These Aren’t The First Enclosed Wheels
After a much too long offseason, race week is finally here. There is always a lot of buzz as a new season approaches, but this season has far more than usual. With new engines, new manufacturers, a robust car count and a Formula One star joining the series; there is much to discuss as we close in on the drop of the green flag at St. Petersburg. Oh, there is one more thing to talk about – the look of the new DW12 Dallara.
I’m not sure if the look of the new car is growing on us, or if seeing the cars in their designated paint schemes at Sebring helped – but everyone seems to be warming up to the new chassis. The only complaint that still seems to prevail is the wide rear-end. I’ve seen the same videos that everyone has, and they don’t feature many shots of the car from behind. But hearing and reading from those that were at Sebring a couple of weeks ago – the car is hard to love from the backside.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m not going to continue the increasingly tiresome debate of whether the car is good-looking or not. But one argument that holds no water is that it is no longer an open-wheel car – not if you examine other open-wheel cars of the past. I’m not talking about digging up some relic from 1913 to show that wheels have been enclosed before. The oldest example comes from the fifties – the same decade I was born in. I don’t consider myself a relic – not yet anyway. The three examples I’ve chosen span the fifties to the eighties. These are just a few that I quickly thought of. I’m sure if I started looking, I could find many more.
In the early eighties, Dan Gurney’s Eagle chassis were no longer the dominant chassis they were in the late sixties and seventies. Gurney was always a step ahead in engineering and aerodynamics. As with all forms of innovation – some worked, while some did not. The Eagle that Al Unser, Jr. drove as a rookie in the 1983 Indianapolis 500 looked sleek and aerodynamic, but was not very fast. If you look closely, you can see some striking similarities between the 1983 Eagle and the DW12 – especially in the sidepod area leading up to the rear wheels. About the only real difference was there was no rear “bumper” on the Eagle like what will be on the cars of this weekend.
The 1960’s have been referred to as the Decade of Change or the Decade of Innovation. Whatever you call it, there is no denying that there was more variety in the cars of the sixties than the decades before or after. One of the more controversial designs was Mickey Thompson’s Skate. Not only was it one of the earlier versions of a rear-engine car, but it had small tires that resembled the tires from a go-kart – and (gulp) they were enclosed, especially the fronts. The result was a car that had a low center of gravity and was very streamlined. Unfortunately, the car was also very unstable and resulted in rookie Dave MacDonald (pictured below) losing control and crashing at the close of Lap Two in the 1964 Indianapolis 500. The fiery crash took the life of MacDonald along with popular driver Eddie Sachs.
The fifties had its share of innovation also. Like any period, some were more successful than others. George Salih’s laydown roadster – the Belond Special – was revolutionary and won the 1957 & 1958 Indianapolis 500, with two different drivers. One that didn’t quite measure up was the Sumar Special of 1955.
Popular driver Jimmy Daywalt was slated to drive one of the strangest looking cars to grace the historic oval at 16th and Georgetown up to that time. The Sumar Special was owned by Chapman Root and was actually a Kurtis-Kraft Offy with a very unique body hung onto it. The car resembled a sports car more than it did a Champ car at Indianapolis. It had a cockpit with a bubble canopy to enclose it and swooping fenders that had graceful lines covered the wheels.
There were a couple of problems though. First of all, the car was slow. Secondly, Daywalt felt uncomfortable in the car. He felt claustrophobic inside the bubble canopy and it bothered him that he couldn’t see the front wheels getting close to the white line painted on the inside of the track. With the covered wheels, he had really no feel for where his wheels were.
As the month wore on, more and more came off of the Sumar Special. The first to go was the canopy. Then piece-by-piece, more came off until the streamliner was no more. The more bodywork the team took off, the faster the car ran. It was no longer a graceful streamliner, but Daywalt felt more comfortable in the cockpit and the car was actually faster.
Jimmy Daywalt eventually qualified the Sumar Special in the seventeenth starting position and finished ninth. Technically, you could say that the car did not qualify with the wheels enclosed, so this example shouldn’t count. But the car showed up with enclosed wheels and the team had every intention of running it that way. It should be noted that AAA officials had approved the unique design for the 500.
So say what you will about the new DW12 that will make its debut this weekend, but you can’t say that the design is blasphemous or heresy. As we’ve seen, there are several examples from the days that most considered shaped the very foundation of the sport we follow.