Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The ICONIC Decision - From the Guestroom

Hey, everybody. I've been meaning to write up a full breakdown of how I feel about last week's ICONIC panel announcement about the new-for-2012 IndyCar. Instead, my buddy Rick (who you'll all know from the last two posts here) and I have been e-mailing (the venue where we solve all of life's problems) non-stop about it. This is a few days belated, but a few days ago he sent me an e-mail that sums up my thoughts about the whole matter 100%, down to the last word. So, with no further ado, here's Rick's take. I'm The Speedgeek. And I approved this message.

My take on 2012:

Ok, what does everyone want?
Competition. Innovation. Close racing. Safety. Speed. Different looking cars. Multiple manufacturer involvement.

What is the ultimate goal?
More fans in seats to get more corporate involvement and interest to get more fans in seats to make the sport bigger and more popular and more successful with more teams and drivers.

What do we have so far?
Engine specs friendly to multiple manufacturers with present or higher power outputs.

What is the worst case scenario?
Another ugly spec car and engine.

How does that prevent reaching the ultimate goal?
Indycar racing continues on its same staid, stagnant path with no new interest from any comers.

What is the best case scenario?
33 different car and engine combinations on the grid at Indy that show off the talent and ingenuity of mechanics and engineers as they try to capture the biggest trophy in sports.

What’s wrong with the best case scenario?
It’s cost prohibitive, especially in today’s economic environment, and prevents the reaching of the ultimate goal because no one, or very few, would be able to compete in that environment. Further, racing history has shown again and again that open-rules formulae tend to favor the team with the most resources, who will eventually dominate to the exclusion of everyone else.

Here we have the crux of the issue. I think everyone thinks the “best case scenario” (bcs) is pretty darn cool. Some of us understand that, in the long run (or the long short-run), such an approach is actually detrimental. The opposite approach results in the “worst case scenario” (wcs). A spec series that no one is interested in dominated by the teams with the most resources-because they are the only ones who can afford to spend the money on those diminishing returns. What to do? The answer here, as in much of life, is compromise. Yes, the c-word. Well, not that c-word, but a slightly less offensive one. Slightly.

Compromise is necessary in racing. For example, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is won by the car that first completes the 500 mile distance. Simple in theory, right? Unfortunately, sometimes a car will crash or break on the track during the attempt. For the safety of the driver or drivers involved, a caution period is invoked. All of the drivers competing to finish the 500 miles first reduce their speed and bunch up so that disabled vehicles and debris can be removed and involved drivers attended to safely. Slowing a race is a compromise. A necessary compromise in the interest of safety, but a compromise nonetheless. This week we are talking about necessary compromise in the rules that shape the car itself. With unlimited specials out of the question, the next step is to determine where on the spectrum of “Spec engine and chassis to Unlimited Special” the car should land. Or, the degree of compromise. With teams and sponsors hurting for money because of the economy, NASCAR, poor management, etc, it will probably have to be towards the spec end of the spectrum. But we want to see what we can do. What do we know about the proposals?

- BaT, Swift, and Lola simply had to be sole suppliers.
- Dallara has lots of experience and the existing capacity.
- DeltaWing is more a theory or philosophy than an actual car. It was not specified who would actually build it.
- BaT is another start-up, with unproven and nonexistent manufacturing capability.
- Swift would build in California.

Let’s add in some more relevant factors.
Local and state government is involved with tax breaks for Indiana-manufactured and -based entries (this is HUGE. PUBLIC money going towards racing??? This isn’t even building a football stadium that will be used 16 times a season or a baseball or basketball stadium used dozens of times a year. This is teams. This is HUGE and unheard of. I don’t know if I would have been politician enough to suggest this! Big, big, big. I don’t think this can be understated.)
Teams are generally strapped for cash.
There isn’t much time before the start of the 2012 season.
Engine manufacturers have yet to be nailed down.

With our bcs, wcs, and all the factors in mind, let’s start eliminating. BaT, Swift, and Lola are out if we want avoid having a de facto spec series. BaT is unproven and Swift would build in California, earning more strikes against them. The DeltaWing concept realistically has a long, long way to go before it sees the track. What will the car itself look like? Who will build all the parts? Where? The safest bets to exploit all the economic advantages and get the things built in time look to be Dallara and Lola. And, frankly, between the two, Dallara’s openness to competition and track record work in its favor.

