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Connecting the DOTS: The DW12 and INDYCAR's short-timeline development process

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Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay demonstrated the Chevrolet-powered 2012 IndyCar at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 15, 2011 ( Racing Photo).
Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay demonstrated the Chevrolet-powered 2012 IndyCar at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 15, 2011 ( Racing Photo).

Sit back, kids, and let your grizzled old blogger give you a bit of a history lesson.

Just over half a century ago, the United States of America was in a veritable lather, a froth of panic. When Americans looked up into the night sky, one of the stars moved. When they tuned their radios to a certain frequency, a persistent beep-beep-beep told them that the Communist Menace had established a foothold beyond the atmosphere.

The launch of Sputnik I signaled the beginning of the Space Race between the US and the Soviets, but it also threw a monkey wrench into the nation's carefully-laid plans to venture into space.

People familiar with the history of NASA and the US space program will recognize the name "Project Mercury," but they may not remember the other name of the program: MISS, which was an acronym for "Man In Space Soonest."

MISS, the concept out of which Project Mercury was developed, was a hurried, fast-track alternative to the more... well, sane, programs that were in development by the United States Air Force and National Advisory Council on Aeronautics (NACA). Whereas the Air Force wanted to build on their tremendously successful "X-plane" program by designing a spacecraft that pilots could fly into and out of space, the US government quickly realized that sticking with that direction would take far too much time. The Soviets had established a curtailed deadline with the launch of Sputnik I and an alternative was needed.

The MISS - later, Project Mercury - program was anything but sexy to everyone but the guys who were desperate to keep the Soviets from beating America at this high-technology poker game. It involved sticking a pilot into a tin can, sticking the tin can on top of a ballistic missile, and lobbing him like the world's goofiest lacrosse ball into Earth orbit. It was quick, dirty, and - ultimately - effective, even though the Russians did manage to beat the US to nearly every major space milestone until the moon landing.

If MISS sounds a bit like another acronymed project - say, the ICONIC committee - the parallels are indeed surprising. Simply substitute Sputnik I with the Delta Wing, and change the MISS acronym to DOTS - Drivers On Track Soonest - and you are on your way.

The ICONIC decision, like the Mercury program, was the fastest, cheapest, and least-complicated route to INDYCAR's new car dilemma. It has also spawned the same kind of kludgey, make-do development process that marked the Mercury program.

Freedom 7, the Mercury capsule that Alan Shepard rode into space (not into orbit, since his 15-minute parabolic "flight" was more of a glorified cannonball shot than anything else), didn't even have a window in it - it had a periscope. It was not until the second Mercury flight that the spacecraft even had an escape hatch - Shepard's capsule door was bolted on. Not that the escape hatch worked very well the first time it was used on Gus Grissom's Liberty Bell 7 flight, as it detonated prematurely which resulted in the loss of the capsule and nearly resulted in Grissom drowning in the middle of the ocean. Glitches in the spacecraft systems forced NASA to terminate John Glenn's first orbital flight early when controllers didn't know if the capsule had a working heat shield or not. Scott Carpenter's Aurora 7, featuring the first true pilot's controls to adjust the spaceship's attitude in orbit, used up so much of its propellant with the new system that Carpenter nearly burned up on reentry and overshot his splashdown site by hundreds of miles. And so on, and so forth.

By relating these glitches and setbacks, it might seem like I am making an indirect indictment of ICONIC and their choice to go with the Dallara "safety cell" program on such a rushed timeline, especially given the current travails of the DW12's development program.

But it bears noting that McDonnell Aircraft, the company which built the MISS/Mercury capsule and, later, the spacecraft for Project Gemini, overcame all of the glitches that arose in their spacecraft development. And while there were close calls in Project Mercury with Glenn and Carpenter, and one frightening moment with Gemini VIII with future moonwalker Neil Armstrong at the controls, each McDonnell-built capsule brought its occupants home safely.

