The Forgotten Chassis

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With everyone – myself included – making so much fuss over having multiple chassis in the Izod IndyCar Series, we forget that this current rules package of cars that was introduced for the 2003 season, once contained three competitors. Besides the current Dallara which “graces” every spot on the grid nowadays; there was also the Panoz, which most teams abandoned after 2005. Then there was the forgotten chassis – the Falcon – which was approved by the IRL along with the other two in May of 2002 for use in the 2003 season, yet never saw its way to a starting grid.

The Falcon chassis was the brainchild of Michael Kranefuss and Ken Anderson and was to be built in Concord, NC, near Lowe’s Motor Speedway. From the approval stage in May of 2002 to production of the first rolling chassis in late October, the sole focus of these two men was to bring about the fastest, yet safest racecar in the IndyCar series, all from a completely clean sheet of paper.

What they produced was by far, the best looking of the three chassis that were approved for the 2003 season. The troublefalcon_01-a_4_feature is, no one would buy it. The Falcon was new and unproven. Dallara and Panoz (formerly known as G-Force) were on their third generation IRL car and the general consensus was; they knew what they were doing. In the six years that they had competed prior to the 2003 season, Dallara had won Indy four times compared to twice for the G-Force. The only team to even place an order for a Falcon was Ron Hemelgarn.

Unfortunately, the Falcon never made it past the very first test session. To this day, many theories abound as to what made the Falcon disappear. Some say Michael Kranefuss simply ran out of money. Others say that there was an inherent flaw in the design that rendered it obsolete before it turned a wheel. Some of the more creative conspiracy theorists have decided that the Falcon was nothing more than a ploy to keep Roger Penske from building his own car as he did in CART for many years. The theory has it that when the IRL announced they would allow three chassis manufacturers for the next generation car – Roger Penske submitted a bid to be one of the three manufacturers, assuming of course that he would provide equal chassis to some of his competitors.

The IRL didn’t care for the potential conflict of interest, said the conspiracy dwellers. The IRL would only need to point out that the cars that Penske had provided to Tony Bettenhausen for years in CART were no match for the same chassis out of the Penske stable. The IRL feared that Penske would not provide all of the necessary support for other cars other than those carrying Penske colors. So when Penske submitted a bid to be a supplier, the IRL needed an alternative – even if the car only existed on paper – to award the last slot to anyone other than Penske. Enter the Falcon. Some would say that the IRL and Kranefuss knew that the Falcon would never race, but it had performed as expected – it kept Penske Cars of Poole, England on the sidelines.

Some will say that the above story is a little far-fetched, that the story is more like some CIA story out of Hollywood. I’m not convinced – either way. I know that many IndyCar teams saw Penske’s arrival in 2002 as the beginning of the end of their existence. Although the presence of Marlboro Team Penske brought a whole new level of credibility to the league, it also meant the stakes – and the cost of doing business just got higher. They thought the presence of the CART juggernaut would instantly create an unlevel playing field and they felt threatened by anything the man did. Of course, even though Roger Penske has won four Indy 500’s since his full-time arrival in 2002, his teams have only produced a solitary league championship – in 2006 with Sam Hornish.

It’s an interesting idea, but I have generally tended to shy away from theories like this. So what if there is no truth to that premise? What if the Falcon was legitimate and just simply ran out of cash? What might it have been like on the track? We’ll never know the answer to that question. Only one full chassis was ever built and as far as I know, it is still in the possession of Michael Kranefuss. I do know this…it was a beautiful car. More so than the Panoz which hasn’t run since Indy of 2007 and a far sight better looking than the hideous Dallara we have had to look at for the past seven seasons and for at least two more going forward.

The Falcon looked an awful lot like the Panoz DP01, even though  it was built several years before. I have found a couple of pictures, but it is tough finding much information on the Falcon these days. I remember seeing many pictures when it was first unveiled, but they seem to have disappeared as quickly as the whole car did.

