Letting The Air Out Of The Balloon

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Well, the car owners in the IZOD IndyCar Series found a quick way to squelch all of the euphoria that surrounded the beginning of the Month of May. While we have all been giddy with visions of more than forty drivers trying to squeeze into a thirty-three car field, Tom Carnegie Pole Day and everything that goes with the Centennial Celebration of the Indianapolis 500 – the car owners decided let all of the air out of the balloon.

In case you haven’t heard, this past Saturday in Brazil – the owners voted to reject the aero-kits that were to accompany the new chassis in 2012. They have decided it is best (read: cheaper) for everyone to run the Dallara aero-kit that will come with the new safety-cell tub to be built by Dallara. If the owners have their way, any hopes that fans had of seeing cars that look different from one another – well, you can just forget about that.

We fans were told last July, that this concept was going to be the best of both worlds. There would be only one chassis, but manufacturers would be given the opportunity to make aero-kits for the basic tubs, which would alter the appearance of the front and rear wings as well as the sidepods – thereby altering performance as well. There would be a speedway and road course configuration for each kit. The cost could not exceed $70,000 per kit and each team would be limited to only two aero-kits per season.

When compared to an IndyCar team’s total budget, $70,000 is nothing. But suddenly, the owners have decided that they just can’t bear the cost for the aero-kits. That’s code-speak for “we’re afraid we might pick the wrong one” or “what if we run the Chevy engine, but the Chevy aero-kit that they’re making us run is a sled?”

There is more at stake here than different looking race cars. This could be Randy Bernard’s defining moment as CEO of INDYCAR. Apparently, some of the old guard owners think that this is CART where the owners ran the show. If an acting commissioner butted heads with the owners, they soon became an ex-commissioner. INDYCAR has no commissioner. Randy Bernard is the CEO and runs this show. How he handles this situation could decide his long-term effectiveness as head of the series.

On the debut of INDYCAR Open Wheel Weekly on Versus (which was excellent, by the way), Robin Miller told Randy that he would wish he was surrounded by a herd of PBR bulls, rather than the snakes that make up the group of car owners. He may be right. This has all the signs of a pure and simple power play. A lot of the owners are still upset that the “Lucky Dog” rule was rescinded. The owners wanted it, but Randy Bernard listened to the fans who made it obvious they didn’t want it. Some feathers were ruffled when Randy reversed course.

Randy Bernard has made it a cornerstone of his time at INDYCAR to listen to the fans. He doesn’t do this to win a popularity contest, nor has he done everything that fans want. He listens to fans. He listens to the owners. But ultimately, he bases all of his decisions on what is in the best interest of INDYCAR. So far, he has done a good job in preventing himself from being tugged away from that goal.

I’m sure the owners have come up with very compelling arguments as to why the aero-kits should be put on the back burner. Jimmy Vasser has said that it will give the fans something new to look forward to in 2013. I’m so glad he has our interests at heart.

Well, here’s an argument from one fan’s perspective – me. I am sick and tired of watching every team run a nine-year old car that was ugly even when it was introduced. Age hasn’t helped it. When the league first adapted it’s new specs in 1997, they approved two chassis – G-Force (which eventually evolved into the Panoz) and Dallara. At that same time, CART had five different chassis – Lola, Reynard, Penske, Swift and Eagle. Only two chassis for the IRL felt very restrictive. Little did we know that those days would later appear to be very free.

The Panoz was last seen in one race in 2007 – the Indianapolis 500. Since then, IndyCar racing has been the exclusive domain of Dallara. This is the fourth straight season where every single car on the grid is the same chassis and engine. Every car looks the same. Every car sounds the same. The series based around the Indianapolis 500 – which earned its reputation on innovation – has devolved into a spec series in the truest sense.

When Roger Penske introduced his pushrod Mercedes engine just before the 1994 Indianapolis 500, he faced a lot of criticism. He responded by saying he has no desire to race in a spec series. Now, that’s exactly what he’s been doing for years.

The question I have is, who is really behind this change of heart? Is it the owners themselves? Is it Dallara? Is it one or more of the engine manufacturers that had initially said they wanted to build aero-kits? If that’s the case, it’s why I thought it was a bad idea in the first place to have engine manufacturers build the kits. Companies that have no competing interests with whatever is underneath the cowling should build them. If the Honda aero-kit is winning every race, would Chevy be willing to share the spotlight with them? I don’t think so.

At one time, there were rumors that Boeing might design am aero-kit. I always thought that the companies that lost out in their bid to provide the chassis should offer kits. A Lola-Honda pairing would sound good, or perhaps a Swift-Lotus.

