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2012: The view from the outside

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There's no shortage of opinion about which direction the IZOD IndyCar Series ought to go when designing their "car of the future."

One of the nice things about the whole debate is how the topic has gotten everyone within the IndyCar community talking, from fans to drivers to team owners to engineers. Everyone has their two cents to put in. That kind of buzz is terrific for the series, no question about it, but it is somewhat troubling that everyone seems to be pushing their own dogs in the fight.

My colleagues and peers have done yeoman's work in getting up close and personal with the experts, from Ben Bowlby to the boys (and pink-haired girls) at Swift to the guys at BAT, to get them to explain what the series needs from a new car from an insider perspective. We've been privileged to read opinion informed by decades of experience in aerodynamics, engineering, safety and design.

Me? Well, I took a different route. I talked to someone who knows almost nothing about any of that.

I talked to a fellow who wanted to remain nameless because, in his words, "I don't want the racing geeks who read your webpage to send me hate mail for being stupid."

A bit of background on my interview subject: his name may or may not be Dave (Ed. note: It's not.), he's in his late 30s, he's a sports fan but not necessarily a racing fan. Actually, he's been to two races in his life - once to a NASCAR race at Phoenix International Raceway, and once to the Indianapolis 500 - both times as my guest. But he never caught the racing bug enough to do more than ask me offhand questions about my career every few months.

I talked to Dave a couple of weeks ago about the subject of the 2012 IndyCar and then followed up with him after Swift and BAT released updated renderings of their concepts a couple of days ago. He was skeptical about the whole idea because he knows that he doesn't know what he's talking about with regards to IndyCar technology or history. "That's exactly why I'm talking to you," I said to him, but he just rolled his eyes at me.

Eventually, though, he agreed to become my Everyman for my little experiment. Armed with TiVo recordings of the IndyCar season opener from Sao Paulo, highlights from last year's IndyCar race from Chicago, the 2010 F1 grand prix from Australia, and this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race from Atlanta, we plopped down in front of the TV, cracked open a couple of cold sodas and a bag of microwave popcorn, and got down to business.

What I wanted from Dave was an honest assessment of what IndyCar needs to do to appeal to people outside of its sometimes-sheltered community. How can IndyCar racing get more exciting and draw more fans? I planned to show Dave clips from each of the four race recordings and get his gut impressions from each.

The first race I put on for Dave was the NASCAR race. It wasn't long before his eyelids started drooping. Dave, it must be mentioned, has a bias against cars "going around and around in circles," which is how he describes oval racing. He was polite in his review of the NASCAR race I took him to years ago, but he just didn't get the allure of cars turning left for four to five hours on a Sunday. "It just doesn't look very hard," he told me. "Basically, it looks like an excuse for these guys to slam fenders for a few hours." (Ed. note: Author's geektastic response explaining in excruciating detail the merits and attractions of oval racing from a fan and driver perspective redacted for brevity.)

I quickly followed up with the IndyCar highlights from Texas. He perked up for a while during the early going - "Wow, these guys go a lot faster, don't they?" - but as things went on he started to fidget. He seemed to get frustrated when cars pulled up to pass but got caught in turbulence. "They're like my high school girlfriend," he told me. "She was a tease too." On the whole he appeared to find the racing a bit less boring than the NASCAR footage because things developed at a quicker pace in the IndyCar race, but in the end his attention still wandered except for when the yellow flag flew.

I played the footage from the F1 race and IndyCar race from Brazil in quick succession. I let Dave know that Formula 1 was the world's most popular form of motorsport. His first comment? "That car looks goofy," he said, pointing to a Sauber on its recon lap. "What the hell is that big fin for on the back?" But once the lights went out and the cars flew away from a standing start, I noticed him on the edge of his seat. The sight of the cars fanning out in a mad dash for the first turn electrified him. When I told him that, decades ago, the drivers actually used to run to their cars and strap themselves in at the green flag - well, the word isn't printable out of deference to our younger readers.

Dave seemed to get a kick out of the way the F1 cars raced in the wet. I let him know that the conditions were making the racing more close than F1 races usually are and that the cars usually got spread out quite a bit. "Yeah, but I can see why people like watching this stuff," he told me. "These cars look pretty weird but they also look fast. Look how fast they're taking that turn!"

When I turned on Sao Paulo, Dave liked the action on the track but felt that the cars suffered by comparison to the F1 machines. "They don't look as weird but they also look a lot slower," he explained. I explained that the IndyCars were heavier, had less power, and had smaller brakes than the F1 cars and consequently weren't as nimble. Dave nodded at me perfunctorily as if he cared, and then said, "To me they look like the K-mart version of those F1 cars." Ouch.

Armed with four racing series' worth of sample data, I asked Dave to write down his ideas for what would make him feel like tuning in every week to watch IndyCars. His response follows:

The cars have got to look fast as well as be fast. The Indy car looks pretty fast going in circles but compared to the F1 cars the Indy cars look really slow and clumsy. It doesn't look like it's as hard to drive an Indy car when you compare them to F1 cars. The start of the F1 race was sweet. The Indy car oval race was pretty exciting but after a while I felt like I was just waiting for them to crash when they were driving around side-by-side. It seemed to me like the NASCAR guys could pass easier than the Indy car guys did. I kind of liked how the F1 teams all had different stories and designed and built their own cars. You could tell the teams apart, which you can't really do with NASCAR or Indy cars because they all look the same except for the paint jobs. Plus you had the stories of the drivers AND the cars AND the teams all at the same time which would probably be more interesting for people to follow during a race.

Distilling all of that down to its essence, here is the Dave-approved bullet list for 2012:

  • Fast, nimble cars
  • Visual differentiation between teams
  • Ability to race closely and make passes
  • Promote the stories and innovation of teams, not companies that provide the materials for them
  • Standing starts
  • Less predictability

The thing that struck me most is that Dave was interested in the story, not just the racing action. It wasn't enough that the cars were going fast - what made them go fast and how all of the elements of team, driver and car all meshed together to keep him interested even when the action was not as exciting. It seemed to me that Dave didn't believe there was enough story being told by the IndyCar series because of the series' technological homogeneity.

When I ran the images of each of the existing 2012 designs by him, he picked the Swift concepts as his favorite. Some of you might be encouraged by his next question: "Why can't they just race all of these?" I explained to him all about economics, finances and the cost of testing and R&D. "Yeah," he agreed, "but it'd be pretty damn cool, wouldn't it?"

And with that, Dave's foray into racing was over. He went back to his March Madness bracket and I went back to not caring about college basketball (except for Butler of course). I'm not sure there was a lot to be mined from Dave's observations, but maybe there are some morsels the ICONIC advisory panel could chew on.

One thing's for sure - the IndyCar series needs a few more Daves around. Let's hope we can bait the hook correctly.