Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stepping Out for a Bit

Hey, readers (that's all fourteen of you),
I'm not usually somebody who's given to gloom and doom, especially when it comes to motorsports. The sport has been through tough times: the World Wars, the 1955 Le Mans disaster and its fallout, the 1970s fuel embargo, the 1996-2008 open wheel split, economic recessions, both past and present, but people always come back to racing. It's in peoples' blood. It's a part of peoples' identities. For a lot of people (myself included), giving up racing is similar to giving up breathing. It's something that can be attempted, but something inside you makes you start again.

Let me be clear here. I am not giving up on racing. I'm still going to watch a slew of races this year, and I'm going to be more than happy to discuss racing with people, here, on other blogs and even in person, very soon. This isn't my attempt to say goodbye to the sport.

What this is, though, is a brief embargo on my following the minutiae of the sport. Over the last two weeks, four different manufacturers have unveiled their suggestion for the next generation of IndyCar, slated to begin racing in 2012. As a car nerd, I have loved looking at the different concepts, and I've enjoyed (to an extent) hearing peoples' opinions on the cars as people have debated which might be the best path forward. It's still very, very early in the process of deciding what the new car is going to be, though, and there are many missing details for all of the designs. I can't wait for those details to come out (engine format, aesthetic revisions, wind tunnel models and numbers, etc.), but I am happy to be patient. Rome was not built in a day, and nine different IndyCar concepts will not be transformed from foam models and CAD sketches to running cars in a day, either.

However, all of the "debate" surrounding the new cars has completely sucked the fun out of following IndyCar racing (and most other racing, where there is precious little in the way of good news lately) for me. I've enjoyed doing some doodling on scratch paper, trying to figure out how the Delta Wing chassis works. I've enjoyed attempting to answer peoples' questions on this same topic, though my attempts are simply guesses, because even as a trained engineer, I have not been sitting next to Ben Bowlby as he fiddles with his design programs. I've enjoyed dreaming up "improvements" to the cars' appearances, specifications and concepts. I've enjoyed daydreaming about what IndyCar could become in the future, and a posible return to prominence in the American (and worldwide) sporting scene.

I have not, however, enjoyed having my comments answered with "That car looks like it should be called the Delta Wang!" I have also not enjoyed reading comment after comment, blog post after blog post and e-mail after e-mail to Robin Miller that fall in the two camps of "If they pick such-and-such car, I'll never watch another race!" or "The IRL are a bunch of idiots if they don't pick the car by so-and-so!" I have had enough of the pithy, one-line comments making fun of a car, or a person, or an entire sanctioning body. Nobody is listening to each other. Everything is a quip- or rant-contest.

I hear you. "It's the internet, dude! That's how people interact out here! Lighten up!" Look, I get that. I've been writing here sporadically for almost four years now, and regularly reading other folks' blogs for almost as long. It's just...sometimes you get a gut full of something and you lose your taste for it. I know people who worked at Pizza Hut, for instance, and say that after they'd been there for six months, they couldn't stand to eat pizza for a really, really long time. That's about where I am with internet discussion about IndyCar racing. It's not fun anymore, and I can't stand how depressed it all makes me feel about the sport I love.

I'll cut the melodrama right here. I'll be back. Remember, I can't quit racing same as I can't quit breathing. Just don't expect much in the way of posts here for a while (yeah, yeah, you didn't expect any, anyway) and don't expect much in the way of my comments elsewhere for a while. I just need to cleanse the palate for a week or three. Not that things are going to be any better by then, but I'm going to be ready for some actual racing by the time the transporters are unloading in Sao Paulo (and Melbourne, for F1 that same weekend), as opposed to faceless internet bickering, which is the only thing going on right now.

OK. Take care, everybody. Back soon.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Standing United

It's been a hot topic for quite some time, and looks like it'll continue to be a hot topic for some time to come for the IndyCar series: how do we draw more eyeballs to our on-track product?

