These Aren’t The First Enclosed Wheels

GeoThumbnail
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.

AlUnserEagle82_2-vi

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.

Dave_macdonald_at_indy_500

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.

1955 Sumar Streamliner c

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.

1955a

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.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “These Aren’t The First Enclosed Wheels”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    Thanks for the eye opener George. I had forgotten these beasts and for good reasons. I don’t know what your historical (and sometimes hysterical) search resources are, but you are becoming the Donald Davidson of the blogosphere. And that’s a good thing.

  2. At least Japan still sucks.

  3. good one, george. I like the new car. Don’t even mind the rear bumpers as long as they really have a function and as long as they don’t fall off and cause a bunch of yellows everytime they’re dinged. I hope (next year) that there is evolution and that continues in the future. really ready for this weekend.

  4. The DW12 still looks like a flying squirrel from above.

  5. I marked Gurney’s Eagle on my ballot.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Surprised to not see Danny Ongais’ early 80’s Interscope car here. It may be even more DW12-like than the Eagles of the same era.

    Some of the kits run on the 87 March are comparable to the wheel ramps on the DW12, but they obviously have nothing behind the rear wheels.

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    The new real wheel pod that is being developed for Indy and Fontana this year (as reported by Marshall Pruett on Speed) is better looking and lighter, so there has been some improvement there however small.

  8. Simona Fan Says:

    So historically speaking, the ancestors to the DW12 were slow, dangerous, and only fast once they took off the fenders. With a bloodline like that, it’s no wonder you haven’t seen these racecars in the brochures… ;)

    But seriously, thanks for the history lesson, George.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Well, Mike Moseley did win at Milwaukee in 1981 in an Eagle that wasn’t too different from the one Al Unser Jr. drove at Indy in 1983.

  9. Thanks for reminding me about these old machines. I still don’t think these new bumpers are gonna stop wheel to wheel contact. They will just cause more yellows and more retirements. Not to mention the exposed under tray ahead of the sidepod looks like a good place for a tire to ride up on. But who am I to doubt the genious of a racecar built by a commitee?

  10. I like the looks of the new DW12, including the rear view. It reminds me of a jet fighter. I keep waiting for the glow in the afterburners when they kick in!

    Damn, race week is finally here! Off to St Pete!

  11. Interesting that the sport had the good sense to get rid of those other cars with fenders. Lets do the same here!

  12. I think some of you missed the point that George was trying to make. Like it or hate it, just because there is carbon fiber in front of and behind the rear wheels, it is still an open wheel car.

    Now, I am still worried about these extra bits becoming caution hazards, but am trying to be optimistic that Dallara knew what it was doing. We shall see.

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