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.


Allen Wedge said...

As per usual with you, I completely agree. I'd even submit that multiple engine/chassis is the ONLY thing that is keeping Grand-Am alive.

But its not just options for teams,, it needs to be something the fans can perceive; right not in grand am, with the naked eye I can see 5 different chassis in GT and 4 in DP; and that makes it interesting, why are certain teams going with different options, if one is deemed not as good instant underdog. Wasn't that part of the whole intrigue of Al Unser's 4th win, the fact that the car was supposed to be inferior having come out of a hotel lobby display days earlier?

I too think the Delta and new Dallara should go on the track together... but also the old Dallara as well, each would have its own advantage, and teams could save by staying with the old chassis. No matter what they can't just choose one of these 2 new chassis; If they are going to pick one or the other what they should instead do is base a new formula off oneor the other, not demand the actual chassis itself.

Edward said...

Your points are very valid. However, what I would argue is that it is not necessarily important to listen to your fans verbatim-to be completely honest 99 percent of fans have no knowledge of what is best for something as a whole, only for what is best for THEM personally-but to use fan input as one part of a larger opinion gathering process to plot the best course of action.

I disagree with NASCAR's decision to go to a spoiler on the C.o.T.-the current car looks more like a race car than that old relic; the old car didn't resemble a stock car either, but people like to delude themselves that the "good old days" were better than they actually were-but that is their plan and it's their money so, que sera sera.

I do agree with you on getting more engine/chassis manufacturers back into IndyCar-which is the racing series I truly care about. Even though it may-I'm not a mechanical engineer-involve using ballast, engine mapping and other assorted "tricks"-to balance out performance, then if that is what needs to be done, that is what needs to be done. Even if it means-at least not publically-begging manufacturers to come into the series, that is what may need to be done.

I hope that IndyCar can have these things soon. Unlike others, I won't stop watching if I don't get what I want, but it would in my eyes help the series if these things that you have suggested happen.

Dan Schrementi said...

Based on today's timely article from USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/motor/irl/2010-02-03-irl-new-chassis_N.htm) It sounds like IndyCar is on the same page as all of us die hards. Though, the idea that there may/is disparity between chassis on roads/streets/ovals freaks me a bit.

What I think is missing from the whole equation is what will excite/ignite the spirit of innovation in the auto industry? Indy Car used to be this testing ground, obviously, that's not its mission right now. I am convinced that backing from the auto industry (be it motors, chassis, whatever) could spark pride in brands, and most of all, investment into the sport in both the marketing and R&D budgets.

The good news is things are happening - and they seem to be happening the right way.

I plan on going to the Chicago Auto Show to see the Delta next week. I'll report my opinions then...

- Dan Schrementi

The SpeedGeek said...

Dan, that is a great find and great news. It's very encouraging to hear that the IndyCar brass are seemingly listening to the fans.

I think that the best way to eliminate the need for teams to buy up two or three different chassis is simply to write a rule that says that you may only use one manufacturer's chassis for the entire season. Now, if a manufacturer wants to build 2-3 types of chassis for their teams to be able to buy something optimized for each type of track, that's their business, but I can't imagine any manufacturer spending the necessary money to do that.

I flinch a little at the _reduction_ in horsepower for the next car, since I think that IndyCars should be hairy chested beasts that only the best drivers in the world can handle. Also, I wonder about the balance of the reduction of drag in order to maintain the same top speeds. After all, the two competing forces at high speed are horsepower and air resistance. If you lower power by 10-20%, then you have to lower the frontal area and/or the coefficient of drag by an equal amount to maintain the same speed. I'm not saying that they won't do this or that they aren't taking this into consideration (it's supposedly their full time job, after all), I'd probably just prefer they keep power about the same while lowering the downforce/drag. That's a personal preference.[taking dork hat off]

It's also occurred to me that I upbraided NASCAR in my last post for listening to the fans too much, while I asked IndyCar to listen to the fans in this one. Lest I be labeled a hypocrite, to clarify: fans should get plenty of say in asking the sanctioning body to look into new competitive packages, even if those packages never see the light of day. Fans should get limited say in technical matters, as long as the sanctioning body can bear out with solid facts that the input will not negatively affect the racing product. Fans should get no say in safety matters. This is where NASCAR is playing with fire.

We will all be awaiting your eye witness report from the Chicago show, Dan. Pictures, write-ups, please!

Savage Henry said...