Whatever the case, I believe that Randy Bernard wants the aero-kits in 2012. That has been the plan since last July, and it looks bad to change directions now – especially in the wake of several other directional changes in the last few months. It’s also obvious the owners do not want them in 2012. They may not want them at all – ever.

If that’s the way they feel, no one is forcing them to buy any additional aero-kits. Let them stick with the basic standard Dallara kit. My car has a sunroof. No one forced me to get a car with a sunroof. It was my choice. I could have saved a lot of money and chosen the standard model. That too, would have been my choice. If there is a company out there that wants to make a compatible aero-kit, the owners should have the choice whether to buy it and use it. If a team is that budget conscious, they don’t need to be racing at this level.

If Randy Bernard truly feels that it would be in the best interest of INDYCAR to make the aero-kits available in 2012, he should implement it. If teams threaten to walk, so be it. According to Randy, there are many teams in other series that are looking to move to INDYCAR. If that’s the case, it’s better to have teams that want to move forward, rather than teams that want to stick with a status quo model that hasn’t shown much success lately. Running one identical car has produced abysmal ratings and has been almost fatal to the series the last few years. Why would the owners think that’s the better way to go? It’s mind-boggling.

Randy Bernard has not asked my advice, but I’m giving it anyway: Stand your ground. You are not a commissioner that answers to the owners. You are the CEO and you tell them what to do. If they don’t like it, they’re free to leave. But if they want to race at the Indianapolis 500, they will have to play by your rules. If you bend on this, you’ll never be on solid footing again.

Randy Bernard has done so much to right the wrongs that had been done in the fifteen years prior to his arrival. Shortly after he started fourteen months ago, I looked at him as sort of a last-ditch effort to save this struggling series. Just when he seems to have things headed in the right direction, the owners feel the need to exert their authority.

This is what Randy was talking about when he spoke of taking two steps forward and one step back. If the owners get their way on this aero-kit issue, I see this as going backwards for miles.

George Phillips

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23 Responses to “Letting The Air Out Of The Balloon”

  1. redcar Says:

    The owners represent the owners. R Bernard represents the fans. I have confidence he’ll do the right thing. To delay the aero kit after waiting all these years for the new car(s) would be very disappointing.

  2. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Why am I not surprised to learn that the owners are hedging on something like aero-kits. Pesonally in fairness, the various aero kits could be independently tested to show their respective aerodynamics (basic downforce, tubulence and drag coefficients)… Doing so could help alleviate any anxiety regarding making the wrong choice. Really have to wonder what the real motivation is here.
    George, as you said, the new Open Wheel show is very good, great hosts, (love Miller) super guests (especially Simona) and excellent backdrop on the second floor of the pagoda… Outstanding… Now, if we could just get back to that IMS racing innovation thing you were talking about and get away from a race car lineup that looks more like the vehicle line up for the Shrine circus…. Thanks for another great post… BW….

  3. JohnMc Says:

    I bet we see the aero kits.

  4. Jack in NC Says:

    The one thing that made the mid to late 1960’s such an exciting time in Indy car racing was the tremendous innovation in chassis, from front-engined roadsters to rear engine monocoque construction; in engines, from four cylinder Offys to V-8 Fords to gas turbines to turbocharged engines, with the supercharged Novi’s thrown in just for fun; and aerodynamics, with the first spoilers appearing around 1966, speedbrakes on the STP turbine car in 1967, and wings showing up early in the next decade. The current design is like watching a one-design sailboat race. I was thrilled when the announcements were made about the new chassis. If the owners get their way, the fans and the sport will suffer.

  5. Agreed. I feel like we’ve been hanging onto a thread waiting for 2012 to come around. We were promised something new and exciting. I fear that if we lose that promise of change, we’ll lose even more ground. Personally, I’ll probably go back to the days of just watching the 500 and forget the rest of the year. I’m tired of parades led by the same few every time. I’ve discovered a love for reading the history of the sport, so it makes the present situation even more frustrating…and boring.

  6. I sympathize with Tony George, more and more, with each passing year. What a bunch of self serving vipers. These bastards came within a whisker of killing the sport once before. Now it is finally started moving on the long road back to relevance, (And it is a LONG road, to catch up to NASCAR) and they pull this? Disgusted doesn’t begin to descibe how I feel.

  7. I don’t think of myself as being in the Legion of the Miserable, but I’m definitely a legionaire of the uninspired. This doesn’t help.

    Still, I put less emphasis on the “look” of the cars than what they can actually do, and for that I’m hoping that multiple engine manufacturers will mix things up.