Now that the IndyCar Series has devolved into a spec series and we are forced to endure the Dallara exclusively; the Falcon has faded into obscurity as nothing more than a curious footnote. We are left to only wonder what really happened to it and what might have been.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “The Forgotten Chassis”

  1. Another very interesting article, George! It’s refreshing to have somebody out there giving me something to read on all the lost pieces of history of open wheel racing. I hope history doesn’t repeat itself for Ken Anderson with the new USF1 chassis…

    By the way, on a semi-related note, I just finished up Wilbur Shaw’s autobiography, per your recommendation. What a fun read! It was interesting in so many ways. I already have 3 people waiting to borrow it from me after I talked it up so much, so maybe it will hook in a couple of new fans of Indianapolis Motor Speedway history…

  2. Here are some pictures from the Falcon rollout:
    http://www.motorsport.com/photos/select.asp?S=IRL&E=IndyCar_Series_2003_cars&Y=2003&O=0

    The third picture in the series shows the rear suspension attached to a mock-up of the transmission mounting points. The mock-up appears to be attached to the surface of the carbon fiber body. So it seems that the car being shown was not in a production configuration.

    Was there some reason to rush the unveiling?

    The other point of interest is that Ken Anderson was the Techincal Director for the Falcon car. He was a former Penske employee and had worked on suspension and the aerodynamics of the cars Penske made in the 1980s:
    http://usf1blog.com/constructors/us-f1/the-making-of-a-u-s-formula-one-team/
    (Ken Anderson is now a partner and principal engineer at USF1.)

    Ken Anderson’s background lends credibility to the Falcon being a real development effort. On the other side, I don’t know if Ken Anderson was a disgruntled former employee of Penske…

    Nothing like a good conspiracy theory to keep the off-season interesting. Thanks George.

  3. George, great read. Thanks for reminding me about the good ole’ Falcon.

    I’ve got to think there was some kind of design flaw that kept it from advancing, but also if Kranefuss knew that orders wouldn’t come in for it regardless (especially if they knew teams wanted the standby Dallara and Panoz), maybe he scuttled the operation.

    I wonder where things would stand today if the best-looking chassis had made it onto the grid instead of what’s out there today (though I for one don’t care what the car looks like).

  4. Great article! Awesome!

    One quick note. The Panoz which has run since Indy [2007]. Phil Giebler and American Dreams ran their #88 Panoz at Indianapolis in 2008, but the car crashed in a horrific wreck during practice.

    • Jim in Wilmington Says:

      Another good looking car that seemed to have some potential that quickly disappeared was the Swift. I think it was around 2000 or so and I was never sure what happened to it. I remember it running mid-pack for a couple of races and then it was just gone. I have a hazy reccolection of one of the Lazier brothers driving it.

      Jim

  5. Jim in Wilmington Says:

    Oops! My mistake, It was the Riley & Scott.

    Jim

    • oilpressure Says:

      I think the Riley & Scott was driven by Eliseo Salizar around 1998. It was sponsored by Reebok and was car #15 but I forget who the team was. I’m at work and can’t look it up. – GP

      • Great work on the Falcon article!

        As for the “other” other chassis, he R&S chassis had various drivers from ’97 when it debuted until 2001 or so when it went away. Off the top of my head, I remember Mark Dismore and Stan Wattles debuting the car in late-’97, Salazar, Dismore and Wattles in ’98 and maybe ’99, Davey Hamilton (I think) in ’99 also, though Hamilton might have driven for Nienhouse in the Reebok car after they ditched the R&S and went to the G-Force (again, I think). Andy Michner was in an R&S there for a bit in ’98 or so driving a black #3 car with supposed involvement from Richard Childress, but I think the involvement began and ended with the font used for the car number. Then, for the next-gen car in 2000, R&S developed a new car with help from Reynard, which won at Phoenix, with Buddy Lazier starting last and going to the front. I’ve never really been sure why the R&S went away, though I have a feeling that it’s similar to the G-Force story: too much downforce and drag in a time that the League went to largely 1.5 mile ovals. Therefore, it’d be great at about three races out of the schedule and a liability at all the others.

