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Future of IndyCar should focus on Indy, car

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The Andy Granatelli-engineered 1967 turbine-powered IndyCar driven by Parnelli Jones (Photo: IMS Photo)
The Andy Granatelli-engineered 1967 turbine-powered IndyCar driven by Parnelli Jones (Photo: IMS Photo)

There has been a lot of speculation about the direction the IZOD IndyCar Series is going to take now that Tony George is no longer running things.

Much of that speculation centers around Jeff Belskus, the new CEO of the Hulman-George family's IndyCar properties, and Brian Barnhart, the de-facto czar of IndyCar. Nobody seems to know what their plans are for the series - and you get the sense at times that they aren't that sure about them either.

But as the series nears the centennial anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500, it's clear that a new direction is needed. Interest in IndyCar racing is low - from both the fan and corporate sides - and it's becoming increasingly clear that the series needs a serious kick in the pants if it is ever going to regain the national interest.

The common-sense solution is to return the IndyCar series and the Indianapolis 500 back to their roots and recreate the circumstances which turned the Brickyard into a fixture in the American consciousness.

The Indianapolis 500's biggest spikes in popularity occurred when the cars racing there were the most powerful and innovative purpose-built closed-course racing machines in the world. From 1950-1960, the Indianapolis 500 was even included in the FIA World Championship due to its sterling reputation. But up until the early 1980s, the Indianapolis 500 was considered to be the greatest racing event in the country - perhaps the world - and for most Americans it was as much an annual ritual to follow the 500's fortunes as it was to bet on the Kentucky Derby or watch the Super Bowl.

The formation of CART marked the first point at which the focal point of IndyCar racing would shift from the race itself to include the drivers and teams that competed in it. CART's owners wanted to market the entire portfolio of IndyCar races and create widespread interest in the full competition season instead of a single race. A side effect of this shift in focus was the increasing standardization of the technologies and rules implemented at Indianapolis to match those in the CART IndyCar series. While teams still used Indianapolis as an opportunity to explore the outer boundaries of the rulebook, the level of true innovation began to be restricted by the need to balance the rules across a full season of racing.

When the Indy Racing League took over the sanction of the 500, the formula implemented as a result was a significant "dumbing down" of the IndyCar racing formula. The IRL pointed to the high costs of IndyCar development as one of the reasons for this direction, and it was hoped that with a cheaper, less aggressive formula more teams would be able to compete in the series. Unfortunately, a consequence of this new formula was that the era of IndyCar innovation effectively ceased - the focus became centered squarely on affordability and reduced risk.

As a youngster I remember being either glued to my television or waiting breathlessly by the catchfence at the Speedway as drivers took to the track to push the limits of their cars. Every year, it seemed, the track record would be broken. And the machines that the teams brought to achieve the task always seemed to be more exotic and interesting with every new Indy 500 - from the rumbling burr of the Buick Indy V8 to the screaming turbocharged whine of a Cosworth, the sleek lines of a Lola to the boxy silhouette of a March, the combinations of chassis and engine made each race an exciting and unpredictable event. Which combination would prove fastest? Would the quest for speed take the team beyond the threshold of reliability? Would the experimental hare be able to outlast the steady tortoise?

None of that excitement exists now. There is one engine and one chassis, built conservatively for reliability and lower cost. The unpredictability is limited to which of the big-money teams has spent the most money in the wind tunnel to whittle off the tenths of a second required to win.

This formula has been successful for NASCAR, but only because the emphasis in promotion in NASCAR is on the drivers and teams in the series. Dale Earnhardt Jr. could race a kayak down a river and it would be front page news. That is not so in IndyCar, because historically the stars of IndyCar racing have been the cars themselves. IndyCar drivers became stars because of where - and what - they drove (except for Danica Patrick, who became famous more for how she draped herself over a car than how she drove one).

That is why the IndyCar series' new power brokers' first responsibility should be to rejuvenate the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and the cars used to compete there. The priority for the series should be to rebuild and strengthen the reputation of their keystone event and let those changes ripple through the rest of the schedule.

Job one for IndyCar is to remove the requirement for manufacturer badging. While Honda has been a good, loyal partner to the IndyCar series in a period of drought, some of that drought is directly attributable to Honda's monopoly on the series' engines. Ironically, the badging requirement - which is in place to encourage manufacturers to spend promotional money in the series - has resulted in many auto manufacturers shying away from IndyCar. With the auto industry depressed due to the recession, manufacturers do not want to spend their reduced discretionary finances on "spec" technology that does not provide a showcase for innovation - the hook that keeps public interest in a series that cannot promote an automaker's products by rolling out a chassis that is at least a facsimile of a street-legal car (as in NASCAR, drifting, rallying and other "stock" motorsports niches).