  8. The owners have every right to decide what they want to run, within the rules. They have to abide by the rules or go somewhere else.
    We, the fans, have every right to decide where to spend our time and money.
    If the owners don’t want to invest in producing something we want to see, we don’t have to invest in watching what they are offering.
    The owners are not in control. Randy Bernard isn’t in control. We are.

  9. rick6343 Says:

    Bravo. Well-put. Bernard seems to be leaning in the right direction and appears to have his head and heart in the right place, so I’m optimistic.

  10. Steve K Says:

    Not the main point of this piece but the Lucky Dog was mentioned. Anyone who hated the Lucky Dog rule and criticizes Simona for racing Marco hard needs to tone it down. What is she supposed to do? Had fans not all gotten bent out of shape on this, she would have been racing other lapped cars and we would have seen the leaders racing the leaders. You guys chose poorly and now are complaining about it?

  11. If there’s any question of whether or not the car owners should just automatically have their way, then Randy should ask them, “hey, how about that Lucky Dog thing that you all wanted so bad? The fans hated it. Would it have done anything to improve the on-track product the first 4 races of this year? No? Um, so why should we spit in the faces of the fans just because that’s what you want to do?”

    Delaying the aero kits until 2013 would serve to do two things: 1) delay the team owners from spending a couple hundred thousand bucks (or less, if the kits wind up getting subsidized by Honda and GM; I don’t think there’s any rule that says that you have to sell them for $70k, just that that’s the most you can charge for them, so I could see Honda and GM giving out discounted kits to ensure that the car is just labeled a “Honda” or a “Chevy”) for one measley year; 2) aggravate 100% of the existing fanbase.

    Every fan I’ve ever heard weigh in on the topic of new cars, on the internet, on radio, at the fan forums, everybody said “we want different looking cars out there”. At this point, allowing the car owners to have their way in order to save a few dollars would be a slap in the face to every one of those fans. If the aero kits do not come to pass in 2012, all of the car owners deserve the 0.1 TV ratings and 25% full grandstands they’re liable to get in 2012.

  12. HB Donnelly Says:

    Why does the Dallara safety cell come with a kit as part of its base cost?? I think Randy needs to go have a chat with Gian Paolo and company and tell them to lob some cost off the tub and not include the aero kit. If it costs the teams an extra 70 grand no matter what kit they go with, this problem is gone.

    Also, Jimmy Vasser? Really? You want a cost-cutting measure there, Jimmy? How about you cut the idiot that wrecks your car every weekend!

  13. Savage Henry Says:

    I wonder what’s really going on here. Nobody said that teams have to buy two aero kits. So if they only want to run the Dallara kit that comes with the chassis then this whole cost discussion is irrelevant.

    Here’s where it gets interesting… Penske, Ganassi, and probably Andretti aren’t going to have any problem affording the aero kits. So its the lower-end teams trying to prevent the richer teams from buying (or being provided the kits) the kits because of a potential competitive disadvantage. So who are the teams trying to leverage, the league or the richer owners? And if the vote was unanimous (with one abstention) that means that Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti voted with the other owners. Why? Penske and Ganassi have never pulled their punches when it comes to competitiveness, they’re really just racing each other anyway.

    I think that this isn’t a power grab. It’s a money grab. The lower-level owners are trying to get the league to subsidize the purchase of their aero kits. They are hoping that if they cry poor and try to create an ugly situation that the money fairy is going to come. Tony bucks all over again. I think that’s what some of the CART transition teams were hoping for when they came over in the first place.

    Randy Bernard has said pretty clearly that he’s not going to subsidize the teams. He needs to hold firm on this. The series is only going to get stronger if it has teams that can stand on their own.

  14. billytheskink Says:

    While this news is not positive, Randy Bernard breaking it on television is a good development for those of us who want to see the aerokits in 2012.

    By kicking off the month of May with this news, Bernard has put the owners’ opinion up for public scrutiny at the time of year when racing fans and media will be paying the most attention to IndyCar. Randy knows as well as anyone the fans’ desire for variety in IndyCar and he, no doubt, anticipated that fan and media response to this vote would not favor the owners. The greater the fan and media outcry against pushing back the 2012 aerokits, I think the greater the chance we will see them by May of next year.

    What baffles me is the timing of this vote. The owners have known this concept for 9+ months, they’ve known that they will be paying much more for tires in 2012 for a couple of months.
    Are they really such poor politicians that they don’t realize that revealing an opinion that won’t be popular with fans is a bad idea in May?
    Or are they really so out of touch with fans that they don’t realize how unpopular this idea is?
    Given the (relatively) low cost of what they want to delay, there’s obviously something else driving this.