One idea that's been kicked around in the blogosphere and in multiple calls to Trackside over the last year or so is that of trying to get an IndyCar race on a common weekend with a NASCAR Cup race. This idea has been floated about several tracks, but the one that seems to come up the most often is the spring NASCAR weekend at Phoenix. Curt Cavin has said that he understands that the IndyCar series has been offered by Phoenix International Raceway (a track owned by International Speedway Corporation, a sister company of NASCAR) a Thursday race day for that weekend, and that the IndyCar brass have turned down this option. I can't say that I blame them, as Cup team haulers are barely arriving in town by Thursday, much less any race fans. The majority of the attendance for such a race would have to either be local or willing to spend the entire week in the area, and anybody who wanted to come in for just the weekend and catch the IndyCar race would be out of luck.

I do not believe that NASCAR has any intention of helping the IndyCar series in any way, as any extra attention paid to the IndyCar series by fans, the media or sponsors could be taking away from the attention that all of these parties pay to NASCAR. I've said in the past here that NASCAR treats GrandAm, another sister company to NASCAR, as a third rate citizen when they share a track, making GrandAm race hours in advance of any other NASCAR action or even days before the headlining race. They would treat IndyCar no better should they ever decide to share a race weekend with IndyCar.

So, in order to get more eyeballs on the IndyCar series, are there any series out there that could team up fanbases? The obvious (I would hope) answer here is the American Le Mans Series, a series that already shares a couple of weekends per year with the IndyCar series. Things have not always been happy in that partnership, from what I've heard, with the two sides tussling over who headlines at what race and which series gets what amount of track time. The time for this ego-driven bickering to stop is right now.

The IndyCar series does not appear to be as healthy as many people would like. Several top line drivers, including Graham Rahal, Oriol Servia, Bruno Junquiera, J.R. Hildebrand and Buddy Rice are currently without rides, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is sponsored by the series title sponsor, Izod, lacks the sponsorship dollars for an entire season. By all accounts, car counts will not top last year's, and there's a good chance that some fields will be back down to the 20-21 car range. Meanwhile, the ALMS has had to consolidate its prototype classes and introduce two "spec" classes, one prototype, one GT, in order to boost car counts beyond 20. For either of these two series to categorically say that they are in superior enough shape to dictate terms of race weekends to the other is absurd at this point.

I wrote here about going to a joint ChampCar / ALMS weekend at Road America a couple of years ago. It remains one of the best race weekends that I've ever attended, even though we skipped out on the Sunday ChampCar race (I had little interest in flying home at midnight after watching only 17 cars race, and with a couple of those occupied by the immortal Tristan Gommendy and my personal favorite, "Bleepy" Dan Clarke, who actually posted one of his two career ChampCar podiums that weekend). I can tell you from my personal experience that that weekend was by far the most crowded non-Indianapolis USGP road race that I've been to, far beating out events that I've seen at Cleveland and Mid-Ohio.

IndyCar and the ALMS share weekends this year at Long Beach and Mid-Ohio, but this could be much, much better if IndyCar's new management and ALMS's long-standing management could put aside their egos and work together on their 2011 calendars. With few exceptions, IndyCar and the ALMS should race together just about every time IndyCar takes to a road course. With a couple of IndyCar's current road races possibly going away for next year (Edmonton is rumored to be on the rocks, and Sears Point seems to be universally reviled by the fans, if not team sponsors), IndyCar could even add a couple of ALMS events to its calendar without upsetting the balance of ovals / road courses.

