Dallara Needs Some Competition
When the IRL introduced their engine/chassis format for the 1997 season, the choices seemed limited. A team could pick either a Dallara or G-Force chassis, an Oldsmobile or Infiniti engine. Limited is a relative term, of course, but there weren’t a whole lot of choices. The combination that had success at the Speedway in 1997 was the G-Force/Olds, as it took the top three spots and seven of the top nine.
At that time, in CART, a team could select a Lola, Reynard or Swift chassis; or a team could build their own chassis, as was the case with Penske Cars and Dan Gurney’s Eagle. On the engine front, the choices were Ford, Mercedes, Honda and Toyota. Their combinations were many and varied, but the package that provided the greatest amount of success was the Reynard/Honda combo.
For cost cutting measures, the IRL chose not to allow yearly models of cars. The practice in CART was for the upper-echelon teams to buy or build new cars every year. Instead, the IRL chassis manufacturers made update kits available to the teams for a fraction of what a new car would cost. This was a good move that made a lot of sense. The plan was to re-design and build completely new cars about every 3-4 years. With at least two chassis manufacturers in the league, each company had to keep their design staff sharp to stay a jump ahead of the competition.
Somewhere, the plan changed. After Panoz (formerly G-Force) announced they would be the sole chassis provider to Champ Car, the Panoz was suddenly deemed uncompetitive on ovals in the IRL, even though it won Indy in 2004. Ganassi continued to run the Panoz for road courses in 2006, but abandoned it completely after that. By 2007, the Panoz ran at Indy by only a couple of the smallest teams. By 2008, it was gone and the only chassis in the field was the Dallara.
This same period of time saw the defection of three engine manufacturers. Infiniti left following the 2002 season. Chevrolet and Toyota left after the 2005 season, which left Honda as the sole engine provider for the series.
2008 marked the first time in history that the entire Indianapolis 500 field was run with the exact same chassis/engine/tire combination. I understand the principle in reigning in costs and curbing development. If spending were not curtailed, no one could afford to run. But the IRL has gone too far.
Not all of these circumstances are by design–Honda never wanted to be the sole engine provider. They are not in racing to race against themselves. They have been a tremendous ally to the IndyCar Series, but they want competition. I applaud the fact that the IRL is aggressively seeking out other engine manufacturers. They hope to have three different manufacturers participating, no later than 2012.
The chassis front is another matter. We fans have had to look at the same ugly Dallara chassis since 2003. This year will mark the seventh 500 for this car, and now they are talking about keeping it until 2012. We used to refer to a nine year-old car as a dinosaur. In two years, a nine year-old car will win the Indy 500. But will the IRL allow any other chassis manufacturers to participate, when they finally get new cars in 2012? The answer is NO. Dallara will continue its monopoly. They have not earn their dominance on the track, and that is not right.
We are now subjected to long, single-file parades because everyone has figured out this chassis. There is no more massaging that can be done on these cars. Dallara will have no incentive to take a risk on a new design because they will have no competition. They are guaranteed to win every race. The teams will have to buy Dallaras, no matter how they perform.
In the mid 80’s, March earned their place as the chassis of choice among customer cars. Lola displaced them in the 90’s. When Reynard joined the competition, Lola was caught unprepared and they got blindsided. It continued that way for about five years, until Lola got its act together and resumed its place as the chassis of choice.
In my opinion, there should be at least three chassis available to teams. If Roger Penske wants to build his own car, he should be allowed to do so as long as he follows the same provision that should be followed by any approved manufacturer—they must be willing and able to supply enough chassis to at least 55% of the field. Let the teams and a car’s performance decide which becomes the dominant chassis.
One hundred years ago, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built for one purpose—innovation. The Indy 500 that I grew up with in the sixties was fraught with innovation—turbines, sidecars, turbochargers, V-8’s, front-engines, rear-engines, to name just a few of the innovations that were tried. Some worked, some didn’t, but they were tried.
This year, there are even more restrictions. Wheelbase has been standardized and no teams are allowed to tinker with it. This supposedly gives the smaller teams an equal opportunity. The Indianapolis 500 has devolved into “socialistic racing”. Everything now has to be fair, so as not to give anyone an advantage over another. This sounds more like a rules-package for Tee-Ball, rather than the Indy 500. Maybe every driver should get a Borg-Warner trophy, just for participating.
But to me, tinkering means taking a risk to try something new and finding an advantage. Racing is about competition, technology and innovation—that’s why Honda has practically forced the IRL to seek out other manufacturers. Dallara and the IRL should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to stymie competition and innovation on the world’s biggest stage.