Fans of my generation never needed to see a "famous" nameplate on an IndyCar motor to be excited about them. An engine gained notoriety not because of a logo, but because of the speed it gave an IndyCar. It was, in fact, thrilling to discover a new engine builder who had hit upon a combination that made his products go faster that any others.

A case could even be made at this point that automotive manufacturer involvement is a pejorative for IndyCar racing. The auto industry has never seen as low an ebb in consumer trust as they have in this most recent recession. With reputations of overspending, crippling corporate greed and sacrificing innovation for profit, the major automakers have dug themselves a big hole in terms of their image. On the other hand, the story of an independent engine builder who could build a potential Indy winner smacks of the classic American success story - a story that Americans love to hear in these uncertain times.

Then, too, a more open engine formula without a manufacturer badging requirement could also reinvigorate the parts and supply industry surrounding the IndyCar series. More suppliers for engines and parts would create more jobs, while increased competition to provide materiel to teams would push down overall costs.

Once that has been accomplished, the IndyCar series needs to open up the development of cutting edge racing chassis. The stars of IndyCar racing are the cars, not the drivers. We have seen over the past several years that racing seats change occupants more frequently than in a hearty game of "musical chairs." Thus, the marketing focus needs to center around the racing machines that compete at the 500, not the pilots.

It naturally follows that, if the cars are going to be the stars of IndyCar, they need to be attractive and marketable to consumers. They have to be buzzworthy, and maintaining the status quo by employing a "spec" chassis philosophy simply will not generate any buzz.

The Delta Wing chassis which will be unveiled at the upcoming Chicago Auto Show has met with significant controversy before even being unveiled. Current IndyCar fans seem to be of the opinion that deviating from the "traditional" IndyCar look-and-feel would be a huge mistake. I could not disagree more. In fact, I think that the continued decline in general interest among Americans concerning IndyCar is proof that the stagnant formula and lack of innovation has been a much bigger mistake than any new formula would be.

Significantly, NASCAR felt the same backlash from "traditional" fans when they committed to the so-called Car of Tomorrow chassis. They continued to hear it - right up until Michael McDowell stuck one into the turn one fence at Charlotte Motor Speedway and utterly demolished it without suffering more than scratches and bruises. That said, the CoT is still being tweaked in terms of the racing it delivers thanks to complaints from drivers that the racing has suffered because of the way it drives.

It's a different story in IndyCar. A case could be made that no car could possibly be worse than the current Dallara for truly good racing. Yes, the Dallara provides pack racing at large, banked ovals - but pack racing, like restrictor plate racing in NASCAR, is artificially close and does not provide nearly as many opportunities for driver skill to change the outcome. The current car's surfeit of downforce and lack of agility and power turns most IndyCar races into dull parades.

The cars that race at Indianapolis cannot afford to be considered dull, uninspiring or ungainly. That is why the Delta Wing is a positive step forward in reconcepting IndyCar racing. But even the Delta Wing may not go far enough if it is the only chassis available for IndyCar teams to race. An open standard that allows different car builders to develop Indy-legal chassis, like an open engine formula, provides the greatest value for current and prospective IndyCar fans and provides the best chance for the kind of innovation that used to excite even those Americans who didn't follow racing religiously.

Beyond a new car and engine philosophy that encourages innovation and significantly increased involvement from a variety of independent technology sources, the IndyCar world needs to focus on ways to bring all facets of the series onto the cutting edge. From "green" technology to encouraging the development of new ideas that could make their way into the automotive mainstream, the powers-that-be in IndyCar would do well to draw from the well of talent and skill that has surrounded the sport for decades. There are many smart people whose talents are being wasted by having to make do with an old, outdated playbook.

IndyCar needs to represent something new and exciting - a series that is seen as driving progress forward, not playing it conservative and safe. Innovation creates buzz, and buzz draws both fans - who want to be present at the genesis of something new - and corporate involvement from companies who want to be associated with cutting edge, vanguard technology.

As soon as that forward-thinking atmosphere returns to Indy, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will be so in more than simply its name - and IndyCar will find itself back on the road to greatness.

(Ed. note: For a more detailed and involved treatment of this topic, see this excellent article at Racecar Engineering magazine by Ian Wagstaff.)