        I’m a little attached to the R&S story, since I “interned” for them for a summer and a spring break in ’97-98. By “interened’ I mean that I largely painted walls in their shop on Main Street, carried around office furniture and spent the better part of my spring break week scrubbing the bathroom floor with a wire detailing brush, while Bob Riley glared at me from the doorway (I apparently wasn’t working as fast as he’d have liked). Not good times.

        Anyway, not necessarily because of my involvement there, but the R&S would make another fascinating entry… ;)

      • Oddly enough, I got an opportunity to tour the Riley shop in Indianapolis about 3 years ago, before they moved to North Carolina. My coworker’s brother works for Riley, so he took a couple of us through there.

        They had a leftover IndyCar chassis sitting there, although I can’t remember whose name was on it, if anybody’s. My coworker’s brother didn’t know much about it, although he commented that Indy really didn’t fit in their business plan anymore. They actually had quite a collection of one-off projects lying around, including an all carbon fiber supercar that they had built. It seemed that they built their business plan around the GrandAm stuff.

    • oilpressure Says:

      Wow, Andy. Good stuff! Your knowledge of the Riley & Scott far surpasses mine. My weakpoint in IRL history is what I call the “dark days” from 1996-2000. I followed CART much more closely than the IRL in those days. I just couldn’t get too fired up to watch Racin Gardner battle it out with Dr. Jack Miller.

      • Brian McKay Says:

        I thought the same thing. I thought, ‘how can he know all that?!’ until I read that he interned at R&S. Thanks for the insight, Andy. I boycotted TonyCar drom the start though I could’ve watched the inaugural race at the Mickyard for free.

  6. tim nothhelfer Says:

    I was enthusiastic for Dan Gurney’s Eagles.
    1999 had five chassis in cart….they were good for one, maybe two seasons. Everybody seems to want multiple chassis and engines….
    The reality is a wide spread field and soaring costs.
    Whatever is available in the future must be sustainable. If this was economically feasible we would have it now.

    • Brian McKay Says:

      I believe that two or three competing chassis mfrs would get enough customers to be profitable! I loved the ‘loook’ of the Eagles, and as a Dan Gurney worshipper, I had high hopes for their success, in AAR and as customer cars. Too bad AAR was struggling with underperforming, unreliable Toyota engines and Goodyears then was dropped by longtime partner Toyota. AUGH! I would have loved to see AAR continue in ChampCar and IndyCar!

  7. Great IRL History! I do remember all these cars and wish they were on the grids today. Race cars now are like if all women looked the same. SAD

  8. walter beach Says:

    One other theory: Honda and Toyota wanted proven chassis for their engines.

  9. tim nothhelfer Says:

    After viewing the pictures Tom (thanks) left a link for the 2002 roll out it looks to me that that car is nothing more than a (body) shell, with little detail.
    Since I have no emotional investment in the USF1 team i have no hope that this spring that team will amount to much more than the Falcon. Heck, if they want to save some money they could just roll it out again.
    And if there is any real effort going on over there and the do produce a real car a and driver I will be happy for them.

  10. I agree with Walter – there was another conspiracy theory at the time — that Honda and Toyota didi not want their teams using the Falcon, as an unproven car might make their teams (and them, by association) “look bad.”

    Yet another theory was essentially the same as the “keep Penske out” theory, except replace Penske with Lola. Supposedly, Lola wanted to supply cars to both CART and the IRL, and the League was not keen on that idea, and thus created the Falcon phantom-car to keep Lola out.

  11. Rainer Nyberg Says:

    In my opinion the design resurfaced as the USF1 GP car.

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