I don't mean for this to turn into a "if I could run the racing world and construct my favorite calendar" exercise. I want this to represent what the IndyCar calendar could look like, if they were to sit down at the table with the ALMS and tweak their schedules to dovetail one another's. Here goes:

March 5, 2011 - Homestead (an oval-based series ought to start on an oval; this is a separate blog post, I think) - IndyCar only

March 19-20 - Sebring - ALMS 12 Hour race on Saturday, IndyCar 200 Mile race on Sunday, or they could swap the order to maintain ALMS's headliner status (Sebring would be great for IndyCars: long straights, wide, plenty of passing; this would replace St. Pete, which I wouldn't miss much)

April 2-3 - Barber Motorsports Park - IndyCar on Saturday, ALMS on Sunday

April 16-17 - Long Beach - ALMS on Saturday, IndyCar on Sunday

May 7 - Kansas Speedway - IndyCar only

May 21 - Indy Pole Day (assuming that the current qualifying rules stand next year, not that they should)

May 28 - Indy 500 - IndyCar only

June 4 - Texas Speedway - IndyCar only

June 19 - Iowa Speedway - IndyCar only

July 3-4 - Watkins Glen - ALMS on Sunday the 3rd, IndyCar on Monday the 4th (this is tricky; the ALMS teams will be back from Le Mans by now, but will ISC be willing to allow this to happen at one of their tracks?)

July 17 - Toronto - IndyCar only (unless ALMS wants to come play)

July 30-31 - Mid-Ohio - IndyCar on Saturday, ALMS on Sunday (giving a nod to ALMS headlining a weekend; ALMS usually puts on a better show at Mid-Ohio, anyway)

August 13-14 - Road America - ALMS 500 Miler or 6 Hour on Saturday into the evening, IndyCar 200 Miler on Sunday (this needs to happen, and I will not argue about it)

August 27 - Motegi - IndyCar only (if it must stay on the calendar for now...)

September 4 - Kentucky - IndyCar only (a quick turn around from Motegi, but it's close to most teams' shops)

September 17-18 - Road Atlanta - IndyCar on Saturday, ALMS on Sunday for Petit Le Mans (changing Petit from Saturday to Sunday to maintain ALMS headlining status for their season finale)

September 25 - Chicagoland - IndyCar only (the season finale MUST be at Chicagoland)

The ALMS will have to make a couple of concessions with this schedule, namely shifting their Miller Motorsports Park date back to May and moving their Lime Rock date to coincide with IndyCar's Toronto date or one of the oval weekends. But, they also have some latitude to fit in a race at Laguna Seca, six-hour, sprint or otherwise, possibly in late August. The ALMS might be upset that they're not headlining more dates than they are, but if you're only fielding 20-25 car fields over four classes, can you really call yourself much of a headliner?

Anyway, how's that for a schedule? Eight ovals, three street races (if you include Sebring), and five road courses, including the triumphant return of Road Atlanta and Road America. We lose St. Pete for Sebring, Sao Paulo goes away (it sounds like it's on somewhat uneven footing this year, but if it turns out to be a success, maybe we can slide it in by moving up Homestead one week and putting it before Sebring), Edmonton drops off (as it might anyway), and Sears Point goes the way of the dodo. IndyCar and ALMS fans both win because now they get fantastic value for their dollar at SEVEN different tracks, and every non-NASCAR fan in the country has those dates all circled on their calendars. I don't know about you, but I'd be seriously tempted to turn in my Indy tickets in exchange for weekend passes at Sebring and Road Atlanta. OK, maybe that's a stretch, but you get my drift.

The era of insisting on standing and succeeding on one's own is more or less over for both IndyCar and the ALMS. It's time to put away the egos, embrace what the fans have been asking for and stand together. It might be their last chance.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Sitting Up and Listening

The winds of change are blowing, all across American motorsport. IndyCar has got a new CEO, introduced earlier today. Sports car racing is scrambling to reposition itself within the entire scene as a whole, just in order to stay alive. NASCAR, as documented here and in many other places, is trying to reconnect with its hardcore fanbase, after a couple years of dwindling attendance and television ratings. IndyCar is grappling with its next generation car, apparently picking between two fundamentally different designs, one of which will be introduced in 2012.