I agree with everything you are saying regarding multiple engine/chassis combinations. I'd like to see them take it a step farther to give incentives for innovation and to get the auto industry interested in racing again. In the auto industry fuel economy and low emissions are huge issues now. The market wants the green aspects but doesn't want to give up any performance. To play off this, I'd like to see IMS/IRL set up an x-prize style program that would give a large sum of money ($50 million?) to the car/team/engine provider that is first to win the Indy 500 with a non-internal combustion engine. The engineering parameters would need to be worked out, but it could include electric, fuel cell, hybrids?, or any other new technologies.

The key would be that these non-internal combustion engines would be competing with traditional cars. It would need to be hard - I'd hope that it would take up to 10 years for somebody to win the prize. Having the prize would bring all kinds of new ideas to the track - some would survive and be improved and others would get thrown away. It would bring excitement to the track like there was in the '60s and '70s where fans show up to see all of the new technologies and designs were entered every year. It would also be an opportunity to develop technology on the track that could be used directly in the commerical auto industry. There would be great prestige for the manufacturer that could develop an engine that could run 240 at Indy and be reliable enough to make it the 500 miles. Sponsors would flock to the party because they would want the chance to be a part of such a revolutionary process. Think of the publicity!

In this way, you have combinations of Delta Wing and Dallara chassis, with a combination of turbos, normally-aspirated engines, electrics, and fuel cells all on the track at the same time. Now that's fan-friendly.

The SpeedGeek said...

THAT's what I'm talking about. Your X-prize idea wouldn't be able to be instituted by 2012, but it'd be a cool thing to announce at the 100th annievrsary race in 2011, wouldn't it? Tell people that it's open starting in 2014 or something (pending finding the sponsorship $ to back the prize) and then open it up, using the 2012 chassis.

I said this on Pressdog's site today, but "car guys" are not interested in the current iteration of IndyCar. I roomed with one such guy a few years ago, and I work with one now. They're guys who like racing and are car/tech/engineering geeks, but who are not into the one chassis-one engine format. Get more makes in there, both chassis and engines, make them technically interesting and people will come back. Not everybody has to have a field full of 'Mericans to get into the sport.

Everything Powersports - U.S. Rental Directory said...

Thanks for the interesting and informative post. I look forward to more in the future.

blu-star said...

SpeedGeek since I have my own blog and not wanting to be off-topic on Georges site just would like to say that when your child turns 18...she will still be your child, not just "legal age" for whatever and up for grabs. The photo is gorgeous BTW.

My daughter was killed just before her High School Graduation (National Honor Student) NASA intern, Vehicular Homicide, by the BFF of a very young professional racecar driver. Just before the
1st Honda Grand Prix in St. Petersburgh in a Brand New Honda Civic. I came across Oil Pressure when the kids uncle was posting on SPEED is Life...I was looking for photos on the web.

Sadly, the 18 year old driver was also killed, but he was speeding at 95mph...the co-instigator got away at higher speeds. Kids 18 years old are vulnerable, poor judgement,etc. Karting or not-
This kid worked at the local Karting park-

My daughter wasn't signing up for an INDY racing practice that day but obviously 95-100 mph doesn't seem fast when you are used to speeds of 200 mph. Off topic yes, but racing and children are not healthy...the kids need at least the chance to develop their brains, age 21.

I have come to appreciate Indy racing...also have a friend who races in LeMAns-Paris. That friend, actually named his little boy "Race" so I know the passion for Speed is High.
Just advocating safety for the kids is all....18 is like pre-school driving level and profesional racers generally skip college and are just driving experts, not child development experts...so they should have some experts involved in the regulation of children racing. As your family grows you will appreciate the fact that 18 is still very young. When the adults in the racing industry are inspiring the kids...Accidents, vehicular homicide and tragedy can be expected. Hope you NEVER have to experience this-but you needed an explanation outside of oilpressure, where I am called the TROLL. I have earned that name and paid the price as well.

blu-star said...

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Auto racing can be a dangerous sport. Many individuals, including drivers, crew members, officials and spectators, have been killed in crashes related to the sport, in races, in qualifying, in practice or in private testing sessions. Deaths among racers and spectators were numerous in the early years of racing. Spectacular accidents have often spurred increased safety measures and even rules changes. The worst motorsports accident was Pierre Levegh's 1955 crash at Le Mans that killed him and about 80 spectators.

The five tracks with the most fatalities among competitors are:

1.Indianapolis Motor Speedway 56
2.Nürburgring 48
3.Monza 30
4.Daytona International Speedway 24
5.Le Mans 24