North American Aviation, the builder of the Project Apollo Command Module, was not so lucky.

North American had built a sterling reputation in aviation circles for their products. Aviation buffs will quickly recognize the names T-6 Texan, the P-51 Mustang, the B-25 Mitchell, the F-86 Sabre, and the Century Series fighters of Vietnam vintage. You might have also heard of the X-15, a rocket plane that flew higher and faster than any other aircraft ever built.

The choice for North American to build the Apollo Command Module seemed to be a slam dunk, since McDonnell was busy with Mercury and Gemini while the Apollo spacecraft were being designed and developed during the same time. But then, during a pad test of the Apollo I spacecraft, the three astronauts aboard were killed by a flash fire caused by an electrical short in the pure oxygen capsule environment that ignited the ubiquitous Velcro fasteners on the ship's interior.

The investigation into the Apollo I fire revealed not only that North American's project management was deficient, but that the Command Module design, workmanship, and quality control was fundamentally flawed. Gus Grissom, one of the astronauts killed in the fire, had only days before hung a lemon over the Command Module simulator door to express his anger and mistrust of the equipment. North American was forced to go back to square one and redesign the whole thing from scratch, costing Apollo over a year of lost time.

In the aftermath of the Apollo I fire there was significant second-guessing about why NASA chose North American for the CM build instead of McDonnell. McDonnell's spacecraft were ugly and decidedly imperfect in many areas, but their track record spoke for itself. North American, a company whose sterling reputation in aeronautics had been virtually unassailable, had responded poorly to a short-timeline development cycle, and the resultant cut corners and oversights had gotten three astronauts killed.

The analogy to INDYCAR breaks down a bit because McDonnell, in fact, could not have built the Apollo systems because it was already taxed to the limit with Mercury/Gemini. But the upshot is that if McDonnell had been able to build Apollo, they would have had a significant advantage over North American because they would not have needed to essentially reinvent the wheel. North American, on the other hand, had to replicate the same process of tooling up from scratch that McDonnell had gone through with Mercury in order to deliver Apollo - and, it turned out, they had to do it twice.

ICONIC's choice of Dallara to build the 2012 IndyCar, then, becomes more than just a matter of nepotism and back-scratching because Dallara was the lowest bidder and was willing to build a plant in Indianapolis. The significance of Dallara's history building IndyCars for over a decade was a significant factor in developing a new car in such a short timeframe. Because the DW12 is, in the final assessment, an evolutionary design based on Dallara's previous IndyCars, its development was more likely to meet the deadlines imposed by the series than cars built by Swift, BAT, Delta Wing, and even Lola, who were over half a decade removed from building oval-capable open wheel cars.

Like Project Mercury and Gemini, the Dallara DW12's most important asset is that it will get the job done quickly. Also like Mercury and Gemini, it would be unwise to think that it would not be an ongoing evolutionary process, and that glitches and setbacks would not face the engineers tasked with its development.

With enough time and a painstaking reinvention process, North American Aviation eventually produced a tremendous result with its Apollo system - with the notable exception of the Apollo 13 failure, the product of North American's efforts eventually performed as flawlessly as anyone could have wished. And, someday, INDYCAR might have the same good fortune with the successor to the DW12. Perhaps, given three years of warning and ability to plan, Swift or Lola or even manufacturers like McLaren or Ferrari might create some of the greatest IndyCar machines ever built once the DW12 has reached the end of its cycle. Certainly, there are issues that are left unsolved by the DW12 that an extended development and design cycle could address.

But that presupposes the luxury of time, which in truth Dallara, ICONIC, and the DW12 did not have. Perhaps the choice of Dallara was not a crowd pleaser, and maybe the DW12 isn't the prettiest race car in the world. But given the circumstances surrounding its birth, it will most likely get the job done and serve its purpose until the next generation IndyCar is ready for its debut. In the end, that in and of itself is a significant accomplishment.