These last two items sound basically unrelated, but in reality, they’re pretty closely linked. NASCAR has angered a large part of its classic fanbase by making all of their cars nearly identical with its Car of Tomorrow. Meanwhile, many existing and past IndyCar fans have become frustrated with the spec car racing that the current formula has resulted in. Other writers have tackled the issue of whether or not IndyCar should be looking at using more than one chassis going forward from 2012, in order to create technical intrigue. Curt Cavin, on Trackside a couple of weeks ago and in a couple of his Q&A columns, has said that the two potential new cars, the Delta Wing and the evolutionary Dallara, will be cheaper than the current cars, but also that their business models are based on the assumption that they will be supplying the whole field, creating another spec car situation unless multiple engine manufacturers come on board.

I have been vocal, both here and in my comments on other blogs, that it is most important that the cost for the next car to come down so that more teams can afford to come compete in the IndyCar series. This is important because if the costs creep up and the teams go away because they can't afford to run anymore, you’ll no longer have a series. Given a few weeks of reflection, now I also feel that it is very important that the IRL investigate using more than one chassis manufacturer. It appears that even the most staid and change averse sanctioning bodies are capable of sweeping change, if the fanbase and environment dictate them. In this linked piece, Peter M. De Lorenzo (a fantastic automotive and motorsports writer, who tells the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable) talks at length about changes that are likely upcoming in NASCAR over the next 2-3 years. Stock-based, manufacturer identifiable bodies. Direct fuel injection. Bio fuel. Sequential shift gearboxes. An extra road course race, likely during the “Chase”. For a series that uses 3400 pound, carburetor-engined cars as they have since the 1940s, this is nothing short of earth shattering.

Some of those changes are a nod to shaking things up and increasing competition. Some of them are a nod to the manufacturers, who are clearly not happy that the cars on the track bear very little resemblance to what they sell to consumers. Some of them are a nod to the fans, who are clamoring for the “old days” of when they could tell the brands apart, and could pull for the make of car that they’d driven to the track. In any case, all of these things are a nod to the idea that it’s not 1958 anymore. This is a great thing. I wish that NASCAR would also address their spotty attitude on safety, but I’ll take what I can get at this point.

OK, back to my point: what does this have to do with IndyCar? What all of this tells me is that sometimes you HAVE to listen to the fans. Sometimes you HAVE to embrace some things that are kind of scary in order to evolve for the future. Sometimes when the playbook is all used up and not working anymore, you HAVE to try something new to get things jump started again.

This is why IndyCar needs to attempt to have multiple manufacturers again, both engines and chassis. If Delta Wing and Dallara have staked their business cases on selling 50 chassis per year, then ask them to re-do their spreadsheets for a scenario where they’re selling 25 per year, or roughly half the field (that’s for primary and back-up cars). Do whatever it takes to get multiple engine manufacturers back to the table. Tell them that you want to use an F1-style common engine control unit to control engine revs and turbo boost and outlaw traction control, but that you want their input on how they’d like to display their proprietary engineering in the IndyCar series. Biodiesel? Cellulosic ethanol? Hydrogen? For the sake of getting cars on the track in two years, you’ll need to limit the ideas to internal combustion engines, but no idea is too crazy. There is plenty of good engine simulation software out there that you can use to come up with equivalency formulas among engine types and configurations. It’s not the ‘70s or ‘80s anymore, when the FIA made wild guesses as how to best balance turbos versus normally aspirated engines in F1. It’s possible, you just have to give it a try and then work through the data. Once you’ve got the basic engines specs sorted out, then you can work through a similar program of balancing the performance of the Delta Wing and the Dallara. Turbo boost levels, engine revs, ballast weight, keep everything on the table for now.

There is plenty of time to get new, varied cars on the track in time for the 2012 IndyCar season. The IndyCar brass needs to sit up and listen to the fans and manufacturers, then get started right now. After all, if NASCAR - the sanctioning body that seemingly hasn’t changed the way they race or do anything else since the ‘50s - can make sweeping changes to its formula in order to stay relevant with fans and manufacturers, there’s no reason that the folks in Indianapolis shouldn’t be able to do the same.