We’re still not that far from a spec series(If Dallara and Lola are chosen, then Dallara says “ok”, Lola can’t make the price point and begs off. Back to one.). So what do we do if only one manufacturer is going to work out? Where can we get some innovation? Well, everyone wants a “Safety Cell”, so lets make that spec. Fans (average and avid) –who pay the bills directly and indirectly- can’t see or tell the difference between all the dirty bits, so let’s make those spec. That leaves all the aero stuff. We can leave that open. To prevent the gorillas from dominating, we’ll cap the price and limit the number a team can have. Since Dallara isn’t in the business of selling consumer products and really isn’t advertising (their final customer is the race team or sanctioning body), they don’t really care how the cars are badged. So anyone else can fund an aero package and brand it. And a compromise is struck.

Let’s see what we have here-Competition (aero and engine manufacturers), Innovation (ditto), Close Racing can be dialed in with regulations (see last year vs this year), Safety (common safety cell), Speed (more power, less weight), Different looking cars (aero kits), multiple manufacturers.
I think we have a win-win-win situation here. Is it ideal? No, but we’ve already established that the bcs is unfeasible, so a compromise was necessary. Is it exactly what I wanted? No, but I think it’s probably better in that it’s more realistic. I was, honestly, taking Ben Bowlby’s word for a lot of it. The concrete facts seem to favor this concept a bit more.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The 2012 IndyCar Chassis - View From the Guestroom

Hey, everybody. Still trapped under the boulder. This doesn't mean that I can't still keep this space open for our outstanding guest poster Rick. This week, in advance of the rapidly approaching announcement by the ICONIC panel on the chassis that'll be used by the IndyCar series in 2012, Rick's got his take on what he'd do if he were in their shoes (or boots, in Randy Bernard's case). To disclaim a bit: Rick's views on the chassis selection do not mirror my own 100%, but I think that his take is pretty interesting and I would not be at all disappointed if what he wants came to be in 18 months from now. With that, here's the floor, fella.

Over the past 15 years, a division of resources, poor decisions, and a burgeoning rival have conspired to move American open wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500 from national prominence. 2010 has seen new life breathed into the series. A new CEO, reinvigorated racing, and an enthusiastic title sponsor promise to bring Indycar racing back to a place of interest for fans, manufacturers, and sponsors. With the decision to retire the long-in-the-tooth Dallara chassis made, a unique opportunity presents itself: Reinvent the Indy Car. A new design could hold a number of advantages that could be exploited to fuel a new era of growth in the sport. The best way for this to happen would be to adopt a radical solution like the DeltaWing concept.

First, a radical new car will draw attention. Race fans, laypeople, and journalists alike will talk about the new shape of racing and what the future of racing will look like. That kind of press and buzz is essential to any kind of growth.

Second, redefining what an "Indy Car" is will separate the series from other forms of racing competing for the fan's ticket dollar and the TV channel's ratings point. Create a shape that differs markedly from what has been the norm for nearly 30 years and casual fans will no longer refer to Indy cars as "F1s".

Third, a radical change lends credibility to the technology leadership platform Indy car racing has long held. SAFER Barriers, HANS devices, ethanol fuel, attenuators, and other advances only mean so much when tacked on to the same old tired machine.

Fourth, the safety progress of the last decade can be taken even further. At the forefront is preventing wheel-to-wheel contact. Mike Conway's wreck at Indianapolis was only the latest hint of what catastrophe might come about if wheels remain unshielded.

Many of the complaints I've heard revolve around the DeltaWing concept's aesthetics. I shared many of these concerns until seeing the mock-up in the flesh. The distortions of two dimensional images and unusual viewing angles don't do this car any favors. I've also been told that it looks even better decorated in sponsor livery.

One complaint is that it "doesn't look like a car". To that argument, I'd say that it's been a very, very long time since what raced at Indianapolis bore any resemblance to street cars of the day. Why must Indy cars resemble street cars now?

To those that say the DeltaWing concept "doesn't look like an Indy car", I'd suggest that it doesn't have to look like an Indy car, and maybe it shouldn't look like an Indy car. (See above.) Further, after a closer look, I'd say that maybe it's not so far off. The modern Indy car includes a long, narrow "fuselage" containing the driver. The front wheels are widely spaced and joined to that fuselage only by long, spindly suspension members. The DeltaWing concept has the fuselage and just eliminates those suspension members and moves the wheels to the naturally resulting locations.

It's human nature to react to the new and different with reluctance and trepidation. In this case, I think the new and different must be embraced to give Indycar the best chance possible to return to its once-lofty status.