  15. Well said: “Bernard has put the owners’ opinion up for public scrutiny … knows as well as anyone the fans’ desire for variety in IndyCar and … anticipated that fan and media response to this vote would not favor the owners.”
    “The owners have known this concept for 9+ months, they’ve known that they will be paying much more for tires in 2012 for a couple of months.” I guess that they’ve had those months to ruminate and by now they think, ‘if I have a choice, I don’t wish that extra variable/complication.’
    What I wonder is who, in what context, asked owners to ‘vote’ on something that had been decided by the league a while ago?

  16. delta3 Says:

    The one person who voted for the first choice in your poll offered above must have been Penske or one of the other team owners. . . . Yes, that’s a lame attempt at humor. But seriously, I do think you may have something when you suggest that it’s a power play by the team owners (instigated, I think, by a few; the others along for the ride), along with your other suggestion about the teams perhaps “not wanting the aero kits at all — ever”. They might like it better without engine diversity as well. The top-level teams such as Penske, et al, are winning almost everything in sight with the spec cars that we currently have. With diversity their advantage goes away. They won’t be wracking up the victories and season championships one after the other as they are doing now. Any way they can stall the implementation of the new chassis and /or engines will allow them to maintain their advantage that much longer. This is all just speculation, of course; perhaps I’m way off base. But the crux of the matter is that Bernard needs to take the bull by the horns . . . LOL . . . and follow through with the Plan . . . decisively. To cave to the team owners now would be a public relations disaster; and would cause him to loose much credibility with the fans, the sponsors, and everyone else connected with the series. It would also give TG some leverage to stick his nose back into the series if he wanted to . . . and that would be even more disastrous.

  17. George, I agree this has nothing to do with cost. This has to do with gambling on picking the wrong one. The performance penalty, and thus the impact on selling sponsorship, on teams barely hanging on of making a wrong choice could be fatal. That having been said, I want them in 2012. How far we have fallen – not only were there five CART chassis in 1997ish, they threw them away each year for new ones.

    On a side note, I find it funny so many people love the nose to tail, four-wide ovals we often currently have, but they want equipment variety. You can’t really have both. When we had the most equipment diversity it, the cost was disparity. Back when CART had so much diversity, each chassis seemed to have its years of strength, then other years when they couldn’t dream of winning. Anyway, kind of off topic, sorry…

  18. Cowboy Racer Says:

    I just don’t get it. The teams are going to have to buy some kind of Aero-kit aren’t they, so they are not saving any money be excluding multiple Aero-kit manufactures. If some of them only want to buy the Dallara kit, let them, but that should not limit other teams from wanting to try something else.

    • Buying a Dallara chassis with a $70,000 Dallara aero kit (not an option)
      is cheaper than buying a Dallara chassis, a Dallara aero kit, AND a brand-x aero kit for an additional $70,000. ~simple~

  19. carburetor Says:

    George–you are spot on. Let me get this straight….difficult times to get sponsors (who are interested in selling products/name recognition), so let’s continue to run the old, uninspiring, identical-looking, no differentiation cars out there, which the fan base (and tv broadcast networks) are bored with but endure because of no alternative. It is a “great” way to keep your fan base, interest new fans (and television viewers) and thus make the series more attractive to new sponsors, i.e. more money…..NOT! This is the kind of neanderthal thinking that led to the original break-up of the open wheel series….. We all know how successful that was. What a mess!

  20. Edward Says:

    I agree with virtually everything George wrote. I can also see both sides, however.

    From the owners’ perspective, they will be spending a lot of money on new chassis, tires, engines, and so I can see their not wanting to add another expense. It is also fair to point out that none of us have access to the owners’ books nor do we know their financial backing from their sponsors, if they have them. It’s also very easy to say “Spend this, Spend that” when IT’S NOT OUR MONEY.

    Having said that, the timing of this vote is questionable to me. Why is this dissent coming out now? I can’t answer that. If the aero kits are delayed for next year, what is to say that they won’t be delayed until 2014, or indefinitely? I like George’s compromise suggestion. Let the teams use the standard Dallara kit or have the option to use another one if they so choose to do so.

    I trust Randy Bernard and believe that he will make the right decision, although my definition of “the right decision” and others may vary. I also agree that Randy needs to behave in this circumstance more like the France family in NASCAR or Bernie Ecclestone in F1: “This is what’s going to happen. You don’t like it, you have two options; acquiesce or get out.”

  21. […] Letting the Air Out of the Balloon by George Phillips at Oilpressure […]

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