and the other on the IMS Museum basement. On the one hand, you have the radical new, and on the other hand you have progression.
If the Indy 500 once again became a place where people could tune in every year to see "the next big thing" in motorsports engineering, you bet that it would grab those desperately-coveted headlines, the social media buzz, the viral feel that has been absent for almost twenty years now. It is a better plan than resting one's hopes on the fickle career choices of a "star" driver or trying to craft an annual narrative from the all-too-brief pre-Indy schedule.
There is a myth out there that nobody has the money to pay for something as open as Indy used to be, but that is obviously incorrect considering that Nissan, Highcroft Racing, and All-American Racers just sunk $15 million into their Delta Wing prototype for Le Mans. If the goal is enticing enough and the door is open wide enough, people will walk through it.
So how do we go about opening Indianapolis back up? My suggestion is an adaptation of the Pinewood Derby theory. Start with your "block of wood" - in this case, a theoretical box carved out of the air that define a certain set of general dimensions. Add in mandatory, non-negotiable elements such as the driver's safety capsule, maximum fuel capacity, and power minimums and maximums. Open the Brickyard on May 1st to begin testing.
Then sit back and say, "Folks, have at it."
It'd be an unsustainable model for a season of racing, but for one race a year? I think it's doable, and Delta Wing has shown that there is interest out there for one-offs if the payoff is great enough. If that means making the 500 a non-points race, so be it. Whatever it takes to drive that pioneering spirit back into the place.
It's not how things are done anymore in racing, but maybe that's a good thing. You let something sit long enough, it calcifies and hardens until it is totally intractable. Fossilized trees certainly weather the elements better than normal ones... but then again, they don't grow, either. They are sterile and unchanging.
I'm sure that there a hundred different reasons why people in racing would say, "This would never work." I'll give you a couple of reasons why it could work, though. The global reaction to the Delta Wing, for one. For another, the collection of cars in the IMS Museum, and the shine of awe in the eyes of those who come to see it.
There is a spirit of daring, of a maverick impulse to try something nobody else has. For nearly a hundred years, that spirit defined Indianapolis. Maybe the world might take notice if we got it back.